Architect David Adjaye: designing Abu Dhabi's Abrahamic Family House is a 'profound moment'

Multi-faith centre will have a mosque, church and synagogue at one site

An Insight, An Idea with David Adjaye
Geneva - Switzerland, 25-29 January 2021. Copyright ©️ World Economic Forum/Pascal Bitz

David Adjaye, Architect, Adjaye Associates, United Kingdom; Cultural Leader
Moderated by Bronwyn Nielsen, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Nielsen Media and Associates, South Africa
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Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye said Abu Dhabi's decision to commission him to design the Abrahamic Family House multi-faith centre was "a profound moment".

Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Mr Adjaye said the project, which will feature a mosque, church and synagogue, is “very exciting” because it is uses architecture and narrative storytelling to “talk about the commonality of three faiths rather than difference”.

“This is a really special project that hits on the trinity of this Abrahamic faith that is influencing over half the world's population,” he told delegates at an online session of the Forum on Wednesday.

"This new initiative by the head imam, the Pope and the head rabbi of the region ... for the [leadership] of Abu Dhabi to commission this incredible project to make a statement about commonality is a very profound moment.”

The Abrahamic Family House, set for completion on Saadiyat Island in 2022, is named after the revered prophet Abraham and will bring together Islam, Christianity and Judaism through three main buildings – a mosque, a church and a synagogue.

Each separate building will connect through a central garden that will house a museum and centre for education. While the three places of worship are of the same height, the designs and interiors will differ significantly.

“When I looked at the history of the architecture that has represented these three different faiths, I realised architecture has also been complicit in a description of the differences of these faiths,” Mr Adjaye said.

Earlier this month, Mr Adjaye was awarded the 27th Annual Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum for being an important storyteller "of our time".

The award, his first humanitarian accolade, honours exceptional artists for their contributions to society.

“I won the competition, because I really sought not to dissolve the qualities of each of the religions, but to find an architectural device that would start to unify them,” Mr Adjaye said, referring to the Abrahamic Family House.

“I also used architecture and narrative storytelling as a way to unify the different ways in which the faiths can look at their relationship to divinity and to the world. It’s very exciting.”

Mr Adjaye, who set up his architectural practice in 2000 and now has offices in the UK, Ghana and the US, told the Forum that architecture can also bring cities together.

"Cities when they're not careful start to create inequality," he said. "You can't make cities with extreme hierarchies. We need to democratise the value that we bring in design to every part of the city. Because essentially, if we give that equality to the city, all citizens perform and the city shines."

As a result, he said he does not only take on projects based in wealthy urban areas.

"I choose work very specifically to make sure that we're not over-flagging agendas which talk about exclusivity but ones that also that talk about inclusivity," he said. "It doesn't mean we don't do work that's not about luxury but we've always measured that within the context of the city and how it's evolved."

Tanzanian-born Mr Adjaye, the son of a diplomat, moved to Britain at a young age. Growing up, his interest in design stemmed from seeing his brother Emmanuel, who is partially paralysed, navigate the urban environment. As such, all his designs ensure accessibility for all.

While his work often takes him to Africa, one of his major global projects is the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which was influenced by design elements from West Africa.