Interview with Sir David Adjaye, architect of Abu Dhabi’s Abrahamic Family House

“I always love the moment when something we've been working on, something that's been in the head, is suddenly taken over by people,” Adjaye told JI

Sitting quietly with his young son lying on his lap on one of the back rows of the oak wood benches in the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Sir David Adjaye appeared keen to blend in with the crowd. As bright midday sunlight filtered into the sanctuary that Sunday noon, the architect of the Abrahamic Family House was soaking in the moment among the approximately 325 guests gathered to mark the Feb. 19 opening of the synagogue

“Hello, rabbi! I’ve been caught,” the award-winning Ghanaian-British architect laughed good-humoredly moments later, greeting Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, chief rabbi of the synagogue, as Sarna passed him. As Jewish Insider began an interview with Adjaye, several admirers of his work quickly caught wind of who he was and began eagerly questioning him about the inspiration for the three iconic houses of worship he designed — a mosque, a church and synagogue that stand side by side in a monumental interfaith complex on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s cultural hub.

Photo: Dror Baldinger

“The deep history of all the religions,” Adjaye said, was the inspiration for the synagogue, named after the 12th-century rabbinic philosopher Maimonides, the His Holiness Francis Church, named after St. Francis of Assisi, and the Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque, named for the grand imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.

“The concept is three temples, 30-by-30-by 30 [meters] — three. Three pylons. So if you notice each room, each volume from the exterior to the exterior and the height are all equal,” Adjaye, 56, told JI. “So they’re three equal forms. But in each — three different atmospheres.”

Each of the cube-shaped houses of worship in the 6,500-square-meter complex includes a courtyard with a water feature and ancillary spaces specific to their religious traditions and practices. The houses are linked by an elevated garden.

Adjaye’s inspiration for the synagogue, which is oriented towards Jerusalem, was the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The criss-cross beams that rise up to the roof, allowing light to filter in through the gaps, represent palm leaves or plants covering the sukkah, and allow congregants to look “up to the heavens,” Adjaye said.

Photo: Dror Baldinger

Adjaye, whose works include the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the National Cathedral of Ghana, had initially wanted to make the roof open, but noted that this wasn’t possible for technical reasons. 

A bronze mesh tent — symbolizing the original tabernacle, known to have included a bronze laver —   cascades from a skylight in the ceiling, which allows in midday sun and creates the effect of dappled light, a theme that carries through the three houses of worship.

In the church, a striking feature of vertical wooden beams of different lengths hanging down from the ceiling allows for a similar play on natural light. The church is oriented east, the direction of the rising sun, as light is considered a symbol of divinity.

Photo: Dror Baldinger

“The idea of the New Testament, for issue, is that the spirit of the Lord is with you. So it is about the energy of the Lord, encompassing the entire chamber, not just the altar. So you come in and you’re under this timber shower,” Adjaye explains. “What does that timber shower do? It splits the light. So it’s also another idea of dappled light bathing the congregation.”

Photo: Dror Baldinger

And in the mosque, which is oriented towards the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Adjaye highlighted the four-column interior grid that creates nine ascending vaults, which orient visitors toward the mihrab, or wall niche that faces Mecca. The four columns, according to a fact sheet about the holy site, “reference the Islamic notion of stability, order, and fullness that is attributed to the number four.” 

Adjaye said the design for the mosque is about “the breath, the Word of God.” 

“And basically, what you have is the geometry of Islam, the idea of moving to geometry, creating a screen between the columns, and creating again, dappled light, filtered light,” he explained. 

Photo: Dror Baldinger

“So what I’m trying to talk about also is the idea of light and God, that that is part of the whole atmosphere that we’ve come into, when we are talking about the sacred.”

Adjaye, born a Christian, delved deeply into Judaism and Islam when conducting research for this project. “It’s been an incredible education,” he said. 

The architect, who hails from Ghana’s capital city of Accra, spent a lot of time in the UAE while working on the buildings. “I think that what Abu Dhabi is doing by opening up is very powerful,” he remarked.

Adjaye describes as “critical statements” the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque on Feb. 4, 2019.

Photo: Dror Baldinger

“And to do it here, I think, on this continent was so symbolic and so powerful. And I hope that it has a ripple effect in the world,” he added.

Sitting inside the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue on its first day of prayer was a meaningful moment for Adjaye. “It’s just such a magical moment to see it full of people,” he said. 

“I always love the moment when something we’ve been working on, something that’s been in the head, is suddenly taken over by people,” the architect continued. “And they know how to use it because of the rituals and the patterns of what these things mean. So it’s beautiful. It’s always humbling.”

During the opening ceremony, Adjaye received an enthusiastic round of applause after Rabbi Sarna gave him a special mention in his sermon — ending the architect’s apparent plans to merge unnoticed into the congregation gathered under the netted tent-like canopy he created.

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