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Inter-religious dialogue

Stefan Dege / hw
October 19, 2012

A house of prayer and learning for Jews, Muslims and Christians is planned for Petriplatz in Berlin. The design is set and hopes are high, but a building alone can't bring understanding, reminds the architect.

The proposed design for the "Petriplatz House of Prayer and Learning" by the architects Kuehn Malvezzi.
Image: Architketurbüro "Kuehn Malvezzi"/Wilfried Kuehn

Every day, thousands of cars whizz by along the six-lane street parallel to Petriplatz in Berlin's central Mitte district. It is an inhospitable place, a veritable no-man's land between yesterday and tomorrow.

But that could all change. A house of prayer and learning with a church, a synagogue and a mosque all under one roof is planned for the site.

To launch the project, the Jewish Community of Berlin, the Abraham Geiger College Potsdam, the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue and the Evangelical Church Association St. Petri-St. Marien founded an official association called The House of Prayer and Learning at Petriplatz Berlin.

An exhibition, pictured here, currently shows the plans for the proposed House of Prayer and Learning
An exhibition currently shows the plans for the proposed House of Prayer and LearningImage: Evangelische Kirchengemeinde St.Petri-St.Marien

Inter-religious dialogue

The new building should rise from the foundations of the former Church of St. Petri in Berlin Mitte. Three different spaces are planned in which prayer services for Jews, Christians and Muslims can be held. The three spaces will be joined by a hall where festivals and possibly even religious ceremonies can be celebrated together.

The jury awarded the first prize to the Berlin architect office Kuehn Malvezzi. Their winning design takes inspiration from the structure of the former Church of St. Petri. With its light brick façades and a 44-meter (144-foot) high tower, the proposed prayer house looks a bit like a fortress.

But slick geometric forms are to dominate the interior, and a two-storey domed hall will serve as a shared learning space.

"The fourth space constitutes a public space stretching between the three religions. It is a space for understanding and debate. Dialogue has something to do with a certain type of limitation. The project also aims to show where the differences lie," one of the architects, Wilfried Kuehn, told DW.

Archeological treasures

Gregor Hohberg, minister at the Evangelical Church Association St. Petri-St. Marien and chairman of the Petriplatz association, is pleased with the design. But he emphasizes that an "amalgamation" of religions is not really intended, rather "we want much more to learn how to approach one another with dignity and respect."

The former Church of St. Petri
The former Church of St. PetriImage: Evangelische Kirchengemeinde St.Petri-St.Marien

Today, Petriplatz is little more than a fenced-in piece of scrubland. Until five years ago, the site was a miserable-looking car park. One lonely street sign read, "Petriplatz." But that changed when the land was cleared in 2007.

Archeological excavations revealed the submerged remains of Cölln, Berlin's predecessor and one of five cities united by Frederick I of Prussia in 1709 to serve as a capital city.

A Latin school, the ruins of a town hall, a graveyard, foundations and stones from three Churches of St. Petri - the last one was demolished in 1964 - were unearthed on the site in a total of around 220,000 pieces.

High hopes

One idea that the Petriplatz association has is to stage a yearly production of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's drama "Nathan the Wise," which examins Enlightenment ideas

They would like a rotating cast of directors to stage the play on April 14 each year - the anniversary of its Berlin premiere in 1783. It was created in a period during which Frederick the Great promoted religious tolerance.

Pictured here, a meeting of The House of Prayer and Learning at Petriplatz Berlin Association
The association behind the plans is made up of Christian, Jewish and Muslims membersImage: Evangelische Kirchengemeinde St.Petri-St.Marien

"If we pose the political question: What can architecture do? Now, [architecture] can create the conditions for peaceful debate, but it remains a debate," Kuehn said.

The initiators of the house of prayer and learning hope that it will be a place where different faiths meet to reflect upon their own similarities. The hopes of many believers rest on Petriplatz.