Trading Spaces with the gods

United Religions Initiative recently exhibited the winners of its Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition. The competition asked architects to design worship spaces in which "people from all religious traditions can feel comfortable, safe and respected." The Mercury News in San Jose published a feature story about a gay couple -- a Hindu architect and a Catholic-turned-Taoist marionette artist -- who designed one of the four winning entries. The couple -- Vivek Anand, 35, and Philip Sebastian, 40, explained what they aimed to create:

Anand and Sebastian's design includes an underground cave, a passageway, a theater and a sanctuary. Scattered among them are a large tree, a garden, a piazza, a wooded labyrinth, a "stations" wall, and a river with a lotus pond and two bridges. Overarching much of the space is a tent, "reminiscent of the desert religions," Sebastian said.

"It's a flowing design. I want people to wander through the whole thing," Anand said. "One of the reasons I didn't do one building is, that would just look like a beautiful church. For someone who's not Christian, it would still say 'church.'"

One of my favorite winners is worthy of becoming the worship space at Biosphere 2.

Some of the seven honorable mentions were just as colorful as the winners. Three students at North Dakota State University proposed a site that would straddle the border separating North Dakota from Manitoba, Canada. Architects from Rome dreamed up this riverfront interfaith plaza.

Through this competition, URI and its cosponsors -- the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and EURIMA (Expressing the United Religions Initiative in Music and the Arts) -- have highlighted interfaith design at its best and its quirkiest. Most of the entries make New York's famously syncretistic Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Los Angeles' Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels look almost tradition-bound. (Los Angeles' late great New Times dubbed that structure the Taj Mahony; the Los Angeles Times offers this comprehensive gallery and collection of reports).

Rod Dreher, a friend of this blog, had fun with a Gallery of Regrettable Churches in September 2002 on National Review Online.

We would like to revive Rod's gallery. If you're aware of a worship space that should have remained only the dream of an avant-garde architect, share your horror, your laughter (and, most important, the URL) with our readers.

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