Islands of Calm
Airports and hospitals are typically filled with stress and anxiety. These large institutions are beginning to include yoga rooms and gardens in awareness of the need for calming spaces, nonetheless, many already have them in the form of non-denominational chapels. These prayer and meditation rooms have existed in airports for half a century and in hospitals since antiquity, but recently designers have been re-purposing them to also serve as places of calm and respite.
Historically, airport and hospital chapels were spaces of chaplaincy and ministry, offering the ability for airport employees to attend mass or for terminally ill hospital patients to receive their last rites, but as religious affiliation wanes and the recognition of other faiths increases, these institutions have had to adapt to modern needs. In many cases, this means making these spaces interfaith, nondenominational, and accessible to all people, as well as opening these spaces up to people who enjoy meditative moments of quiet and spirituality without subscribing to any particular faith. In airports, these spaces serve as moments to decompress from the stress of flying and in hospitals they are places to grieve and to collect oneself.
Institutional interfaith chapels are often leftover converted rooms that come together organically without design intent. In fact, most institutions prefer separate worship spaces for different religions but are forced to resort to interfaith spaces due to budgetary constraints and lack of space. But when these spaces are taken seriously, they pose very interesting design challenges. How do you create a comfortable, sacred space that can be shared by multiple religious traditions with such divergent rituals and practices? How does the design of that space encourage a sense of beauty and austerity that doesn’t feel tied to any one faith tradition? How do you make that space welcoming of those that just want a moment of peace and do not use it for religious purposes?
Though many people are surprised to hear that airports have designated spaces of prayer and reflection, they are actually quite common in the United States. The first known U.S. airport chapel was a Catholic institution established in 1951 at Boston’s Logan Airport and was named, “Our Lady of Airways.” Soon afterwards, airport chapels began popping up throughout American airports serving Christian denominations as well as Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths. In the 60’s, JFK (then Idlewild) had a “Tri-Faith Plaza”, where three free-standing chapels representing Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, stood side-by-side along a large reflecting pool.
In more recent years, as worship attendance drops and the needs of underrepresented faiths are addressed, many of these institutions are being converted into interfaith or nondenominational spaces. In making airports destinations themselves rather than liminal spaces, airport chapels provide an amenity that serves spiritual and emotional needs. In the anxious atmosphere of an airport, these spaces serve as an escape from the cacophony of loudspeaker announcements, the stress of security screenings, and the rush of people trying to make their flights on time.
While hospitals are seen by many as centers of science and technological breakthrough, another essential element of medical care has to do with a patient’s emotional state as they undergo treatment, as well as the state of their family. For many, a hospital is an obvious place for a chapel because it is a place where many people will reach out for spiritual care. But for the modern American who is less religious than previous generations, chapels still serve a necessary function. As hospitals adapt to contemporary societal needs, many hospitals are making their chapels nondenominational spaces or meditation rooms. While not everyone has a specific religious need, everyone needs a space to decompress and distress after a visit to the hospital. Unlike airport chapels, hospital meditation and prayer rooms see a lot of traffic. When a patient is receiving a difficult diagnosis, battling a disease, or approaching the end of their life, a chapel can serve as a space to cry, to collect oneself, or just to escape. This essential space is not only important for people’s well being but studies have shown that it increases their chances of recovery.
Too many hospitals see these spaces as an afterthought and they perform like yet another waiting area. Designers must curate the experience to make it feel like an oasis in a building that can often feel institutional and at worst oppressive.
While many institutions view these chapels as merely requirements to be fulfilled by demarcating some unused room and throwing in bibles, chairs, and prayer rugs, they should be seen as opportunities to promote diversity and well-being. Precedents exist, some from world-renowned designers, where the space is successful in promoting a sense of separation, austerity, and possibly a universal sacredness. While each one takes a different approach on how it gets to that point, they all share a deliberate and sincere approach towards creating an ambiance through the use of materials, lighting, and layout.
In designing an interfaith space, we must create spaces that are open and welcoming to people of every faith and no faith in particular. In places where people would especially value a moment of respite, we, as designers must seize this opportunity to provide a space that is calming, uplifting, and beautiful to all.
Doug Wheeler - Anechoic Chamber, Guggenheim