One associates Berlin with tumult and destruction, but before the dark years of Nazi and Communist rule, it was a center of scholarship and cosmopolitanism; and it is steadily regaining that role as the capital of a reunited Germany. Many Jews have returned and there is a sizeable Muslim minority, mostly of Turkish origin. That makes it an ideal location for an ecumenical center in which prayer rooms for the three major religions will open out of a shared space in which adherents of all all faiths and none can mingle and find common ground. This book, printed in five languages, explores the concept and the architectural competition of 2012 that produced an exemplary design.
Five churches successively occupied the Petriplatz at the historic core of the city, and all succumbed to fire or destruction. The last, constructed in the 19th century on the medieval foundations, was torched by the SS and the ruins were demolished by the DDR. Thirty-eight architects submitted proposals for the new structure, and one stood out from entries that veered uneasily from bland abstraction to historical pastiche. Kuehn Malvezzi, a young Berlin firm best-known for its art installations, designed a cubic brick block of extraordinary assurance that relates well to its surroundings and enshrines soaring skylit spaces that are gracefully interwoven. As a work of architecture, it would raise the bar in a city that has fallen far short of its promise.
Few books have explored an important competition in such detail and from such varied perspectives, making this an invaluable resource for architects. It demonstrates the challenge of creating a forward-looking sacred space that draws on ancient practices without mimicking their forms. And, at a time when Europe is falling prey to religious and political extremists, this healing gesture could provide a model for other cities. Last year, the organizers launched a crowdsourcing campaign to raise the initial funds, and one hopes that construction will soon begin. — By Michael Webb
The House of Prayer and Learning: Designs for the Sacred building of Tomorrow ($59.95), edited by Gregor Hohberg & Roland Stolte; DOM Publishers, Berlin.