The Café is No Substitute for the Chapel: A Lesson from the Munich Airport

Munich Airport Terminal Two was voted the world’s best terminal, not so long ago, by a global survey of fourteen million travelers. Its spaces are bright and airy, efficiently and thoughtfully designed, advertised as offering “a wide range of shopping and dining options amid pleasant surroundings flooded with natural light.” Waiting areas are blissfully quiet.

Even quieter is the Meditation and Prayer Room. As its name suggests, it is not exactly a chapel, but rather something more along the lines of an interfaith space. The symbols of five different religions are arrayed in nonchalant disorder at the end of the corridor, and reproduced in a different order on the plastic sign by the door.

Room 05.2194

From a distance the symbols may be hard to recognize, because this corridor is not one of the bright and airy spaces for which MUC T2 is famous. But yes, room 05.2194 is there, past the elevators. Munich Airport processes forty-five million passengers annually, but the Meditation and Prayer Room can be located where the corridor narrows, because we are not anticipating large numbers.

The corridor leading to the Meditation and Prayer Room at Munich Airport. Photo: Author

The corridor leading to the Meditation and Prayer Room at Munich Airport. Photo: Author

Yes, we build such spaces; but they are hardly central to the institution of the contemporary airport, that great monument to modernity’s mobility. If anything, they are fringe elements—serving, perhaps, to screen from view the potential embarrassment of prayer in public spaces. In Munich, a phone is provided by the door in case of emergency. After all, you never know who might use this sort of place. Inside, they may be calling on God; outside, they are calling security.

The architect in Munich, Maximilian Kinseher, certainly made a brave effort. Working with the artist Erwin Wiegerling, he invoked the powers internal to his discipline to address the challenge of the project. Within the perfect cube of the Meditation and Prayer Room, grids are carefully aligned, materials and colors carefully chosen. But there is also a predictable barrenness to this windowless space.

It possesses none of the characteristics that might mark the architectures of any one of its intended constituencies. And this absence is deliberate. It is difficult, after all, to agree on what such a shared space should contain.

Maybe some empty shelving upon which to rest the baggage of our worldly possessions. Perhaps some quotations from assorted texts, carefully chosen so as not to contradict one another. Probably a compass or arrow, pasted to floor or ceiling, offering, within the placeless environment of the international airport, orientation toward the Holy City of Mecca, far away.

Such rooms sit disconsolately in airport terminals around the world, populated with plastic candles that will never be lit, displays of printed brochures that will never be read, photocopied notices respectfully asking weary travelers not to sleep here. The architectural space of devotion and prayer, a space into which humanity has for millennia poured its longing for that which might transcend the alienation and pettiness of earthly existence—that space has finally been reduced to abject desolation.

The Problem of Meaning

The room in Munich is more deliberate than most. In the absence of natural light, convenient metaphor for all things spiritual, the architect has instead installed within the room the trunk of a tree that once grew in the forested mountains of Bavaria—doubtless maneuvered into place with some difficulty, and now standing disconsolately beneath the suspended ceiling of this fifth–floor space. It is intended, no doubt, to speak of that which is shared among all people of good faith: a respect for the wonders of nature, perhaps, or for the rootedness that may be drawn from the ground of ancient traditions.

But this tree has been uprooted. It is a dead tree.

A tree trunk is featured in the Meditation and Prayer Room of Munich Airport. Photo: Jake and Meridel

A tree trunk is featured in the Meditation and Prayer Room of Munich Airport. Photo: Jake and Meridel


Does this matter?

As a diverse society, we badly want to believe in the promise of such shared spaces—spaces where those of differing convictions might sit in quietness together, where Muslim might pray alongside Jew, where atheist and Christian might share a moment of doubt, or even (miracle of miracles) where conservative and liberal might meet in peace.

Is this not an attractive idea? An idea that is more attractive today, perhaps, than ever before? In a society that is increasingly divided, such spaces matter, do they not?

Yet these spaces belong to nobody. Instead of illuminating the promise of common ground, they illustrate the wretchedness of a no-man’s-land.

But that is Europe, I hear you say. This is America.

With few exceptions, America is hardly different. Test it for yourself on your next layover.

The reasons are predictable. In the United States, airports are typically property of the state, which is understandably reluctant to invest heavily in such quasi-religious institutions. But even if it did, it is not clear how it might best do so without defeating the purpose of the exercise. Indeed, if architects have historically worked hard to imbue their work with meaning, the most self-conscious examples of this more contemporary typology labor, instead, to strip such spaces of meaning.

As Andrew Crompton has noted in The Journal of Architecture, “the most important issue in multifaith design has become how to prevent a space becoming meaningful in an inappropriate way.” Content, after all, is potentially divisive. And the very premise of a shared space means that no one constituency can fill the gap or assert its convictions. The resulting poverty of content is palpable—spiritually, metaphorically, literally.

Taste and See

Ironically, in airport terminals around the world, it is precisely when you step back out into the departures area that you encounter experiences of the most transcendent richness, that adopt almost all the traits of more conventional sacred architectures.

Take the airport café, for example.

Even in the most unfamiliar of territories, the very sight of your favourite coffee shop is welcoming, a safe space in a hostile world of artificial lighting and invasive security procedures.

A warm interior highlights moments of delight that entice with their visible sweetness, an invitation to taste and see that this is good. Music filters through from unseen sources, blended with sounds of comfort that bear the promise of a deep and fully personal satisfaction. A rich aroma complements the appeal to the senses. A smile greets your approach, introducing the familiar words of a ceremony that millions repeat each day with religious devotion: call, response, expression of gratitude, closing blessing.

These spaces elicit an extraordinary dedication from the faithful, for whom regular attendance is an obligation that lends strength to face the trials of the day, perhaps even the tribulations of air travel. And in the best examples of their kind, there is open seating, an invitation to linger, to talk, to build community, a promise that all are welcome—as long as the sacred transaction is preserved: payment in exchange for service.

We are aware of this constraint. We know that our spaces of consumption are not as welcoming as we might hope, and we applaud efforts to respond. In the face of protests and boycotts, one company has established a new policy: “any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces . . . regardless of whether they make a purchase.”

But we also know that the café is representative of much larger patterns of segregation. Outside the airport, certain neighbourhoods do not have access to these places, simply because profits would be insufficient. The spaces of contemporary consumer culture cannot, it turns out, viably substitute for all other functions. The coffee shop cannot fully substitute for the space of prayer.

A Larger Failure

Which is why it is critical that we pay attention to the misery of the airport chapel. It points to a larger failure. As a society we desperately need spaces that take seriously not only our similarities but also our differences—spaces where pieties can be nurtured and challenged, where conflicts of conviction can provoke not a cheap violence but a costly forgiveness, where the wretchedness of our increasingly hostile, disorienting world of segregated mobilities can be aired in a context that is genuinely welcoming.

We must invest in these spaces. The cost of not doing so is prohibitive.

Kyle Dugdale is an architect, critic, and historian. He teaches history, theory, and design at Yale School of Architecture and at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.