Interfaith

Commemorations in Chicago highlight the immense impact of House of Worship

In May, the Bahá'í community of the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the first Bahá'í Temple in the West, reflecting on the building's architectural innovation, spiritual significance, and continuing prominence.

WILMETTE, Illinois, USA -- Even though they are not Bahá'ís, Jayson Malfait and Priti Sinha chose to have their wedding day photographs taken at the Bahá'í House of Worship in this suburb north of Chicago.

The gardens and building are so beautiful, said Mr. Malfait. "It's an amazing structure."

But there is another important reason. The couple comes from different religions and cultures. Mr. Malfait was born in America, into a Christian family. Ms. Sinha was born in India, into a Hindu family.

"The Bahá'í religion is very accepting of other religions and accepting of diversity, which is important to us, since we're from different religions, and the Temple is symbolic of that," said Ms. Sinha. "So it means a lot to us."

Mr. Malfait and Ms. Sinha are among the some 230,000 people who visit the Bahá'í House of Worship here each year. Although each surely has his or her own reasons, Ms. Sinha and Mr. Malfait clearly reflect the feelings of many, who commonly tell the Temple staff that they come because of the Temple's beauty -- and its welcoming design.

In May, the Bahá'í community of the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Temple's public dedication -- an event that was widely reported in newspapers of the day. In ceremonies to mark the anniversary -- and in interviews -- Bahá'ís and others reflected on the Temple's architectural impact, spiritual significance, and continuing prominence.

The occasion also offered an opportunity to explore both the spiritual and practical side of Bahá'í religious observances. Although there are currently only seven such Houses of Worship in the world, one on each continent, the intent of their design and outline of their functions put them at the heart of Bahá'í community life.

"It is one of the fundamental symbols of unity that we have," said Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, vice chair of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, which oversees the Wilmette Temple. "It is a symbol of unity because it is open to everyone to pray there."

New Modes of Worship

The nature of worship in Bahá'í Temples also says much about the relation of man to God, as understood in the Bahá'í Faith. For example, unlike churches, mosques or synagogues, all forms of preaching or sermonizing are banned. Instead, the individual is encouraged to pray and meditate on his/her own.

"Bahá'í worship is a celebration of the Word of God," said Robert Stockman, an historian of religion who serves as director of research for the US Bahá'í community. "So in the Bahá'í House of Worship you have the readings or recitations of the Word of God. And the role of the worshiper is not to be sitting passively but rather to be meditating on the Word, and perhaps praying at the same time."

Dr. Stockman noted that for Bahá'ís the Word of God includes not only the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb, the twin Messengers of the Bahá'í Faith, but also the scriptures of the other major world religions, such as the Baghavad Gita, the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, and the Qur'an.

"In other words, in contrast to worship services in many other religions, the responsibility for the interpretation and internalization of the Word rests on the worshiper -- there is no one up front to mediate or do the interpreting for the worshiper," said Dr. Stockman. "Each individual has to play an active role in his or her own reflection on the Word, and in making decisions about how he or she is going to be transformed by it."

James Halstead, a Catholic priest and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, makes a point of bringing students in his comparative religions class to the Bahá'í House of Worship.

"The first experience of the student upon seeing it is awe and wonder," said Prof. Halstead. " 'Isn't it beautiful?' they say."

Prof. Halstead also said his students are often struck by the lack of statues and other intermediaries to God. "Some people want those things; they want intermediaries that look like them, so they can negotiate with the Divine," he added.

"But for me, when I go into this building, it is an encounter with silence," said Prof. Halstead. "Visual silence, aural silence. And for me, this captures the mystery of God."

Symbolic Design

The design of the Temple is likewise quite distinctive -- and indicative of underlying Bahá'í beliefs. Situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan north of Chicago, the House of Worship is shaped like a large circular bell -- "calling" people to God, said the architect -- with nine sides and nine doors.

"The architecture itself symbolizes unity with its nine entrances, drawing people in from all directions to a central point," said Ms. Left Hand Bull.

In fact, all Bahá'í Houses of Worship share this essential layout: nine sides, with nine doors leading to a central dome. All are also illuminated by natural light in the daytime.

Rather than limiting possibilities, however, these design parameters have opened the door to a flourishing of architectural styles. Each of the seven Bahá'í Temples is distinctive in its expression.

An eighth Temple will soon be built in Santiago, Chile, and its design entails, in the words of its architect, Siamak Hariri, nine "gracefully torqued wings," which enfold the temple and give it an organic look reminiscent of a seashell or a nest.

The most famous Temple, the Bahá'í House of Worship in New Delhi, India, is also a modernist design. Constructed of 27 soaring concrete "petals," arranged in the shape of a nine-sided lotus flower, the Delhi Temple has won numerous architectural awards.

It has also become the most visited building in India, surpassing even the Taj Mahal with some 4.5 million visitors a year.

Among the seven Bahá'í Temples currently in existence, the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette holds a special place in history. It is the oldest of them all, and the first to be built in the West. (The world's first Bahá'í House of Worship was built in Ishqabad (now known as Ashgabat) in Russian Turkistan (now Turkmenistan). However, it was later confiscated by the Soviet government, and, in 1962, razed after it was severely damage in an earthquake.)

For Bahá'ís, the Wilmette Temple is especially important because 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh and the leader of the Bahá'í Faith from 1892 to 1921, laid the cornerstone himself.

That was in 1912. It took the Bahá'í community of North America another 41 years to raise funds for and to complete the Temple, which was constructed in various phases, at an overall cost of some US$2.6 million. The building was opened to the public on 2 May 1953, in joyous ceremonies that were reported on in more than 500 newspapers, numerous radio programs, and a Universal International newsreel.

A Breakthrough in Construction

The Wilmette Temple is also notable for its architectural innovation. Specifically, it is one of the first buildings to utilize pre-cast concrete panels in its construction -- an application of a cutting edge technology that is today, 50 years later, in widespread use.

Cast at a factory off site, the panels hang from an inner frame of steel and glass. They incorporate extensive amounts of white quartz, giving the building a dazzling white appearance. They are also extensively ornamented, many in an arabesque lacework design that allows light to stream in from all angles.

This use of pre-cast concrete technology enabled the Temple's architect, Louis Bourgeois, to achieve a vision that had for thousands of years gone unrealized.

"If you look at the development of cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues, one of the goals was always to create a space that was uplifting -- and one way to do that is to bring as much light as possible in through the walls," said Robert Armbruster, a Chicago-based architect and civil engineer who has since 1983 been closely involved with efforts to maintain and restore the Temple.

The great buttresses supporting the walls of Gothic cathedrals were designed to create tall windows, capable of bringing in maximum light, said Mr. Armbruster. "But, with the materials at hand, they were never able to bring light in through the roof."

After the industrial revolution, however, with the introduction of steel and reinforced concrete, it became possible to create buildings that were very light and open, he said, like London's famous Crystal Palace or the grand train terminals of the 1800s.

"But they still hadn't cracked the puzzle of how to add ornamentation and bring the light through it," said Mr. Armbruster. "The design represents the first time an architect was able to bring light in through the walls and dome of a building with ornamentation."

"Originally, Bourgeois thought he would use stone, but the stone company said they were unable to execute the kind of ornamentation he wanted," said Mr. Armbruster. Bourgeois then turned to reinforced concrete panels, and the Temple is, in fact, the first use of such panels, he said.

"The intricacy of the sculpted details of the panels on the Bahá'í House of Worship has not yet been equaled in other buildings of architectural concrete," added Mr. Armbruster.

A National Landmark

The result is a unique building that has become a major drawing point in the greater Chicago area.

"The Bahá'í Temple is nationally recognized," said Maria Berg-Stark, executive director of the Chicago's North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, who noted that it is listed in the United States National Register of Historic Places. "And it is one of the most prominent tourist attractions in the area."

Some 58 meters in height, and with a seating capacity of nearly 1,200 people, the Temple also stands as a spiritual beacon to many, silently offering a lesson about the unity of religions.

"We think that God is one in the world and you can talk with Him in other churches, too," said Iryna Turshyn, a Christian from Ukraine, who visited the Wilmette Temple with a friend in May. "This church is like a 'union' church. It's for everybody."

For Bahá'ís and others, these distinguishing elements -- the overall design of the Temples, their innovative construction, and the distinctive mode of worship held within them -- are important reflections of the creative power of the Bahá'í Faith.

"The Bahá'í Faith is a new religion, and so the Temples have to show it is new," said Fariborz Sahba, the architect of the India Temple, in a speech here on 17 May, as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations. "The architect here, Louis Bourgeois, spent eight years on this design, before it was even submitted."

Mr. Sahba noted that Bahá'ís from all over the world sent in contributions all through the first five decades of the 20th century to finance the Wilmette Temple's construction. All Bahá'í Temples are entirely financed with contributions from Bahá'ís.

"This is the Temple of which all of the Bahá'ís of the world claim ownership," said Mr. Sahba. "And they love it. But this is not only for the Bahá'ís -- it is a Temple that belongs to the people of the world."

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