05 Apr 2011
Extracts from Interviews with the Architect
Editor's Note: Over the years since the inauguration of the Bahá'í House of Worship in December 1986, its architect, Mr. Fariborz Sahba, has been interviewed a number of times about his wonderful lotus-shaped creation. Below are a sampling of questions posed to the architect by different people and publications at different times, and his responses.
Q. Every phase of the construction of the Temple must have had its own unique challenge in terms of architecture, design, and engineering. Which stage was the most exciting to you?
A. I think the design period was the most challenging and exciting part of the project for me. To design a temple which would reflect the rich cultural heritage of India, and at the same time be compatible with the cardinal principle of the Bahá'í Faith - the unity of religions - provided me a most unusual and remarkable chance for witnessing the power of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation. I was looking for a concept that would be acceptable to the people of all the different religions that abound with such rich diversity in India. I wanted to design something new and unique, at the same time not strange but familiar, like the Bahá'í Faith itself, something which would be loved by the people of different religions. It should, on the one hand, reveal the simplicity, clarity and freshness of the Bahá'í Revelation, as apart from the beliefs and man-made concepts of the many divided sects. On the other hand, it should show respect for the basic beliefs of all the religions of the past and act as a constant reminder to the followers of each faith that the principles of all the religions of God are one. People should intuitively find some sort of relationship with it in their hearts. This was the most exciting part of the project for me. The rest of the challenges were technical matters which somehow could be dealt with.
I began without preconceptions, ready for ideas. I visited hundreds of temples all over India, not for architectural guidance but to discover a concept that would integrate the spiritual heritage of this sub-continent. As I delved deeper and deeper into the cultural and architectural heritage of India, I became profoundly fascinated by the task before me.
I was concentrating and praying. I was convinced that God would guide me towards a concept, and this is just what happened. Is it not strange that just by chance I had to change my route while travelling, and go to a different place where a pure soul, whom I had never met before, was waiting to tell me about the lotus? This was an Indian Bahá'í friend, Mr. Kamrudin Bartar, who for the first time spoke to me about the lotus as an idea for the Temple. No doubt he was Bahá'u'lláh's messenger to me, though I did not know it at that time, and was more impressed by his pure heart, simplicity, and kindness, than his concept and idea for a temple. Then, in the Ajanta and Ellora caves, the impression of the lotus flowers on the walls, depicting the throne of the gods, drew my attention to this flower. In South India another Indian Bahá'í, on learning of my interest in the lotus flower, showed much enthusiasm. He took great pains to locate a pond covered with this beautiful flower and, brimming over with excitement, took me to view the magnificent blooms. His earnest description and explanation of whatever he knew about the lotus impressed upon me the deep-rooted significance of this flower in India. Later, I studied the art, culture, and religions of India from books I had collected. The deep respect for the lotus, spontaneously evoked in Indian hearts everywhere, and their loving attachment to this sacred flower, convinced me to end my search for further ideas for the design. My attention was now focussed upon this concept. However, the critical question had yet to be answered, as to how a flower could be translated into a building. However symbolic and sensational it may be, such a design could also be regarded as trite and ordinary, and, consequently, vulgar and bereft of any architectural value.
When I recall my visit to India, I am convinced that at every step the blessings of Bahá'u'lláh assisted and guided this work. The difficulties and problems resolved themselves in an amazing manner. This could not have been possible without the prayers of the Universal House of Justice (the highest governing body of the Bahá'í Faith), which I had solicited before coming to India. No doubt, it was destined that the Temple be built in this shape.
Q. What is the significance of the lotus design?
A. In brief, the lotus represents the Manifestation of God, and is also a symbol of purity and tenderness. Its significance is deeply rooted in the minds and hearts of the Indians. In the epic poem Mahabharata, the Creator Brahma is described as having sprung from the lotus that grew out of Lord Vishnu's navel when that deity lay absorbed in meditation, There is a deep and universal reverence for the lotus, which is regarded as a sacred flower associated with worship throughout many centuries. In Buddhist folklore the Boddhisatva Avalokiteswara is represented as born from a lotus, and is usually depicted as standing or sitting on a lotus pedestal and holding a lotus bloom in his hand. Buddhists glorify him in their prayers, "Om Mani Padme Hum", "Yea, 0 Jewel in the Lotus!" Lord Buddha says you have to be like a lotus which, although living in dirty water, still remains beautiful and undefiled by its surroundings.
So, we realise that the lotus is associated with worship, and has been a part of the life and thoughts of Indians through the ages. It will seem to them as though they have been worshipping in this Temple in their dreams for years. Now their vision has become a reality and. God willing, some day they will all enter and worship in it.
Q. You mentioned the importance of water and light. What is the concept of lighting and the use of water in your design?
A. The whole superstructure is designed to function as a skylight. The interior dome is spherical and patterned after the innermost portion of the lotus flower. Light enters the hall in the same way as it passes through the inner folds of the lotus petals. The interior dome, therefore, is like a bud consisting of 27 petals, and light filters through these inner folds and is diffused throughout the hall. The central bud is held by nine open petals, each of which functions as a skylight. The nine entrance petals complete the design.
The external illumination is arranged to create the impression that the lotus structure is afloat upon water and not anchored to its foundation, by having the light focussed brightly on the upper edges of the petals.
Regarding the use of water, a glance at the design will show that the nine pools around the building form the principal landscaping. At the same time, they represent the green leaves of the lotus afloat on water. Moreover, the pools and fountains help to cool the air that passes over them into the hall. The superstructure, the podium, and the pools are designed as an integrated whole, and the parts cannot be separated from the whole.
Q. You must have worked certain requirements of the environment into the design. Can you explain something in that regard?
A. This is a matter to which a great deal of thought has been given. Since the climate in Delhi is very hot for several months of the year, and the degree of humidity varies, it seemed as though the only solution for the ventilation problem would be air-conditioning. However, this is very expensive to install and maintain, and, therefore, not feasible for a temple in India. On the basis of the methods of ventilation used in ancient buildings, a different, though complicated, solution for the ventilation problem of the Temple has been devised.
This, in a way, can be called "natural ventilation", and is based upon the results of "smoke tests" which were performed in the Imperial College of London on a model of the Temple. The results demonstrated that with openings in the basement and at the top, the building would act like a chimney, drawing up warm air from within the hall and expelling it through the top of the dome. Thus, constant draughts of cool air passing over the pools and through the basement flow into the hall and out through the opening at the top. This ventilation is complemented in two other ways: a set of exhaust fans is arranged in the dome to cool the concrete shell and prevent transference of heat into the Temple, while another set of fans funnel air from the auditorium into the cold basement, where it is cooled and recycled back into the auditorium. This system, and its maintenance, is by far cheaper than air-conditioning, and our calculations forecast pleasant and agreeable temperatures inside the Temple.
Q. How were the funds provided for the construction of the House of Worship?
A. It is very important to know that only Bahá'ís can contribute towards the construction cost of the Temple, and this is regarded as a great privilege and bounty for the Bahá'ís. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India (the governing council at the national level) printed a large number of coupons valued from one rupee to one hundred rupees to raise funds from Bahá'ís scattered in several thousand localities in India. Contributions were also received in kind, such as rice, wheat, and handicrafts from the villages. Bahá'ís from all over the world also contributed for the construction of the Temple. The amount is not important. What is important is that the maximum number of Bahá'ís participated in giving. An Indian scholar who visited the site told me, "The Taj Mahal was built with the power of a king, but you are building this majestic edifice with the power of love."
Q. You said that this House of Worship is open to all people irrespective of race, caste, religion, and class. Does this mean that people can practice their traditional forms of worship here, for instance, Hindus chant their Mantras, Muslims say Namaz, Christians hold Mass, Buddhists use their prayer wheels, and so forth?
A. It is important to note that the Bahá'ís do not have any clergy or rituals, and the Temple is reserved purely as a place of worship. In accordance with these principles, there are no sermons or rituals conducted in a Bahá'í temple. This is a place for prayer and meditation, which means communion between man and his Creator - God. Everybody can enter and say his or her prayers, but silently. There are also regular organised public services during which selections from the holy books of all religions are recited or chanted. A choir chants hymns to inspire the soul.
Q. Some people may ask whether it was indeed wise to build such a temple at all in India. They suggest that the money should have been spent for other charitable purposes. What is your comment?
A. Bahá'í temples are built with the money which Bahá'ís donate voluntarily. The money they give for the glory of God is a demonstration of their love for Him. They believe such a monument will attract divine bounties, and the spiritual atmosphere it creates will inspire many lives. If you dedicate a corner of your house, perhaps only a small room, for prayers, you will have an entirely different feeling about that room, and anybody entering that spot will feel the spiritual nature of that place. Now just imagine the spiritual significance of this edifice which has been constructed with the universal participation of thousands of people from different races and religious backgrounds, all united in their purpose to achieve this lofty goal. It is a concrete embodiment of the unity of mankind in action. The Taj Mahal was built on the foundation of love between two persons. One can say there was no need for that building, for even without that monument the love between the king and his queen would have been eternal. Nonetheless, because that majestic tomb symbolised the love between Shah Jehan and Mumtaz, you feel attracted to the building to witness such a love even after centuries. Now imagine the impact of the love created by the Bahá'í House of Worship. Here, a spiritual love between man and God manifests the eternal source of all love. The temples of India are, today, the richest treasures you have from your ancient culture. These temples were built by the people out of their love for God. Thousands of ancient buildings, palaces, and cities have been destroyed. But most of the temples have survived the ravages of time and fortune because they were built in the name of God. The Bahá'ís have built a place of hope here. It is a sort of investment or saving. It is not the rich people who have given money to be distributed among the poor. On the contrary, it is mostly poor people who have supported this project because of their appreciation of love, unity, and beauty. However poor people may be, they still love to buy a pot of flowers to put in a corner of their room. Without love and beauty man is nothing. This Temple symbolises our love for aesthetics, a humble offering to our Creator in the most beautiful manner we can present it. You may call it a flower in the comer of our hearts.
Q. What was the period of construction?
A. We had estimated the construction to take six years. We started the work on 21 April 1980 and completed it on 21 December 1986. So construction has taken six years and eight months. These additional eight months were required because extra work was added to the project, for example, the ceramic tile cladding envisaged in the beginning was changed to marble cladding. We also landscaped the entire 26 acres of land, whereas originally we had planned to do this only around the main building.
Q. What was the total cost of the building?
A. The total cost of the building was about ten crore rupees. This includes all furniture, landscaping, etc., which is not much for a complicated building of such high quality. If this building were made for any other purpose and any other client, it would have cost several times more. The work done here was based not on commercial considerations but on sacrifice and devotion. From the labourers to the supervisors, engineers, and suppliers, all have undertaken it as a challenge and labour of love. Many have worked totally voluntarily, or have accepted a bare minimum for their expenses. It is impossible to value this building by the standard scales available for quality surveying or project management.
Q. What was your role as project manager?
A. As project manager I worked on behalf of the client. I was in charge of budget control, temple fund, public relations, and quantity surveying, as well as project management, quality control and site supervision. In other words, I represented the client and the consultants at site. I had to build up a very good spirit and relationship between the contractor, consultants, and the client.
Q. As an architect, you often emphasise your dedication to your faith. Would you be able to function outside the Bahá'í "greenhouse"?
A. When an architect works on a design he works on it with all his ability, his mind, his thoughts, and his beliefs. His faith is not something outside him, it is an inseparable part of him. The Bahá'í Faith is not merely a code of laws and dos and don'ts. It is a way of life. One's mind, thoughts, and approach to life are all influenced by it. From that point of view, I have designed as a Bahá'í; even in designing a housing complex or a cultural centre, my work is naturally inspired by it. This does not mean that my religion has dictated my design. It is important to note that my project has not been designed for Bahá'ís only. In fact, my challenge has been to design a universal space for the public, for everyone from every religion, race, or nationality, but at the same time rooted in the culture and architecture of its place.
An architect must have a feeling and an understanding of the people for whom he builds. I consider it to be an art to grasp the culture and way of life of different countries and the people for whom I design; to adopt the technical possibilities available in the land and work within their frame. In India, my task was to understand the Indian people, their culture, technological possibilities, and facilities available in the land, and use them to the advantage of my design.... You design and work in the way you are, using your best abilities in serving your art. The end result will be seen in the way your art communicates with the people. I think the judgement of the success of your work is when you see that it really functions and works for the people that you worked for.
On an average, about 3 1/2 million people visit the Bahá'í House of Worship in New Delhi every year. Perhaps only a tenth of them are Bahá'ís. Visitors come to this place as a house of worship, a place for prayers. Their remarks reflect that their hearts have been touched, and they feel the Temple belongs to them. For me, that is the sign that the Temple 'works', as the essence of a Bahá'í temple is unity of God, unity of religions, and unity of mankind.
Q. One of the relevant questions in architecture today is to what extent it may be regarded as art. Considering that the Lotus temple is very artistic, what is your stand on this issue?
A. I take it as a compliment that you see this project as artistic. I am an old-fashioned architect who has always considered architecture to be an art, and no matter how practical or technical it becomes, in essence it is a work of art which communicates with its audience. This, in my opinion, is the most satisfying aspect of this profession. All other things are only tools. In the Lotus Temple a great many technical challenges have to be addressed, but I take satisfaction from the fact that my project communicates with the people, and is alive.
I used to often think to myself: what is it that makes the Taj Mahal so mysterious, so beautiful, so loved by the people that hundreds of thousands of Indians, having seen it several times, still continue to visit this building? Early one rainy morning I went to see the Taj Mahal. One of the guides followed me, insisting upon offering his services. For a time I resisted, but finally I had to agree. As I listened to him I was filled with astonishment that this person, who had in all probability repeated his narrative hundreds of times, should yet be able to discourse about the Taj Mahal with such ardour and enthusiasm; that he and all that crowd of visitors should feel so intimately connected to the building, as if it were a living thing. My guide's narrative was not precise, but for me the true significance of his words lay in the sensation they conveyed, that this building had a special place in his heart and was, in a manner, connected to him. From many points of view the Taj Mahal may not be superior to several other Islamic structures of that period. How is it then that this particular structure is dearer to people's hearts than all those others, attracting scores of visitors from all parts of the world and of India throughout the entire year?
That very morning, as my self-appointed guide was going through his narrative, I came to appreciate that a masterpiece of architecture is recognised by the mysterious connection it establishes with our hearts - a connection that transcends mere architectural considerations. The abiding popularity of the Taj Mahal resides in this. I thought to myself that I would only be successful if I could design something that communicates to the people and creates such a relationship. This mysterious relationship between the artist, his work, and the people is the most satisfying factor in the art of architecture. I hope I will continue to obtain projects which give me this type of pleasure in parallel to the other aspects of my profession.
Q. Does the Bahá'í religion allow you sufficient freedom for self-expression?
A. In the Bahá'í Faith an individual establishes his own relationship with God; each individual acts according to his own conscience, based on his understanding of the Bahá'í teachings. Self-expression and individual freedom form one of the main principles of this religion, and there is no question of anyone imposing his/her will or ideas on another. However, there is no doubt that one's spiritual philosophy and feelings will be reflected in one's art, one's thoughts, one's life. The blossoms of a tree come from within a tree and cannot be attached to it from outside. Individual freedom does not mean, however, that you live only for yourself. In whatever you do, you express yourself in relation to others. While every single player is very important, the results come from the quality of teamwork. You might as well ask if a kite is any freer without its string.