Multi-faith spaces - Symptoms and agents of religious and social change

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment and Development


More and more attempts are being made to accommodate religious diversity through the provision of multi-faith spaces (MFS). They first emerged as mono-functional rooms in airports, universities, hospitals or shopping malls. More recently, this concept has been expanded to buildings in which different religions have their own sacred spaces with some shared facilities for secular purposes. And some multi-functional building complexes occupy the most ambitious end of the spectrum of MFS where members of different faiths can pray, shop, relax, learn and play.

The creation of such spaces is an extreme syncretic development that has been endorsed politically. The Department for Communities and Local Government acknowledges the importance of 'Shared spaces for interaction' in a literal and material sense. Many perceive MFS as tangible manifestation of tolerance and pluralism and look upon them as the right thing to do. Other just want to attract customers to one's airport or university.

Despite their importance, the motivations and controversies behind the creation of MFS have not been systematically studied. Previous research on the multi-faith movement has been conducted as a theological and sociological phenomenon but hardly anyone has yet looked at the embodiment of the multi-faith idea in built form, that is, the concrete material setting where it is supposed to be practised and lived. In short, MFS as works of architecture and as an expression of the interface between the religious and secular worlds are overlooked.

This project investigates MFS not only as symptoms of wider societal and religious dynamics but also as agents that influence relationships between religious and secular worlds. We do not know whether they encourage pluralism or whether they merely house difference. Are they good investments? How can they be designed better? Which societal effect is likely at what level of the size and functionality spectrum?

These two perspectives stem from a particular conceptual framework. It is influenced by Science and Technology Studies and certain strands within architectural theory that emphasise the recursive relationship between the material/spatial and the social/behavioural. Our two sets of research questions reflect this mode of thinking: MFS as symptom and as agent. Two other research agendas are cross cutting: One investigates the architectural language of MFS and searches for best-practice examples. The other studies the history of MFS from the Seventeenth century onwards.

Through measured drawings and surround photography we will document 36 MFS in the UK and 12 abroad mostly from airports, hospitals, prisons, universities, crematoria and shopping centres, alongside special cases such as a cruise liners, the Inter-faith tent at St. Ethelburga's in London, the Bahá'í House in Frankfurt, the Multi Faith Centre in Derby or the Sacred Lands of the United Religions Initiative. We will also research particularly noteworthy cases in the Boston area. Towards the end of year one we select 14 MFS for detailed studies about their social history and their effects on religious practices and social interactions. This research is mainly conducted through in-depth interviews but we also use an online forum and other participatory data gathering methods.

The research programme is designed for maximum relevance for policy makers, public sector agencies, private sector companies, designers and architects, academia, the media and the general public. A strategic set of outputs is designed to reach these beneficiaries. These include the UK's first compendium of MFS which doubles as good practice guide, a range of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, a conference with practitioner and academic involvement towards the end of the project, an interactive website, a design studio at the Manchester School of Architecture and a professionally curated travelling exhibition.

Planned Impact

The report 'Face to Face and Side by Side' (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2008) emphasised the importance of faith in defining communities and its influence on community relations. This highlights the importance of understanding what goes on in multi-faith spaces, how they reflect wider societal dynamics and what effect they have on community relations. These issues, however, are largely unobserved and unknown. We therefore anticipate that a systematic investigation will produce information useful to the following groups beyond the academic community.

Policy makers:
We hope to enable policy makers to make informed judgements about questions such as: Are these places really needed? Do they create or mitigate religious conflict? What effect do they have as agents of change? Can they be instruments of policy? Who benefits from them? Are they good value for money, are they good for our communities? This could lead to fresh planning guidance about their provision and design standards.

Public sector agencies:
By looking at overseas examples we will expose this country's work to the scrutiny of international standards. Are there any overseas lessons to be learnt, for good or ill? Based on examples of good and bad practice that we uncover we hope to produce briefing advice for new developments in universities, hospitals and so forth.

International organisations:
International organisations such as the Anglican Church, or international businesses may benefit from knowing how multi-faith provision varies across national boundaries. This would help them in maintaining a unified image and promoting inclusion. This would, of course, include concerns for their own multi-ethnic, multi-faith work force.

Commercial / private sector:
We hope to shed light on questions such as: Are Multi-faith spaces really needed in shopping centres? What is the minimum requirement? Can they provide opportunities for public art? Can they contribute to a corporate identity, do they improve business? Do they put some people off? Are they really necessary for businesses with multi-faith workforces?

Professional and practitioner groups, Designers:
We will produce advice for architects, including a critical collection of good (and bad) practice examples. By good practice we mean places that seems to be successful from an artistic and religious standpoint. Our research can lead to planning advice for hospitals, airports, schools, prisons etc. Is one type suitable for all these situations? Are there particular mistakes to avoid? Such knowledge will also be useful to those creating briefs for architects and developers.

Third Sector, charities, museums, performing arts:
The North West Multi-Faith Tourism Association (, one of our partner organisations, is spearheading a movement to demonstrate the value of religious places to the economy via its 'Marque of Excellence' scheme. Can multi-faith provision benefit tourism by projecting a positive image rather than a bare service?

The Media:
Multi-faith spaces seem to be ignored by the media except as providing stories of conflict. We have collected several accounts of disputes beginning in these places ending in courts and tribunals. Is this a fair reflection of how they are used or is there an unheard story? We are alert to the possibilities of publicity for interesting multi-faith examples and will take advice from our long-standing contacts in the Press Office at our University for the best way to advance this story.

Local communities, wider public:
Do these places have a community, any continuity of use, or is their use transient? Does the ability to create a community depend upon size? For example, could a complex such as the West Amsterdam Mosque succeed in this respect where a single room would not? We would like to think that our findings would


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Crompton A (2013) The architecture of multifaith spaces: God leaves the building in The Journal of Architecture

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Crompton, A. (2015) How to say nothing with sincerity in AA Files

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Hewson, C. (2015) Handbook of Chaplaincy Studies

Title Multi-Faith Spaces Exhibition 
Description This Exhibition encapsulates the essence of the project: Multi-Faith Spaces: Symptoms and Agents of Religious and Social Change, a three year collaboration between the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool. It has been designed in partnership with the North West based creative agency Thoughtful, and is founded upon thirty two key themes that emerged from our study. Exhibition website located at 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Description See
Exploitation Route Enables architects, anyone working in the field of religion and all interested communities to create better multi-faith-spaces.
Sectors Creative Economy


Leisure Activities

including Sports

Recreation and Tourism


Democracy and Justice



Museums and Collections

Security and Diplomacy

Description There is anecdotal evidence that architects, interior designers, chaplains and other faith-leaders are seeking advice from our various publications, touring exhibition and website about the best design and management of multi-faith spaces.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural


Description Team member Terry Biddington has been invited to provide advice for the design of three Multi-Faith Spaces in Manchester
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact More widely accepted Multi-Faith Spaces help societal cohesion
Title Multi-Faith Spaces 
Description Diigo group around the AHRC/ESRC funded research project "Multi-faith Spaces - Symptoms and agents of social and religious change" 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2012 
Provided To Others? No  
Title Multi-Faith Spaces 
Description Picasa Database of approximately 200 MFS images, capturing a range of parameters for systematic comparison. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2012 
Provided To Others? No  
Description Focus Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience
Results and Impact Focus Group with Manchester Humanist Association
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
Description The Banquet 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience
Results and Impact Including project presentation and faith based focus groups
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010