The school of architecture that I studied at some 30 years ago happened to be across the street from the wonderful art gallery designed by the great architect Louis Kahn. I love the building, and I used to visit it quite often. One day, I saw the security guard run his hand across the concrete wall. And it was the way he did it, the expression on his face — something touched me. I could see that the security guard was moved by the building and that architecture has that capacity to move you. I could see it, and I remember thinking, “Wow. How does architecture do that?”
At school, I was learning to design, but here — here was a reaction of the heart. And it touched me to the core.
You know, you aspire for beauty, for sensuousness, for atmosphere, the emotional response. That’s the realm of the ineffable and the immeasurable. And that’s what you live for: a chance to try.
So in 2003, there was an open call for designs for the Bahá’í Temple for South America. This was the first temple in all of South America. It’s a continental temple, a hugely important milestone for the Bahá’í community, because this would be the last of the continental temples and would open the door for national and local temples to be built around the world.
And the brief was deceptively simple and unique in the annals of religion: a circular room, nine sides, nine entrances, nine paths, allowing you to come to the temple from all directions, nine symbolizing completeness, perfection. No pulpit, no sermons, as there are no clergy in the Bahá’í faith. And in a world which is putting up walls, the design needed to express in form the very opposite. It had to be open, welcoming to people of all faiths, walks of life, backgrounds, or no faith at all; a new form of sacred space with no pattern or models to draw from. It was like designing one of the first churches for Christianity or one of the first mosques for Islam.
So we live in a secular world. How do you design sacred space today? And how do you even define what’s sacred today?
I stumbled across this beautiful quote from the Bahá’í writings, and it speaks to prayer. It says that if you reach out in prayer, and if your prayer is answered — which is already very interesting — that the pillars of your heart will become ashine.
And I loved this idea of the inner and the outer, like when you see someone and you say, “That person is radiant.” And I was thinking, “My gosh, how could we make something architectural out of that, where you create a building and it becomes alive with light? Like alabaster, if you kiss it with light, it becomes alive. And I drew this sketch, something with two layers, translucent with structure in between capturing light. Maybe a pure form, a single form of emanation that you could imagine would be all dome and everything we kept making was looking too much like an egg.
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