In conversation with Fariborz Sahba, architect

 

Fariborz Sahba is a humble yet passionate man in his mid-sixties; he has grayish-white hair, a black jacket and a pair of glasses which he constantly adjusts as we chat in a local cafe here in San Diego.

Rewind to 1986, the twenty-six year old Sahba designed and built a structure in New Delhi India, which has now become one of, if not, the most visited building in the world.

Just last year, the building attracted some 4.8 million visitors and celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The structure he would spend nearly a decade researching, designing and ultimately building is the Lotus Temple of India. It is one of the seven Baha’i Houses of Worship located in every continent of the world – a unique place of communion open to people of all walks of life, be it of any race, status, religion or no-religion.

For the past 25 years, Sahba has worked mainly on two major projects: One, the Lotus Temple in India; and second, the hanging gardens of Mount Carmel in Israel which was recently named a World Heritage site by UNESCO for “cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value.”

In this interview, we’ll just suffice with learning about the Lotus Temple and the nitty-gritty stuff that makes the building and the man himself a topic of discussion.

 

So Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you spend the early years of your life?

Fariborz Sahba: I was born in Mashhad, Iran and completed my high school education there; I then moved to Tehran for my higher education. However I have traveled all over Iran intensively and have vivid memories.

MK: What inspired you to become an architect? 

FS: My main inspirer was my mother and the stories she would tell me as a child. When we lived in the town of Gonabad, it was in a desert area with barely any architecture. My mother who wanted to give us a vision of civilization and architecture often told us of ‘Ishqabad, the town she had grown up in.

In particular, she’d tell stories of a building which she remembered dearly and stood in her mind as a great example of architecture – it was the first Baha’i House of Worship ever built. She would tell us how it was a place of tranquility and peacefulness. She was very saddened when an earthquake destroyed it and whole-heatedly wished that when I grew up, I would build one like it. That was when I was five – and from then on, I wanted to be an architect.

MK: Where did you receive your educational training?

FS: I received a Master’s degree in architecture in 1972 from Tehran University.

MK: What were some structures you designed after completing your studies?

FS: The Centre of Handicraft Production and Arts Workshops in Tehran; The Iranian Embassy in Beijing; The New Town of Mahshahr; The Pahlavi Cultural Centre and the School of Art in Sanandaj, Iran.

MK: So how did the Lotus Temple project begin?

FS: The Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’is, put out a call to architects around the world to submit their designs for this building. I entered the competition with a few pages of ideas explaining how I envisioned the concept of a House of Worship.

After some time and a few interviews, I was notified that my proposal was accepted. I then traveled throughout India in search of a design.

 

MK: What were you searching for to serve as the basis of your design?

FS: I was looking for a concept that would be acceptable to the people of all different backgrounds that abound with such rich diversity in India. I wanted to design something new and unique; at the same time not strange but rather familiar, something which any human being would find spiritual and intuitively find some sort of relationship with it in their hearts.

I began without preconceptions, ready for ideas. I visited almost a hundred temples all over India 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 the country, I became profoundly fascinated by the task before me.

MK: So finally, you choose the lotus flower to be the inspiration for this structure. What is the significance of this particular flower?  

FS: There is a deep and universal reverence for the lotus in India. It is regarded as a sacred flower associated with worship throughout many centuries and therefore 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. In Buddhist folklore the Buddha is represented as being born from a lotus, and is usually depicted standing or sitting on a lotus. It is also deeply rooted in the Zoroastrian and Islamic architecture; for example, the dome of the Taj Mahal is bud of a lotus.

MK: How did you bring your initial concept to life, tell me a bit about the architectural aspect of the structure? 

FS: The whole superstructure is designed to function as a skylight. The interior dome is composed from intersection of nine spheres and patterned after the innermost portion of the lotus flower. 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. Nine open petals, each of which functions as a skylight, surround the central hall and nine entrance petals complete the design.

 

MK: How about the exterior, specifically the pools that surround the structure?

FS: Nine pools around the building form the principal landscape of the building. They also 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.

MK: It seems that you had thoroughly thought of the environment in your design, what exact methods and techniques have been used?

FS: Since the climate in Delhi is very hot for several months of the year and the degree of humidity varies, the installation and maintenance of air-conditioning was not an environmentally friendly or cheap solution. Therefore, we implemented a more sophisticated technique.

This, in a way, can be called “natural ventilation.” It is based on the principal of the Wind Towers in the deserts of Iran and was developed by “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.

MK: I know that similar to the architects of the past, such as the Taj Mahal, you didn’t just design it, but you also built it as well.

FS: Yes, I was also the project manager and oversaw the construction.

MK: What do you think was the most exciting and perhaps challenging stage of the process? 

FS: I think the design period was the most challenging and exciting part of the project. To design a temple, which would reflect the rich cultural heritage of India and at the same time be compatible with the principles of the Baha’i Faith – that humanity is one – provided me with an unusual and remarkable task. This was the most exciting part of the project for me, the rest of the challenges were technical matters, which I dealt with somehow.

MK: The structure is obviously not conventional in any way. I would say it’s more like a piece of art, what do you think?

FS: 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 that communicates with its audience. This, in my opinion, is the most satisfying aspect of architect profession. All other things are only tools. In the Lotus Temple a great many technical challenges had to be addressed, but I take satisfaction from the fact that my project communicates with the people, and is alive.

MK: The building has been praised for its technical qualities over the years, please mention some important ones.

FS: Awards and recognitions have been received from the American Institute of Architect, the Institution of Structural Engineers of the United Kingdom, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, the American Concrete Institute, the GlobArt Academy award in 2000. But more importantly, some 100 million people have visited it since its completion 25 years ago.

MK: Speaking of 25 years, recently there was a major celebration on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, please tell us about that.

FS: Several thousands had come from India and across the world to participate in the celebration of its 25th anniversary. The main event was focused on the aspect of service to the community and how the Lotus Temple has and can continue to serve the purpose of creating unity and harmony amongst the diverse people of India. On this occasion, statements were sent by some distinguished Indians such Dr. Abdul Kalam, the former President of India, the Minister of Culture, Minister for Tourism, Chief Minister of Delhi; they were praising the Temple for its unique role in building unity and communal harmony in India. Furthermore, thousands of posters were published by the Ministry of Tourism commemorating the anniversary and recognizing it as the symbol of unity of India.

MK: In conclusion,  a simple phrase that would summarize your overall experience with this project? 

Hard work!

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Sahba’s Personal Website
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