From Chile to Cambodia, New Baha'i Temples Embody Fresh Hopes
A new story from the Baha'i World News Service recounts how the new House of Worship in Santiago, Chile, has become a part of the broader society since its dedication a year and a half ago. And it also explains the major moment of transition in which the worldwide Baha'i community finds itself, both in its architectural expressions and in its overall priorities.
As the story explains in some detail, the new House of Worship in Santiago is the last to be raised by the Baha'i community in service to an entire continental area--in this case, South America. It thus joins the other continental Baha'i Temples in Wilmette (near Chicago), Illinois (1953, North America, previously designated as "Mother Temple of the West"); Kampala, Uganda (1961, Africa); Ingleside (near Sydney), New South Wales (Australia, 1961); Langenhein (near Frankfurt), Germany (1964, Europe); Panama City, Panama (1972, Central America, previously designated "Mother Temple of Latin America"); Apia, Western Samoa (1984, Pacific Islands); Delhi, India (1986, Indian Subcontinent). All of these structures were completed during the period when the principal aim of the Baha'i community's collective endeavors was global diffusion. In this context, the construction of continental Houses of Worship was an important symbol of the Faith's establishment in all parts of the world.
The final continental House of Worship in Santiago, which has earned a number of prestigious architecture awards, emerged during a quarter-century period when the worldwide Baha'i community was shifting its focus to a more thorough diffusion--and a deeper involvement with the life of society--within each country. As such, the construction and dedication of the Temple proceeded in tandem with the development of community activities in the Santiago area, from a native vegetation program on the grounds to capacity-building activities for children and youth held at the Temple complex and throughout the metropolitan region. A spokesperson for the Chilean Baha'i community explained the results:
People understand that the House of Worship is here to help with the spiritual development of our society. There are many families that are coming to the Temple. Religious groups come to pray together. Many people in their advanced years also come for hours and sit at the picnic tables and enjoy fellowship. People here see the House of Worship more and more as their Temple.
In this sense the House of Worship in Santiago serves as something of a bridge to the next phase of the unfoldment of this institution of the Baha'i community, the erection of national and local Houses of Worship. This new development began in 2012, while the Santiago Temple was under construction, with a call by the Universal House of Justice for national Houses of Worship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea and for local Houses of Worship in the areas of Battambang, Cambodia; Norte del Cauca, Colombia; Bihar Sharif, India; Matunda Soy, Kenya; and Tanna, Vanuatu--all areas where the new framework for community development being pursued by Baha'is worldwide was particularly advanced. The House of Justice indicated that as additional countries and regions move forward along these lines in the years to come it would call for the construction of more such structures.
In this approach, the Houses of Worship to emerge in the coming years will more fully reflect the potential of an institution that is unique in human religious history. Free of sermons or rituals, with doors opening in all directions, Baha'i Houses of Worship were conceived by the Faith's founders as collective centers for the unification of diverse peoples. Open to all, regardless religious or other background, and embodying the dynamic relationship between worship and service, the new Houses of Worship that are emerging complement the efforts of local and national Baha'i communities to spur a broad movement in which populations are empowered to take charge of their own spiritual, social, and economic development.
Since 2012 marked progress has taken place in each of the seven new Temple projects. The local House of Worship in Battambang, Cambodia, was dedicated last year, and the one in Norte del Cauca, Colombia, will open this summer. Designs have been approved for the local Houses of Worship for Matunda Soy, Kenya, and Tanna, Vanuatu, and for the national House of Worship in Papua New Guinea. Complex negotiations for access to land for the national and local Houses of Worship, respectively, in the DRC and Bihar Sharif, India, have recently been completed, allowing those projects to move forward.
The article makes a very interesting point about the connection between architecture and the priorities of the Baha'i community:
With the dedication of the local Baha’i House of Worship in Battambang, Cambodia, last year and several more local and national Temples planned for the coming years, Baha’i communities will no longer focus on innovation in an architectural sense. They will be learning much more about how these structures, embedded in a locality, can be in harmony with the social and material environment and support the advancement of a population.
Indeed, a number of stories have highlighted the ways in which the new Temple projects have progressed in dynamic association with broader movements of social and spiritual development in their respective areas. A while back I wrote about one such example in Colombia, where the local Baha'i community effectively engaged neighbors, including many young people, in the area around the Temple land in a program to restore native flora that had been devastated by generations of sugar monocropping.
I think, however, that the statement that in the new wave of construction "Baha'i communities will no longer focus on innovation in an architectural sense" gives the wrong impression. While the new Houses of Worship, either completed or in development, are all of a smaller scale than the previous continental ones and their architecture perhaps less monumental, their designs will be no less significant.
Each of the plans already executed or approved was crafted in a collaborative design process that included months of consultation with the population, both inside and outside of the Baha'i community itself. The result in each case is a contemporary design that represents and reflects the local culture, springing as much from the collective experience and desires of the people as from the individual minds of the architects. In Battambang, for example, the design embodies elements of traditional Cambodian architecture. In Colombia, the roof of the building represents the pod of the cocoa plant, with its flower at the apex. In Vanuatu, the roof will be constructed of sugar and palm fronds according to traditional techniques. In Kenya, the diamond patterns in the design are a common motif, and the slate and stone for the construction will be locally sourced.
In Papua New Guinea, a country of mountains and valleys that is home to some 700 distinct ethnic groups, the architects noted that the search for a "universal theme" for a national House of Worship represented a "profound challenge." What emerged was a design that reflects the art of weaving that is common across the country:
In traditional village life, which remains alive and vibrant in Papua New Guinea today, and in urban households alike, woven surfaces and objects are found in abundance. It is an image which resonates closely with ‘home’ for many of us, a functional and inherently beautiful art form which we interact with daily.
Moreover, they said, weaving symbolizes the Baha'i community's goals and methods:
The craft of weaving is analogous to the process of building unity in diversity. Individual strands come together to form something infinitely stronger than the object’s constituent parts, and the whole draws on the contributions of each individual strand.
So while it may be true that the new wave of construction might not bring in any international architecture awards like the House of Worship in Santiago, in the aggregate it will represent something much more significant: a new stage in the development of the Baha'i Faith in which growing numbers of the world's diverse peoples encounter Baha'u'llah's teachings and begin to make them their own.