Before landing at ESKW/Architects last year, Eric Salitsky traveled around the world as the recipient of the 2018 Stewardson Keefe LeBrun Travel Grant. He did so in order to research the growing trend toward sites and facilities that accommodate the prayer needs of various religions in a single space. The result is his curated exhibition of The Global Phenomenon of Multifaith Worship Spaces, appearing at the AIANY’s Center for Architecture.
Eric’s background in multifaith spaces began at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies and was an interfaith fellow at the Lubar Institute. After graduating and working in the field of interfaith dialogue, his interest shifted to how architecture impacted that dialogue and experience, which spurred him to pursue an M. Arch. at the Pratt Institute.
The care in crafting multifaith spaces is relevant to our work, as we try to imbue all our buildings with a universal humanity, dignity, and beauty. We sat down with him to discuss this growing movement and his role in continuing to advance the conversation around it.
ESKW/Architects: How did you pivot into architecture from your interfaith background? Was it specifically multifaith spaces (and the lack of them) that made you pursue an education and career in architecture?
Eric Salitsky: In college where I did my undergraduate degree in religion and philosophy, I was very seriously engaging with the big questions about life and spirituality, and I got involved with an interfaith dialogue program. I was so inspired by it that after graduating, I moved to Jerusalem to pursue interfaith dialogue full-time, thinking it might lead to career as an academic or a rabbi. But I found myself more drawn to the physical environments of those meetings, as members of different faiths negotiated with each other about what spatial qualities they required and what was compatible with each other’s requirements. This got me thinking about architecture and resulted in me returning to the U.S. to get an M. Arch.
Living abroad was also another factor that channeled my appreciation for architecture, especially in a place like Jerusalem where the history is literally baked into the stone walls. It’s in every tiny alleyway and massive construction project and it can be extremely overbearing at times. It’s definitely not a chill city.
ESKW/A: We have some church work in our portfolio. Is it a goal of yours to work on projects like these someday? How would you use your Principles to inform your approach? What kind of aesthetic and materials would you go for?
ES: It’s my dream to design worship spaces of any denomination, but especially multifaith spaces because they’re so unique. Designing a successful multifaith space requires a really robust knowledge of religions, social behavior, history, and a lot more, so it’s perfect for someone like me who enjoys the research and concept phases of a project. In terms of aesthetics, these spaces lend themselves quite well to more minimalist designs, in the vein of John Pawson or Peter Zumthor, because the main idea is to create neutral spiritual territory. This is extremely difficult since for many people spirituality is directly tied to iconography or familiar environments, but multifaith spaces by nature can’t do that. Therefore, the spiritual aesthetics have to be drawn from somewhere universal, like natural light or materials. But, this is more easily said than done.
ESKW/A: Why do you think spaces like these are important in today’s world?
ES: Because they are direct representations of our society at its best – aspiring toward multiculturalism and unity within diversity and rejecting tribalism and us vs. them. At their most basic definitions, they’re equitable accommodations for religious minorities, since they are decidedly not Christian-centric. But on the other hand, they create a place for spiritual meaning-making that is also inherently social. By sharing a space of prayer or meditation with other groups, you recognize each other’s humanity. And while establishment religions in the U.S. are in decline, spiritual searching is on the rise among the “spiritual but not religious”, so there are many young people who find spirituality in nature or in nondenominational practices, and these spaces serve them too.
ESKW/A: What makes for a particularly effective multifaith project? You highlight specifics in the exhibit, but are there any examples that didn’t make the cut but still advance the conversation in some way?
ES: Since a successful multifaith space creates a spiritual environment through its architecture rather than through symbols, one of the goals of the trip was to understand how to do that, so while I was traveling, I was also able to visit contemporary spiritual spaces that are not multifaith. I got to visit the First Church of Boston by Paul Rudolph, the Liverpool Cathedral by Giles Gilbert Scott, Sumvitg Chapel in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor, The Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin by Reitermann and Sassenroth, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Peter Eisenmann, also in Berlin.
For more information and imagery, please visit The Global Phenomenon of Multifaith Worship Spaces, appearing at the AIANY’s Center for Architecture.