Gardens of Worship

Fariborz Sahba - Vancouver, British Columbia and Haifa, Israel

Summary: Iranian-born, Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba has designed and built some of the most holy sites in the Baha’i religion including the Terraces of the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel. Aesthetically and symbolically, these spaces are designed for celebration and worship, bringing people closer to the divine. But for Sahba, it is in the garden that relationships between structure, spirit, design and God become most apparent. Using the grammar of nature and the language of design, Sahba becomes a translator for whom he refers to as our “Master Architect” in his creation of gardens for people seeking spiritual refuge and inspiration.
Garden Contact Information: Bahá’i World Centre

Mr. Sahba

The Garden: In Bahá’i writings, there are many examples that allude to the beauty of nature, likening mankind to plants, comparing human growth to the growth of a beautiful tree. Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba has taken this metaphor to heart, incorporating nature and gardens in much of his architectural work.

In 1976, Mr. Sahba was approached by the Bahá’i World Centre to design a house of worship for the increasing numbers of Bahá’i followers in India. Mr. Sahba not only designed the building, he oversaw its construction. Although he had been told to work only on the temple, Mr. Sahba became determined to incorporate a garden in the plans, saving money from the construction budget to build a greenhouse that would help him to determine which indigenous plants and flowers would be appropriate for the site. The Bahá’i House of Worship in New Delhi, known as the Lotus of Bahapur, derives its form literally from the shape and symmetry of the lotus, a flower pervasive in Indian art and architecture and a symbol of spirituality and purity in Hinduism and Buddhism. “The building is in the shape of a lotus and a lotus needs the ground, it needs the pond around it to grow”, Mr. Sahba says. The half kilometer long garden also allows pilgrims the opportunity to dwell in a place of peace before the reaching the temple. In many ways, the gardens act as a portal between daily life and the temple space. After ten years of work, the Lotus of Bahapur opened to the public in 1986.

Within the year, Fariborz Sahba and his family moved to the port city of Haifa, Israel. His task was to design a terraced approach to the Shrine of the Báb. Designed by Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell, the Shrine has been an identifying landmark in Haifa since it was completed in 1953. Its golden dome can be seen clearly for miles out on the sea. In 1987 when the Sahba family arrived, the Shrine was a lonely glittering jewel on a roughly hewn mountain landscape. “If a diamond is not set properly, its value does not show,” notes Mr. Sahba, “The terraces would provide both the physical and spiritual setting for the Shrine.”

The second most holy spot in the world for the Bahá’i, the Shrine of The Báb houses the remains of the Prophet who founded the Bahá’i religion in Persia in 1844 with the declaration that spiritual renewal and social advancement rested on “love and compassion” rather than force and coercion. It was a message that elicited hope and excitement amongst all classes and attracted thousands of followers. Today, the Bahá’i faith is the second-most widespread independent world religion after Christianity, with over six and a half million members in 235 countries. Embracing people from more than 2100 ethnic, racial and tribal groups, it is possibly the most diverse organised body of people on the planet today, with other faiths tending towards a more geographic grouping. Statistically, it is the thirteenth populated religion in the world. The Bahá’i International Community is a non-governmental organisation with consultative status at the United Nations working at the grassroots level in the area of peace-building, human rights, the advancement of women, education, health and sustainable development.

Mr. Sahba and his wife worked for thirteen years designing and constructing the eighteen terraced gardens, nine above, and nine below the Shrine. (There are actually nineteen terraces, representing The Báb and his first eighteen disciples.) Beginning at its base, the gardens extend almost a kilometer up the side of Mount Carmel, covering some 200,000 square metres of land. The gardens are linked by a set of stairs flanked by two streams of running water - a man-made brook that gently cascades down the mountainside. "As you walk down the terraces, water accompanies you. The oasis of water attracts birds, and in harmony with the song of the birds creates the best camouflage for the noise of the city, gives the space the tranquility that one needs to be separated from the day to day reality of life." Lighting also forms an important element of the site. Mr. Sahba sought to express a sense of spirit through the interplay of light, water and colour. "At night, it is as if waves of light are emanating from the Shrine, which is the centre of illumination," Mr. Sahba said. "During the day these movements are created by sunlight filtering through the lines of cypress trees, and reflecting on the curved parallel surfaces of the emerald green lawns.”

The terraces feature decorative stone balustrades, fountains, benches and statues as well as plants and flowers indigenous to Israel. Harmony, symmetry, and order are important aesthetic principles from which the gardens take their form.

The terraces and gardens, while designed to promote a feeling of peace, calm, and serenity in visitors, are also highly advanced in their design, featuring the latest in water management, natural pest control, and ecological sensitivity. The irrigation systems were developed in consultation with Israeli experts in the field, and recycled water is used in the man-made streams.
Each terrace has three zones: the formal central area with lawns of Zoysia grass, annual flowerbeds, santolina and duranta hedges, bushes, and carefully pruned trees. The side zone is more informal, with flowering trees and perennial bushes characteristic of the Middle East, including drought-tolerant, low-maintenance succulents, oleanders, rosemary, lantana, olive, jacaranda, coral, and plumeria. Wildflowers and bulbs blossom in profusion from December to April, while flowering trees and shrubs assume prominence during the spring and summer. The edges of each terrace have been left free to develop into natural forest which provides an important corridor for wildlife on the mountain. On the ninth terrace, just below the Shrine, stand two young orange trees that were propagated from seeds taken from an orange tree in the courtyard of the Báb’s house in Shiraz, Iran, before it was destroyed by Islamic revolutionary authorities in that country.
For five years, Mr. Sahba experimented with plants and flowers indigenous to Israel, when certain flowers would bloom, which flower would blend with which tree to create a feeling of harmony. “I wanted that in every season, garden be full of life”. Mount Carmel has high levels of lime and chalk in it’s composition, adding to the complexity of the task.

For Mr. Sahba, God is in the details. “The best proof for God is beauty of his creation. Beauty is such an outstanding thing in the world. It is so difficult to create beauty. But, when you look at the details of nature, the details of flowers and plants, you realize that there is such magnificence of spirit in all of this that is impossible to be created unless a real divine artist is involved. To create chaos is easy. To create order, beauty and perfection is very difficult. When you see such a flower, you ask who could have done this – who could have created such exquisite geometry, shape, fragrance and colour?”

The gardens are meant to be a spiritual approach to the shrine. People come from their busy lives in the city, this garden is supposed to prepare them, to make them comfortable, to give them peace, to make them ready for the spiritual encounter ahead of them. As Fariborz Sahba states “You are going to an important place. Think, be prepared. As you go through this rhythm of geometry, order, and peaceful harmonizing colours of landscape, nothing argues with you…”

“The best place to find God is in a garden.” - George Bernard Shaw

The Gardeners' Story: Fariborz Sahba, a Canadian citizen, was born in 1948 in Iran. Raised in the Bahá’i faith, his mother would tell him that he was born to build temples. He received a Master’s degree in architecture in 1972 from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tehran University, and went on to design many prestigious buildings in Iran.

Mr. Sahba has received many international awards, among them the First Honor Award in 1987 for "Excellence in Architecture" from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture, an affiliate of the American Institute of Architects. He has also received the GlobArt Academy 2000 Award for “promoting the unity and harmony of people of all nations, religions and social strata to an extent unsurpassed by any other architectural monument worldwide.

Articles about his work have been published in almost 400 magazines and newspapers throughout the world.

In 1976, the international governing body of the Bahá’i religion selected Mr. Sahba to design the Bahá’i House of Worship for the Indian subcontinent in New Delhi, India. With over 3.5 million visitors a year, this building, commonly known as the "Lotus of Bahapur," is one of the most visited sites in the world.

In 1987, the Bahá’i World Centre assigned Fariborz Sahba the task of designing eighteen monumental terraces as a majestic approach to the Shrine of the Báb. This is one of the holiest sites for the Bahá’i community. He was also appointed project manager to execute the Bahá’i World Centre administrative building projects on Mount Carmel. The Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb received the 1998 Ephraim Lifshitz Award from the Municipality of Haifa and the 1999 Magshim Award from the Council for a Beautiful Israel.

Mr. Sahba’s work today takes him to Nunavut where he has begun working with Inuit elders to design culturally and geographically appropriate housing for the people of the northern Canadian region. He continues ties to India with discussions for developing a spiritual garden in New Delhi called “Asta kunj”.

Behind the Scenes: Executive Producer: Merit Jensen Carr & David Fox
Producer: Merit Jensen Carr
Director: Gwynne Basen
Writer: Donna Gall
Narration Writer: Gwynne Basen
Narrator: Bonnie Dickie
Directors of Photography: Barry Lank, CSC
Still Photography: Barry Lank, Linda Danchak & courtesy of Mr Sahba
Editor: John Gurdebeke
Composer: Michael Plowman

Date: 2006
Length: 22 minutes

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