Sir David Adjaye says Abrahamic Family House celebrates the commonality between faiths

The architect behind the multi-faith complex in Abu Dhabi spoke about his inspiration and vision for it

Sir David Adjaye, left, discusses his design for the Abrahamic Family House with Chris Dercon at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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Acclaimed architect Sir David Adjaye discussed his vision for the highly anticipated Abrahamic Family House, the interfaith centre due to open this year.

He wants the space — which includes a mosque, church and synagogue — to be a place that connects people, and welcomes discussion about their roots and faith.

Currently being built on Saadiyat Island, it aims to represent and preserve the three Abrahamic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

The centre was born as a physical manifestation of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together — which was signed in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in February 2019.

In September that year, Adjaye Associates won the Abrahamic Family House competition, with a design that was unveiled at an event in New York City.

Speaking to art historian, curator, and museum director Chris Dercon at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, Adjaye said the team was "humbled and honoured" to have won.

“Essentially, the inspiration was to understand that the three religions really emanate from this extraordinary region,” Adjaye said.

The renders and video Adjaye shared during his conversation showed arresting spaces and forms, that have been directly inspired by the commonality between the three religions.

Adjaye’s vision of the shared elements of the three faiths expresses itself through a common architectural language between the three monumental structures, creating visual harmony, while still evoking distinctive design elements that speak directly to their individuality.

“I wanted to create something that will really distil the essence of the three religions and create a certain purity or certain purity to the idea,” he said. “Our buildings are quite modest but they needed to have a presence that would really complement the relationship of the others, but also have a distinct language.”

The architecture is powerful yet humble and welcoming, filled with light as an element and delicate in form.

The houses of worship are designed as three clear geometric cubes that sit on a plinth, connected by pathways and gardens. The structures share equal external dimensions — height, width and a unifying roof — emphasising through design that no faith is more dominant than the other.

While their shapes are identical, the structures are not. Although unified by their form, they stand unaligned with different orientations.

The mosque will be orientated toward Makkah, the synagogue's bema towards Jerusalem and the church's altar towards the east and the sun. Each house of worship will have its own separate entrance, but the site has been designed to slope up toward a podium in the centre, where all three structures can be seen from the garden at once.

Meanwhile, each structure's exterior takes the essence of the design elements associated with their respective faiths and interprets them through the facade in an almost minimalistic, though commanding, way.

“This is about respecting these three extraordinary religions with their histories and their cultures and their evolution,” Adjaye said. “It’s to bring them into a space of dialogue and to bring them into a space where they see each other. So that really was important.”

Nature plays a pivotal role in the design. The garden in the Abrahamic Family House connects the three spaces of worship, where people can have open dialogues and celebrate the collective history, culture and identity of the Abrahamic faiths.

“In the centre of that garden there's a gathering space for several hundreds of people,” he said. “The idea is to use that space for dialogue," he added.

And, while in each house of worship visitors can learn about each faith, there will also be a fourth space not connected to any of the religions. This educational centre will host a variety of programmes and events acting as a space devoted to mutual understanding and peace.

Adjaye also discussed how the Abrahamic Family House is a global reflection of a new generation interested in remaking the idea of “the city” — particularly how cities need to create spaces that consider, include and welcome one another.

“What's really beautiful about this monumental call that has been made by the government of Abu Dhabi is that it is a place that really speaks about the different cultures of people,” Adjaye said. “And religion is part of the culture of people.”

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Updated: October 27, 2022, 6:36 AM