Howie Adan, head of multi-faith chaplaincy, Heathrow Airport, provides an insightful view into the thinking behind developing multi-faith prayer rooms in an airport environment
The international traveling public is a demographic that largely adheres to one or another of the world’s major faiths. Most of these faiths prescribe patterns of regular prayer or meditation for their followers and the conscientious traveler may well be on the lookout for a quiet space to tend to their spiritual disciplines.
Prayer rooms are a solution that meet the minimum requirements of the faithful but at the same time have limited impact on airport revenue streams and OPEX budgets. Sadly, they are often forlorn and empty, sparsely decorated and poorly administered, facilities which have been tucked away in obscure corners in many of the world’s leading airports – evidence enough of their lack of commercial potential.
I have been a senior chaplain at four airports (Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Netherlands; Nanaimo and Vancouver airports in British Columbia, Canada; and London Heathrow, UK) and have visited prayer rooms in dozens of others around the world. In recent years I have noticed a new trend, one that questions the fundamental assumption identified above. Increasingly, terminal managers are discovering that a well thought through strategy for prayer rooms, matched with better presentation of the product, can be a positive factor in the airport’s differentiation and repeat custom. Prayer rooms are moving from being curiosities to becoming contributors.
Below are five things to consider in the design and operation of prayer rooms. (For the sake of brevity the comments are limited to multi-faith prayer rooms, i.e. rooms shared by people of all faiths and those of none.)
Identify the audience
It is important to know something about who will be using these rooms and what their predominant faiths are. Identifying a profile of the most common users will influence a number of design features. Some airports prefer to have a combination of rooms, varied by location (landside, staff access, airside) and audience (general public/staff/passengers). A solution that is often employed is to make no provision for the general public (landside) and to have separate facilities for staff and passengers (airside). This prevents staff from dominating or becoming sloppy with a space that is dedicated to passengers.
Right: Zurich Airport’s prayer room
Don’t (always) trust the chaplains
Undoubtedly the chaplains, whether volunteers or career clergy, are good people doing the best they can with limited resources; they should be held in esteem for this. They are, however, spiritual advisers and not experts in interior design. (One can be readily disabused of the notion that clergy are also necessarily experts in the design of liturgical spaces by merely taking a tour of local houses of worship.) Chaplains may be able to provide some pointers, but the same professionals who designed the other public areas of the terminal should also be involved in the design of the prayer rooms.
Multi-faith prayer rooms are best when they are integrated with the house style, using the same signature materials as other public access spaces. Tip: specialists in the contemporary design of liturgical spaces do exist, should you wish to go that route.
Beware the hidden message
Where the tile floor ends and carpet begins may seem insignificant, but to those of particular religious heritages, such a simple change carries a message about appropriate usage and dress in the respective areas. This is but one example of the numerous opaque signs and symbols common in the exercise of religion. A room that is dominated by the attributes of one particular religion may be so off-putting to others that it will be avoided no matter how much it is promoted as ‘multi-faith’. Here the chaplains’ knowledge, or that of local faith leaders, may be of some help.
For many people, a multi-faith prayer room will be their first experience of sharing worship space with those of other religions. They may be adamant that others use the room as they would or, on the other hand, feel somewhat lost in how to go about simultaneous usage. Clear, specific house rules will help. A sign near the door declaring “All are welcome” may be true, but it is insufficient. Practical instructions should be included such as: “Visitors are free to remove their shoes or keep them on, as they prefer” or “groups may use the room for a maximum of 30 minutes for corporate worship, but may not prevent individuals from using it at the same time”. House rules should be professionally produced, securely posted, and match the communication style of the airport operator.
Left: Schiphol’s Meditation Centre
Art, light, color
Airports that are having success with their multi-faith prayer rooms are those that have moved away from drab white walls and uninspiring features. Some forms of artwork are problematic, but one is always safe with geometric designs, color, and light features. The stunning results seen in Amsterdam’s Meditation Centre or Zurich’s newly updated prayer room show just how much can be done with a bit of creativity. Finding local artists whose works can be displayed adds an intriguing dimension.
Yes, it is evidence of the strength of the human spirit that one can worship the Almighty even in a god-awful space but, for at least a slice of the traveling public, the quality of the airport’s prayer rooms will be a contributing factor when they determine how to make their journey the next time around. With a bit of attention and creativity given to the design of multi-faith prayer rooms, airport operators will make that decision all the easier.
July 27, 2017