“Berlin for centuries used to be a city of immigration and religious tolerance before it turned into the very center of unprecedented genocide as the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich. Today it is an extremely secular city even by European standards and while Jewish religious life resumed after WWII, since then a growing number of Muslims above all from Anatolia have come to Berlin and decided to stay. As a result, extremely diverse communities of all three Abrahamic religions live in Berlin today but there is very little exchange among them as there is very little public interface between religious practices and public life.”
– Wilfried Kuehn, architect and one of the three founders of Kuehn Malvezzi, the architectural studio in Berlin designing the House of One
On its website, the House of One bills itself as “the first building that combines specific spaces for the world’s three monotheistic religions in one singular architectural entity.” When completed, the building will house a synagogue, a mosque, and a church under one roof.
All three, each with its own dedicated house of prayer, will be located on the same floor around a central shared space. That will be designated not only as a connection between the three components of the House of One, but also as a space for dialogue between adherents of the three faiths and the secular public. According to Kuehn, the design “expresses the relationship between the three religions which can be described as a simultaneity of intimacy and foreignness in a spatial constellation… Closeness and distance are present at once, the central space acting as a place of public encounter much like an urban square lined by different buildings.”
During a two week span on the House of One’s prospective calendar, the synagogue will offer a Seder meal for Passover, the mosque, Quran recitation and hymns, and the church, Easter celebrations.
Though the House of One is meant to be a House of Prayer and Learning for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, Kuehn believes it may ultimately address Berlin’s secular communities. “It probably isn’t really a coincidence that the initiative started in Berlin. The concept of the House of One, the simultaneity of confidence and foreignness between the three religions challenges our sense of identity, which will be understood here in a productive way. The House of One itself is the best example for that: planning and building a house together is much more than a symbolic act – it is a very concrete process of interaction.”
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In 2008, the planning began. The Evangelische Kirchengemeinde St. Petri-St. Marien, with the national Evangelical Church and the state, chose to build once more on Petriplatz, a square in Berlin’s central district of Mitte, to “translate the history of the place into a modern vernacular.” The House of One will bring a new purpose to a site that is itself familiar with holy ground.
An archaeological dig in 1967 revealed that more than one church may have stood there before the 13th century Gothic Petrikirche, a church that operated until 1730, when a fire decimated it to a ruin. Replaced by a Baroque church, the structure was again destroyed by fire in 1809. The third incarnation of the Petrikirche, opened in 1853, returned to Gothic influences, but reflected the influence of the world’s industrial shift with an elegant, long cast-iron spire. But the site remained flammable— in 1945, during their retreat from the city, Hitler’s SS set it on fire. In 1964, after the church site was handed over to the state, the ruins were paved over to build a car park.
“Our aim was to reactivate this historically important site without historicizing it,” says Kuehn, of his studio’s design. “The perimeter walls of the House of One will be erected directly on the existing foundation walls of the otherwise destroyed neo-Gothic church dating back to 1853. While using the excavations as foundations for the House of One, we decided to display them at the same time. In the basement of the building, an eight-meter high hall will allow visitors to experience the archaeological remains of the former Petri churches.”
Kuehn Malvezzi’s idea began to materialize in 2012, in order to join a global architectural competition to design the House of One, held by the Bet-und Lehrhaus Petriplatz Association. This association joined the Protestant churches with the Jewish Community of Berlin, the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, and the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, representing the Muslim community.
Kuehn Malvezzi was chosen unanimously from a field of 38 teams as the winner. As of 2013, work has begun on finance and construction. For 10 euros, anyone can donate a brick to the House of One. Out of a total needed of 4,350,000 euro, the House has brought in 1,026,080 from 1,830 donors.
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Why Berlin, for this monumental project? Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin, who, along with a Protestant pastor and an imam, has been highlighted as a spiritual leader of the project, said, “From my Jewish point of view, the city where Jewish suffering was planned is now the city where a centre is being built by the three monotheistic religions which shaped European culture.” In a video message on the House of One’s website, he added, “A place that has darkness in its past has the potential for peace in its future. As a Jew, I associate Berlin with memories of pain and deep wounds — but that is not the end of the story.”
Ben-Chorin was a teacher at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, and made the College part of the project. Hartmut Bomhoff, the Abraham Geiger College’s Communications Officer and a research assistant at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, believes it is “first of all progressive Judaism which advocates and fosters interfaith dialogue and social action from a Jewish perspective. Since 1999, the Abraham Geiger College has explored common grounds to build alliances with Christian and Muslim partners throughout Germany.”
The House of One is already exploring the possibilities of interfaith action beyond religious practice, despite construction still being far in the future. On Friday, September 11th, 2015, clergy affiliated with the House of One, Minister Gregor Hohberg, Rabbi Andreas Nachama and Imam Kadir Sanci held a multi-religion peace prayer on Petriplatz, commemorating the loss of life on September 11th, 2001, and addressing the current refugee situation. A few months later, on November 20th, the clergy again held a peace prayer for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Ankara.
Imam Kadir Sanci, in his video message on the House of One’s website, highlighted the importance of united action from all three parts of the House. “The equal relationship between the religions… that was applied in all the decision making processes throughout the architectural competition highlights one of the hallmarks of The House of One: an atmosphere of openness that gives us Muslims in this city and in this country, a publicly tangible place to call home and a place where we are taken seriously— in the way we interpret and observe our religion, and in the way it can be part of a fruitful exchange with the city and other religions.”
The Muslim component of the House may have the most impact in the future on the city, as Germany wrestles with a rising backlash to Angela Merkel’s open door policy. In 2015, over a million refugees, mainly from the Middle East, came to seek asylum in Germany. The negative reactions that have sprung up in Germany and other European countries have often centered around anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of those affiliated with the construction of the House of One hope that its goal of creating dialogue and increasing understanding not only between religions but also the secular community will resonate even more in the current climate. In December, the Abraham Geiger College awarded the Abraham Geiger Prize to Angela Merkel. According to Bomhoff, this was intended to “acknowledge our chancellor’s commitment, which very much is in tune with our Jewish values: ‘You shall not stand by idle. Welcome the stranger, protect the refugee.’ I think it is a very natural thing to support the House of One initiative, and I hope that it will eventually accommodate a diverse community of Berliners of various faiths who want to engage in debate and dialogue, offering hospitality in the tradition of Abraham’s tent.”
From a neo-gothic church, rising three times from fires, to Abraham’s tent, the ultimate future form of the building on Petriplatz must appeal to a city facing potential further division. But the design takes that into account; its architects knowing they must respect differences, while building community. “The built form of the House of One appears in the city as a single volume without any religious symbolism,” said Wilfried Kuehn. “While the outward appearance represents the idea of oneness, the inside spaces of the House of One are very distinct and diverse. They are sculpted into the volume, creating inside the House of One a city within the city.”
Elizabeth Miles is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College, studying history. She can be reached at email@example.com.