Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 6: Beauty and the Human Spirit

We talk with Hossein Amanat, Siamak Hariri, and Prof. Brigitte Shim about how a building or a place can help to illuminate the inner life of a person, and what role architecture can play in the spiritual upliftment of society. Amanat, Hariri, and Prof. Shim are principals at their respective Canadian architecture firms.

Read the Transcript

LAURA FRIEDMANN (Host): My name is Laura Friedmann, and this is The Public Discourse; a podcast by the Office of Public Affairs of the Bahá'í Community of Canada. 

This is the sixth episode of our series "A Vision of Oneness", inspired by the centenary of the passing of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, a central figure in the Bahá'í Faith who devoted His life to promoting the Faith of his Father. 

When he visited Montreal in 1912, 'Abdu'l-Bahá gave a series of public talks in which he talked about humanity's need for spirituality. He said that human beings will “remain like the glass without light if they are deprived of the spiritual virtues.” And He referred to humanity's need for enlightenment, so that “the oneness of the world of humanity will be revealed.” 

In this episode, we are joined by three accomplished Canadian architects to reflect on the relationship between our physical environment and the human spirit. We will be talking about how a building or a place can help to illuminate the inner life of a person, and what role architecture can play in the spiritual upliftment of society.

I am absolutely delighted to be joined by Hossein Amanat, Professor Brigitte Shim, and Siamak Hariri. All three of you are architects who have designed significant cultural buildings, including many that are intended to be places of worship. So I'd like to invite each of you to briefly introduce yourselves, and also tell us where you came from, and what attracted you to a career in architecture.

So, Brigitte, I'll start with you.

BRIGITTE SHIM: Great. Thank you so much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here. My name is Brigitte Shim, and we have a practice Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, and I practice with my husband and my partner, Howard Sutcliffe. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and came to Canada when I was about in grade 1; and have lived here since then.

We have sort of maybe accidentally designed several sacred spaces. And it really poses some very interesting and profound questions for where we are at this point in the 21st century. So I'm delighted to engage in a discussion about these spaces with two wonderful colleagues and friends. 

LAURA: Wonderful! Thank you. It's really lovely for you to join us, and I'm really excited about the conversation as well. Siamak? 

SIAMAK HARIRI: Thanks Laura. I'm Siamak Hariri. I'm a partner, founding partner, of Hariri-Pontarini Architects, which is an architectural studio and we're based in Toronto. I think Brigitte and I have a similar background in that I came here when I was six years old as well. And I remember it was 1965 and we ended up in Willowdale. And I think you did too Brigitte. Right?

BRIGITTE: Yes. Willowdale. Yes.

SIAMAK: Willowdale. So that was our landing spot. And I remember there were only like six Persian families at the time. Now, of course, it's very different. But I'm really thrilled to also engage in this conversation. I think it is an important conversation about sacred spaces, and how does the space become sacred? What makes it sacred? I'm so honoured really to be with both Brigitte and Hossein; both people I admire greatly.

LAURA: Thank you Siamak. And Hossein would you like to go next?

HOSSEIN AMANAT: It's an honour to be with Brigitte and dear Siamak. I was born in Iran, and I started my practice when I was 24 years old, designing a monument, and continued building in Iran until I came out of Iran because of a personal reason. And I never went back; without knowing that I won't be back.

So I was in London for a while, and from there I continue my practice. I decided to immigrate to Canada, and I came to Canada in 1980 and ended up in Vancouver where I continued my office. I am the principal of Amanat Architect, and we design every type of building in our office. I do a lot of high rises and residentials, but the one that is very important for me is the sacred one that I'm doing that… We will talk about this, I think.

LAURA: Wonderful. Thank you. I can already tell that this will be a very rich conversation, and I feel also very honored to be with the three of you here. And so I'll actually ask you Hossein, in a recent magazine interview, you said that the essence of architecture has a relationship to the human soul. I was wondering if you could expand on this idea. How does architecture have a relationship to the soul?

HOSSEIN: Right. I think what I said is because I have felt that when I move in the buildings, some of the buildings, there is a special feeling that I feel, which is not only material. It's something about my soul that I feel. And that is about the impact of beauty and the proportions of a building and the amount of light and the direction of light. And all these relation of spaces together that somehow impacts your soul like a poem.

And it is very difficult to explain what is this feeling? It is a feeling that you get from listening to a beautiful piece of music. It is a feeling that you get from reading a poem. The same happens when you walk into a building that has soul to it. And that is what I meant.

I can't talk about what I do, so you have to forgive me. And so my explanations, I hope they are in my buildings. I hope they reflect themselves there.

LAURA: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

SIAMAK: For sure. 

LAURA: Thank you. So I want to ask Brigitte, as an architect, you're often thinking about how to design a building, or space, shaping the built environment, but how do you think our built environment also shapes us? Individually and collectively? Could you share any examples from your own work that stand out as examples?

BRIGITTE: Well architecture is such a fascinating and complex discipline because one of the things that happens is that we, as architects, work with wood, steel, glass, concrete, and we actually work to making them speak about very profound ideas; but they themselves are quite mute. And so how you assemble and put these things together hopefully should speak about the community that you're working for, and somehow embed their values into some kind of built form where they gather. 

And I would say that the challenge is that there are many spaces where people gather that I would consider buildings, and there are very few spaces that you would think of as architecture; where there's an aspiration for more than just, you know, so many number of people and exit stairs, but that there should be a feeling, as Hossein talked about, some way that a space touches your soul. And to do that I would say you need to think about this question of light, latitude, where you're located, situated, and use these kind of powerful tools of light and space to really go beyond the functional program of gathering to leave something deeper in the space. That isn't necessarily an issue of how elaborate the space is, but how, in effect, light can shape the way that you think about the experience of coming together, of being together, and how that touches your soul, as Hossein described so eloquently. 

I don't know if that sort of starts to take on the meat of it, but in a way, you know… if you took all the materials of a sacred space and laid them all out on a floor, they actually don't do very much. They actually are, you know, they create an envelope. You're protected from the rain or the snow, but they don't say anything. It's how you put them together that actually goes beyond the functional program to aspire to something more than that. 

HOSSEIN: Beautiful, the way you have explained it. 

LAURA: Wonderful. Thank you. And this leads me to my next question with Siamak. Speaking of designing sacred spaces in cities, Siamak, you recently completed the Bahá'í Temple of South America in Chile, which is a house of worship that's open to everyone. So when you were conceiving of the design of the Temple, how did you want people to feel when they entered the building?

SIAMAK: You know, Hossein talked about feeling, and Brigitte talked about aspiration, and I think those are two really important words. What does it feel like to be in a sacred structure? It's an important question today. Like, how do you distinguish something sacred from, let's say, a really beautiful art gallery or museum; that it has a certain particular aspiration. And I think here the aspiration was that this be a place that everyone, whether you were of this colour or that colour, or this race or that race, or this religion or that religion, background, everyone felt like this was a place which it felt like it was their place. Even if you had no belief in any religion, or God, or anything, you could feel like this was your place.

And there's no clergy in the Bahá'í Faith, so… while worship, and a place for worship, is… as old as humanity itself, it also is radically new. It's totally new. It's a new typology. And so it really presents a really amazing challenge. It had to feel like at a time when, you know, that it is so fractured, as Brigitte said. We're living in very fractured times. It had to feel like this took down all those divisions, and walls, and “you're of 'this' tribe” or “'that' tribe”.

The prescription is very simple. It's a single room - no imagery, no music other than acapella, no sermons, no proselytizing - and it had to feel like this was your place. And so we thought that it should feel like it was like a prayer answered. And this idea from the Bahá'í Writings really hit us over the head, which is that if a prayer is answered, your very being becomes embodied light. And so that became the theme of the feeling of what this temple should feel like, because light is universal, and it does make everyone feel like this is somewhat sacred.

And so the principal material for the whole interior is this soft, ethereal, moving light that basically connects us. And then you say, "Well, it is important." Yeah, you can pray in your own corner any way you want, but it is important. It's as old as humanity that we come together, and that somehow in one space you feel like we're all really no better, no… We shouldn't vaunt ourselves over anyone else; that we're all part of a single kind of humanity. And I think this is really the feeling that we wanted to create; was that this felt like it was anybody's space. Anybody was welcome there. That it was really… It had to belong to all of South America. Really, the world, but it was the first Bahá'í temple in all of South America so it had to have that kind of significant presence; enduring kind of presence. 400-year mandate. So we can talk about that too, like a big stake in the ground. 

So that was really what we were after, was this sense of soft light, this sense of soaring, this sense of embodied life.

LAURA: I love how you say this, that if a prayer is answered you become embodied light. And as someone who's had the fortune of being in this temple myself, and myself I'm from South America - from Colombia - I can attest to how this really did feel like it was a temple for all of South America. And certainly when I entered the temple I felt enraptured by light, and embraced by it. And it uplifts you, right? And it helps you to attain another state of prayer and of higher spirit. 

BRIGITTE: I think one of the interesting things Siamak that you brought up was that, for your client group, they wanted a building that would last for 400 years. I think for me that's such an amazing kind of position to take because it actually is - you know, we're in a point of climate change, there's so much discussion about sustainability - and to kind of have in your brief that the building should last for 400 years, for me, it speaks to the Bahá'í values, that it embodies in effect a whole position about the resources that go into making this building needs to be enduring, and it needs to really connect to multiple generations of people that Siamak, myself, Laura, Hossein, will never meet.  

This kind of sense of time actually being embedded in the brief to the architect I just find such a really powerful position to take, and one that I feel is so enlightened, because for those resources it's not one generation, but multiple generations that will benefit from the effort, the energy. All the care that Siamak and his whole team have put into this building isn't just for us, it's for this much longer legacy that I just think is so important. So I feel like time is a material that we are discussing, and I just feel like it goes to the heart of what that community is in their ability to articulate that right from the outset. 

It doesn't come, you know, "Oh, we built the building and it should last for 400 years." That is actually part of the charge to the architect at the very outset of the process. So I just feel it's so, for me, so powerful as a kind of position.

SIAMAK: And we take it for granted, but to do 400 years - and Hossein can speak to this because the buildings he's building in Haifa are all mandated that way - it means that anything underground has to be phenomenally thought through.

So it changes everything. And I'm glad you picked up on that because it was really… It was a big deal. 

BRIGITTE: But it comes from the client, not the architect. And the client… And it expresses, in effect, more than just, "I want a building that's no maintenance." It actually expresses their value so clearly. And I just think that's something that… You know, as architects, we don't design buildings on our own. We actually need clients. There's an exchange and a dialogue. And I just feel like it is kind of a reflection of a very enlightened client who actually thinks in that time frame.

SIAMAK: Similarly with the business of aspiration, I think we should not be in that game. We should just be trying to take the aspiration and give it form. And I think it's a similar distinction. And that's why I love the fact that you started with that word, because it is. You take an aspiration like, "Okay, design a space where this is a universal space for everyone." That doesn't come from us. It comes from something much bigger than us.  

HOSSEIN: Yes. Exactly.

LAURA: This is a perfect segue for my next question for Hossein. You know we're in Toronto, and then we went to Chile, now, we'll go to Israel for a bit. Hossein, so three years ago you were announced as the architect of the Shrine of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Israel. And I know that this project has faced a recent setback due to a fire on the building site, so your mind must be occupied with the challenges that presents. However, I wonder if you could talk about how this building is being designed to reflect the heavenly qualities of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who is a unique historical figure, who was renowned for his selflessness, his empathy, his tolerance, and high aspirations for humanity as a whole.

HOSSEIN: Yes, the fire is being solved. No problem. They are continuing. But the ideas… I wanted to say that usually I refer to my heart deeply when I think about design. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has been in my heart since my childhood, a Figure that I have always loved and cherished. So it was very difficult to think of a place for Him. But referring to His qualities, the most important of all of them is humility, and His love for beauty and gardens, and many other things. But these two major factors, as I remember now, were the main drives of the design.

So I thought of a garden with His resting place under that garden. And because of His humility in many of His prayers, He says that, "Make me like dust, that my friends they walk over it." So I thought this garden should be in a way that you can walk over His remains.

So this room is under this garden. And maybe we don't walk on that garden every day, but that is the concept that presents His humility. And because He's Iranian originally, and although from His childhood when He was 8 years old, He and His family they were exiled from Iran. But he has always expressed a love for the culture of Iran, and He expresses the fact that He never forgets that He's an Iranian. So because of that, there's a governing pattern in that garden which comes from a very traditional form and pattern that makes most of those of Iranian mosques; what they call the 'kar-bandi'. And this pattern is governing the pattern of that garden, and creates a trellis around His resting place that is an area of meditation before you enter the room where His remains are. 

Altogether, the garden has been designed as a garden of meditations. The routes that you go until you reach the room, it's all, in my mind, it has been designed to be a walk of meditation. Because the people who come to visit, they come from far different corners of the world. Sometimes they have a few bus rides and flights to get to Haifa, and then to Akká. So all this travel that they have had, only for visiting the Shrine, the most important part of it is when they get to this garden and they walk towards the Shrine. 

So these are the main factors that have decided the design of the Shrine of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.  

LAURA: I think you just took us all on a journey; an almost meditative journey. I know this is still being built, and there will be lots of people visiting it in the future, but thank you for taking on this journey. That was very calming, and that, I think, evoked the spirit with that you spoke of that inspired you the ways that 'Abdu'l-Bahá inspired you all the way from childhood. It's really, really beautiful.  

And so now I have to move us from the peaceful and quiet shores of Akká and Haifa in Israel back to the busy suburbia where we find these temples in the middle of these cities. We know that you've designed places of worship and contemplation. And so, the Taoist temple in Markham - I apologize if I'm not pronouncing it properly - Wong Dai Sin Taoist temple is in Markham, and it's a stunning modern building, and it's the home to practitioners of ancient spirituality, and it's located on a major arterial road. So how did you approach the task of creating this oasis of spirituality in the midst of busy suburbia? 

BRIGITTE: I think that's a great question. It is a truly suburban site, with gas stations, and strip malls nearby, and it was the site of a single family home that sat on the North side of this very busy street. Part of the project is a series of double cantilevers that actually create both a parking space, but also a kind of covered entry. And I would say one of the things that maybe ties together all of the sacred spaces done by Siamak and Hossein is that this kind of need for a threshold between our everyday lives and a sacred space, it's kind of an essential dimension. 

I think Hossein did a beautiful job of taking us on this journey, but it was actually about the transition to arrive at the space, and this kind of in-between zone becomes really critical. And because you're really asking people to leave their busy everyday lives to actually prepare to enter a different kind of space, and to actually refocus their thinking to actually reflect on other things other than, you know, work, and play, and other things that are kind of part of 21st century life.

So these transitional zones, whatever the faith is, kind of are essential to preparing for a different kind of focus. And so whether that's climbing a set of stairs, walking through a meditative garden, these in-between zones I think have a very important place to set you up to think about different things for the time that you're in the sacred space. And I feel like architects use different tools to do this, but the commonality, I think, that goes beyond whatever religion or program you're working with is the importance of these in-between zones between our regular lives, this transitional zone, and then the actual sacred space itself. And I just feel like that is something that I feel is really essential. 

It's not like you just leave one and then, "Boom!" Crashed into the other. But this kind of preparation of some kind is really key.

HOSSEIN: I think what you say, even Siamak you have to explain your building. And I have- unfortunately, I haven't been able to visit the temple of Chile, but it is my in my first plan after the pandemic to go there. But I see from the pictures that you have quite a route to get to the temple; and it's a meditative route what you have done. And it's beautifully done. I love your landscape ideas too; not only to temple itself, but the landscape.

SIAMAK: I think it's interesting; both what Brigitte's saying and what you're saying Hossein. Because I remember one of the people that were my clients among the governing body in the Bahá'í community telling me. The Bahá'í Faith, in all of its sacred structures, has this idea of threshold. It's really interesting because it isn't like you just step off the sidewalk and go in the door.nAnd so the gardens and the whole business of leaving one condition, as you said Brigitte, entering another is something that's really a big part of anything that any one of the Bahá'í architects or otherwise would be thinking about. 

And really, it really has remained with me. Haifa, you have to visit Brigitte. Haifa is… Moshe Safdie, you know, grew up right next to the Haifa Gardens, and he told me that this was a big part of his experience too. You become suddenly aware of how important gardens are, the whole design, the connection. And your work Brigitte obviously exemplifies that so beautifully; this outside, inside, the whole relationship between the garden and the space.

Anyway… Sorry, I didn't mean to go on and on.

LAURA: No. Actually, this leads me to my next question to you Siamak, because one of the amazing things about the Bahá'í temple in Chile is how many visitors it receives, right? I think it's now in the millions I believe. And so how do you think of building like this attracts people and brings them together?

SIAMAK: Well, you know it's really interesting. The history of this is worth studying because at one point the president of the country and the number two person really felt that this represented the values of the country, which was about openness, was about inclusion; that this is where the world needed to go. 

And so we began a nine-year journey for the site, which is an interesting thing as well. Brigitte, when you talk about a client, a client that gives you 9 years to find the right site, you know? 

BRIGITTE: That's patience.

SIAMAK: And lets you start fabricating very expensive materials slowly. That's how confident this client was, which is astounding to me. That we don't have a site, we have a design that more or less would fit in, but we don't even know how it would fit in. But go ahead, make the glass that takes years. 

Anyway… Look, where I'm going with this is in this area, the base of the mountains used to belong to the people. It's called the cordillera. And this - you know this Laura - because this is a big symbolic thing. The base of the mountains used to belong to the people. And then the rich people came and took the base to the mountains and built all their fancy houses; the generals and the actors, and all of this stuff.

And so the people they have all these very expensive Hollywood-like communities at the base of the mountains that get the best views. And people no longer from Santiago could go. So this project opened up the cordillera to the people. And so I think part of the answer to what you're saying Laura is that it represents something very much around social justice, which is, that this brought the Andes back to the people. And they could come with their children. They come regularly. They come and they find within it something that they really connect to.

LAURA: Hossein, I feel like you wanted to say something.

HOSSEIN: Well, the question of beauty is something that really is a part of the whole thing. And it's very difficult to say what is beauty, but proportion and management of light, and interiors, and whatever altogether you put together to create that space. And in Siamak's project, the Bahá'í temple of Chile, it is, really, he has succeeded in bringing light to even the materials that are covering the dome.

This, I think, is quite an interesting issue, apart from the beautiful geometry he has used inside and outside. A kind of movement that the forms created. They're really very interesting.

I think every project has to have some aspects of… Without creating a beautiful thing, you cannot enter the souls of people, I think. 

LAURA: I has been really uplifting for me and wonderful to talk about these incredible buildings and themes, and I get the sense that there's so many lessons that are embedded in your efforts, in your experiences. So I'd like to invite us to dream a little bit and ask each of you, you know, you've had this extensive past with a lot of experience and rich lessons, but what are your hopes and vision for the role that architecture and beauty can play in the future? Down the line, even after we're all gone? 

So, I don't know, Brigitte, would you like to kick us off? 

BRIGITTE: Sure. I mean, I think that it's been a fascinating conversation that cuts across different [themes] to think about some of the essential qualities of buildings that actually have meaning and resonance.

Maybe for me, as we enter a kind of a world of climate change and all of the chaos that's happening, I actually think that whether it is a sacred space, a spiritual space, I think that we need buildings that give back; give back in different ways.

So Siamak gave a wonderful example of the siting of the Bahá'í temple actually gives back the base of the mountain to all of the people of Santiago, where in effect they were not able to do that before. This kind of ability to occupy a certain place within the topography of this area is a kind of way that, aside from the program and all of the kind of different experiences, it's actually giving back something that was lost before. And I feel that buildings have to find ways to give back more… 

So we use a lot of resources as architects to build our buildings. They're labour intensive. They're materially intensive. And so how do we give back in more than just a gathering space, but give back in other ways? And I think that that's something that you would want every building to be thinking about; how it's doing as we enter a kind of future that is complicated. 

And so, in effect, as opposed to a taker of resources, I feel like buildings should be using the resources, but by giving back it's actually a different kind of exchange than previous buildings of another generation. And in a way, one example I would say, of all of the Bahá'í temples around the world, the whole idea of the gardens and the building being completely interlocked and interwoven is, for me, a very easy and really significant way of giving back. That it's not just a built form, but it's actually a garden of that place that actually speaks more about this interrelationship than just a building or just a garden. The two are actually fused together, and they create a different condition that is both inside and outside, and again, a different way of conceptualizing how we create form. That it's not just the internal form, but it's actually the external, and it touches on the issues of threshold and transition that he spoke about a few minutes ago. 

LAURA: Thank you. I love this idea of long-term, and sustainability, and giving back. So Hossein, what are your hopes and vision for the role that architecture and beauty can play in the future? You spoke about beauty earlier.

HOSSEIN: I hope the architects in the future will build for a unified world, and not a world of this much chaos and war, and everything that we are in now. That's really- this is my most important aspiration. 

Architecture comes as a result of that. But the more stability and love you find in the community in the world, the more we have better architecture, I think. That is where we are.

LAURA: Thank you for sharing that. Siamak, what are your hopes, and dreams, and vision for the role of architecture in the future?

SIAMAK: Well, first of all… Hossein's beautiful shrine…. It's going to be magnificent. And it is by far the most important project right now for the Bahá'í community. So I'm just so much thinking of you, and hoping for your success.

You know, it's a good question that you're asking Laura. I don't really have a great answer. I think probably of all, everything, what everyone said, is right. When we were opening the temple - and this is really a nod to what Brigitte said - I love the story of the old man on his knees that's planting saplings of fig trees; and I mentioned this story. And someone comes to him and says, "Old man, what are you doing on your knees? You're an old man and you're never going to see the figs from these trees. I mean, you're going to be…" And he turned and he said, "You know, I'm eating the figs from the people that planted the trees many generations ago."

I think architecture - like all of the really, really great art - but I think architecture is actually the most challenging. And I'm going to be a little daring. I think because it involves so many different spectrums. It involves so much money, and involves so much… It's about collective aspiration. You can't just do whatever you want. You have to really bring together a kind of… a sense of cohesion, and then do something that is hopefully going to stay. 

So I think your question really resonated with me on the story; the old man, because I think really good architecture you only know 30 years from now; 50 years from now. And that's the way I think. And right now, if everybody can tell you you're doing something good, but we'll see 30 years, or 50 years from now if they if they still think the fig tree is good and if there's any figs coming off of it. And naturally I like to think about architecture. 

And it's tough to do. It's really tough to do. So many forces that are all about sensation, and ambition, and, I don't know, “star” fashion kinds of things that come and go. And how to stay clear of that and see maybe for yourself what would be around for a long, long time and hopefully still have meaning, and feel like it was worth people taking care of it, which is something I obsess a lot about. Like, how do you create a building that people actually want to take care of, and keep, and not let go, which happens a lot. So I think of the old man when I think of architecture and the future. 

LAURA: And these 400 years that we spoke about right?

SIAMAK: Yeah, yeah. I think Brigitte's right. I mean, I was really, really, really privileged to work on that project with many, many, many wonderful people. It's like an orchestra. But more importantly, to serve the governing body for the Bahá'í community, which is the Universal House of Justice.  

LAURA: Well, today we've explored these sacred spaces in Canada, and Chile, and Israel. These transitional zones as Brigitte said, where we prepare for a new state of being to reflect and meditate as we enter these sacred buildings, or these thresholds. And we've also talked about this feeling, as Hossein pointed out, where we get to walk into these spaces, and aspiration as well. And as Siamak pointed out at the beginning, how using powerful tools like light and space can really lead us to something deeper; something that touches our souls, and which always makes us question: What is a sacred space? How can we put materials together that aspire to something bigger? And how can these spaces help bring people together in a fractured world? How can we create buildings for communities, based on their values and in ways that give back to people?

So I want to thank the three of you - Hossein, Brigette, and Siamak - for joining us today in The Public Discourse, and we really look forward to speaking to you again. Thank you very much for being with us. 

BRIGITTE: Thank you. It has been a pleasure. 

SIAMAK: Thank you.  

HOSSEIN: It was a pleasure to be with Brigitte and Siamak. Thank you.  

SIAMAK: Likewise, very much. Thank you.