In the Interfaith Worship Room at Athens International Airport, someone is disagreeing with the architect on fundamental matters of faith and geography.
The Athens interfaith room is among my favorites of all the airport chapels I have visited, and I make a point to stop by it every time I come to what is now my home airport. Up a set of stairs away from the main concourse, it is an entirely white room with smoothly curving corners, gently lit by large, shaded windows. The room’s designer, interior architect Dimitris Plageras, cites his own fear of flying as one of his main inspirations, resulting in a smooth, distraction-free space intended to foster a sense of calm and quiet. It certainly does the trick.
Mr. Plageras took his lead for the interfaith room from the United Nations Meditation Room in New York, personally designed by the Swedish secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld and dedicated in 1957. In his dedication, Hammarskjöld wrote, “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense.” The only features of the UN room are an abstract painting and a six-and-a-half-ton block of iron ore, serving as an altar “dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms.” In a tradition continued in Athens, benches rather than chairs are set out for visitors.
Mr Plageras’s greatest achievement in the Athen’s interfaith room is to make its one distinctly religious architectural feature into something accessible to those of all faiths and none. The qibla—the direction which Muslims should face when performing prayer—is indicated by a green stripe on the floor, which terminates at the foot of a vertical strip of white light. This groove serves both as mihrab, the niche in a mosque that indicates the qibla, and a sort of surrogate Dan Flavin, pleasingly echoing both the “diagonal of personal ecstasy” and the Tatlin monuments. Light, says Mr Plageras, is something which all faiths look to, and even the green, usually associated with Islam, is also based on the shade used in nurseries for its its calming influence.
On my last visit, however, there was evidence of discord. Just to the right of the qibla/Flavin, on the carpet and above the skirting board, twin arrows rendered in thick blue biro cross-hatching have been used to indicate a direction some ten degrees further south than the architect’s stripe implies.
When you start to look for them, the qibla-scribblers are all over, as qiblas are apparently a contested part of interfaith chapels. In the Stille Rom at Oslo’s Gardamoen Airport, two prayer mats lie alongside one another at angles to one corner of the space, but no qibla is evident, until, once again, you crouch down and peer at the floorboards, to find another set of arrows—this time in black biro—gouged into the woodwork. At least three different hands have been at work here, with another arrow in blue above the skirting board, and the word “قبلة,” itself, in black again, next to it, to remove any doubt.
In London Stansted’s Prayer Room, the qibla is a laminated piece of gray paper pinned in a corner (another Flavin reference?). In Amsterdam’s Schiphol’s Meditation Centre it’s a white plastic compass rose on the floor. At London Gatwick’s Multi-Faith Chapel, a laminated notice pinned to the wall reads: “For Qibla / Please look up at the ceiling.” And you do, and there it is, a star and crescent moon bisected by an arrow, screwed to a ceiling tile, in a style uncomfortably reminiscent of Ceiling Cat. The reason for this strange placement is unclear, but the need for the notice is betrayed in smaller, bright-red type: “DO NOT WRITE ON THE FURNITURE OR ON THE WALLS OR SKIRTING BOARD.”
In the standardized multi-faith prayer rooms in each of London Heathrow’s terminals, which incidentally have absolutely the worst carpets of any prayer rooms or maybe generally any room ever, the qibla is indicated by no-nonsense metal studs set into the floor. There is something very British and discreet about these, particularly as they are, in each room and for no apparent reason, paired with identical studs indicating north. A possible clue to this is another floor sign, which accompanies some but not all of the Heathrow medallions: a plaque that reads “Compasses do not work in room.” This may be significant.
The direction to Mecca indicated by the qibla has been reckoned in many ways over the centuries. Science has been applied, in the form of the astrolabe, an ancient Greek invention which was further developed by medieval Islamic scholars, and which has the ability to both define the times of day for prayer, and to adjudge its direction. Many learned theses have been written on the subject, by such notables as Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who gave his name to the algorithm, and Shams al-Dīn al-Khalīlī, who, in the fourteenth century, calculated 3,000 separate and highly accurate qiblas for every latitude and longitude in the Muslim world (to this day nobody is entirely sure how he did it). In 2006, the Malaysian National Space Agency sponsored a conference of scientists and religious scholars to decide in which direction an astronaut should face to pray in space (Malaysia sent Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the ninth Muslim in space, to the International Space Station in 2007). They decided that they should face Earth.
Today, the qibla is most often reckoned in the same way that we decide everything else: by using a smartphone. A search for “qibla” on Apple or Google’s app stores returns hundreds of results with titles like iSalaam and Muslim Pro. I have three on my own phone, for reasons too complicated to go into here, but which involve the White House. Smartphones use their own internal compass to determine direction, which measures the deviation of an electric current caused by the Earth’s magnetic field. When I show him a photo of the defaced qibla, Dimitris Plageras claims that the proliferation of smartphones, and their technical limitations, is behind the disagreement in the interfaith room. Having tested a number of these devices himself, he believes they are easily and obviously confused by the profusion of competing signals and metal shielding in contemporary airports. The alignment of the Athens qibla was personally calculated by him based on the highly accurate architectural plans for the room, an arrangement of some importance and which he took very seriously. I am inclined to believe him.
Plageras is now employed full-time by the airport, and the correct alignment of the qibla is no longer the most pressing issue for its architecture. Opened in 2001, five months ahead of schedule after a decade of planning, the airport has seen greatly increased traffic over the last few years and is in a process of continual renewal. One of the architects’ goals is to introduce more of a Greek identity into the international airport style—Plageras cites Spain’s Madrid-Barajas Airport, with its primary colors and extensive views, as an example in developing a local vernacular for national infrastructure. As a result, newer areas of the Athens airport are based on rounded and geometric Cycladic forms, a recognizably Greek style which prefigures contemporary minimalism. But international politics play a part too: as new plans for the revamp of the airports intra-Schengen areas start to be made, there are already concerns over whether Greece will still be benefitting from passport-free travel in the European Union when the renovations are complete.
Flying out of Athens in the last few months has shown that such worries are reasonable. At every supposed Schengen airport I have flown into, passengers from Greece are confronted by a hastily assembled checkpoint. It is, certainly, a minor inconvenience compared to that endured by those facing far harsher measures at many of Europe’s supposedly open borders, but it is telling. And so I seek out the airport chapel, interfaith space, prayer room, or meditation center, and see how each country’s particular tics and prejudices play out as spiritual architecture in technopolitical space. I rarely see other people in my visits to these places. Most common is to see people sleeping under the prominently displayed “No Sleeping” signs, or Muslim staff members at prayer times. When asked, Plageras reveals that, alongside the tired and devout, the most frequent visitors to his room in Athens are amorous couples. “They think there isn’t a camera, but there is. And then they hear the Voice of God from the speakers…”