This complex of buildings in Abu Dhabi brings together Islam, Christianity and Judaism in a celebration of the senses
History has a habit of repeating itself. One can think of many examples of the extraordinary lengths to which religions have repeatedly gone to ensure survival against the most assiduous odds – hidden synagogues, mosques, and churches are but one architectural phenomenon of this truism.
This project, the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, designed by Adjaye Associates, appears at first glance, to turn that proposition on its head. It is a deliberate bringing together of the three major branches of religions that share a common ancestor in the teachings of Abraham, and the noble aspirations of its genesis in human and religious peace suggest it is the rule rather than the exception.
For the religiously observant roaming the streets around RIBA’s home at 66 Portland Place, there are several mosques and churches and at least one synagogue all within 15 minutes’ walk, and in many cases much closer. Of course, these places of worship, metaphorically a stone’s throw from one of the world’s spiritual homes of architecture, were not built in such close proximity as a common act of understanding and toleration but to accommodate communities already established, communities displaced and welcomed by a metropolitan city, and in the fulfilment of a missionary spirit many centuries old. Each has its own complex past, ancient and modern.
Fitting snugly into the palm of a hand, a numbered stone is given to a visitor when they order a coffee to ‘have in’ while waiting in the lobby of the Abrahamic Family House for their authorised, timed, guided tour to start. Once brewed, the delicious coffee is brought over by the waiter who exchanges it for the stone.
Unlike the Herculean throw required to reach 66 Portland Place from its nearby religious houses, all three places of worship that constitute the Abrahamic Family House – a synagogue, a mosque, and a church – are literally within the gentlest possible trajectory of each other. Yet, nothing could be further from the shared history of lapidation that the Abrahamic faiths have, than this astonishingly effective scheme in which commonality of origin and purpose, of peace and purification, is indivisible from the architecture.
It would be a mistake to assume that a mosque, a synagogue, and a church in close proximity in the Gulf is no more remarkable than it is in London. To downplay the complexity of London’s history that such a state has and can exist, however fragile, would also be a grave misreading of the Abrahamic Family House. This is a project, a complex of buildings, that must be understood as the paradigm expression of the culture that spawned it and has nurtured it into being: the extraordinary geopolitical sequence of events that has recognised Christianity and Judaism in the heart of the Arab Middle East.
If one accepts that culture is directly connected to place, and that experiencing culture and place is at its richest when it is a truly multisensory experience, then the Abrahamic Family House achieves an astonishing level of layered sophistication.
All the senses are catered for: the exhibition on the ground floor distils the auditory and visual experience of prayer and of the centrality of word and communication in religious belief; water is evident for all three buildings, the theme of water as a source of purification in all three religions is also explored in the entrance lobby; the sharp Middle Eastern light is both at play and at rest in the purity of the religion-specific details of each of the three houses of worship; touch is catered for in the slightly roughened texture of the concrete and the smooth stone facing of the inner external and internal facades, screen and furniture; while the fifth sense, taste, is implicitly celebrated in a small, shared olive garden on the ground floor, while it is also practically catered for in the small coffee bar right by the main door.
The Abrahamic Family House is approached by road, the monumentality of the architectural plan and forms not fully revealed until visitors have penetrated the open spaces between the three religious buildings. Visitors of all faiths enter through one shared point, opening into an internal ground floor which connects the three buildings.
The project was inspired by a succession of interfaith initiatives. These are symbolically represented by a foundation stone jointly signed by UEA president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayan; UEA vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid; the chief iman of Al Azhar Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb; and Pope Francis representing Christianity. This takes prime place and is the starting point for the tours that occur throughout the day. The foundation stone does not appear to have been signed by a representative of Judaism. Our tour guide was amusingly, and perhaps unknowingly, competitive, telling us that those who follow the Jewish faith ‘pray three times a day’ whereas Muslims ‘pray five times a day’. She was silent on the daily prayer rate of Christians.
Across from the foundation stone is the water feature expressive of purity and virtues shared by the faiths and set in front of the small olive garden, described as a symbol of peace for all three faiths. Behind these a passage leads to the exhibition space in which visitors can listen to prayers in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, emphasising the shared roots of the three faiths.
It is perhaps a missed curatorial opportunity that the shared Semitic language origins of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are lost in the predominance of English for the Christian components of the exhibition and signage. The lobby also leads to restrooms, houses a reception desk and the aforementioned coffee bar and features a wall on which visitors can write their responses to their visit. It is a testament to the early success of this project that there were comments in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, along with other languages. This mixture of nourishment for the soul, the mind, and the body underscores the human scale of this extraordinary project.
If ever a project was expressive of its place and its time, then it is the Abrahamic Family House. A mosque, a synagogue and a church, each a neighbour to the other two, each recognisably expressive of its faith but remarkably coherent. It is all the more remarkable because it is in the Gulf, at the heart of one of the most significant cultural, and now also interfaith developments globally, Saadiyat Island.
The island is also home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi (Jean Nouvel), which opened its doors in 2018, to Zayed National Museum (Foster + Partners), the Guggenheim (Frank Gehry), a new Natural History Museum (Mecanoo), and now Adjaye’s Associates’ Abrahamic House.
Plans are in development for residential accommodation at the Abrahamic Family House, and this will be a crucial layer in making sense of the facility. A place of worship without a community is at best a work of architectural art, at worst a curiosity. The geopolitical context is heavily implied; the UAE has been a major driving force in interfaith initiatives and signed the Abraham Accord in 2020, becoming the third Arab state after Egypt and Jordan to diplomatically recognise Israel.
The overarching impression is one of complete and consummate skill in use of material and design in the service of the purpose and place of this project. The coherency created across the synagogue, mosque, and church, is underscored by architectural and symbolic detail that achieves that rare outcome of differentiating, disambiguating, and yet also serving to harmonise each part with the other. There is nothing superfluous, and the apparent simplicity and economy of design is one of the many great achievements of this building.
Oliver Urquhart Irvine is RIBA executive director of architecture programmes and collections
Location Saadiyat Island, United Arab Emirates
Client UAE Government
Design architect Adjaye Associates
Landscape architect Adjaye Associates