Architect devoted to creation of ‘spiritual space’


By Joe Tash

Through his lectures, writings and, most importantly, the architecture he has designed and shepherded through construction, Fariborz Sahba has focused his energies on creating “spiritual space.”

“Mostly that’s what I have done for the last 35 years, that’s been the focus of my work,” said Sahba, 65, an Iranian-born architect who now lives in La Jolla and works as a management consultant with a North County technology company.

Sahba spent 25 years working on just two projects — a temple in India and a series of gardens, terraces and buildings surrounding a temple in Haifa, Israel. The first project, called the Lotus Temple in Delhi, is considered one of the world’s most visited buildings since its completion in 1986, and a symbol of religious unity for India. The Haifa project has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.

The two projects were commissioned by members of the Baha’i faith, of which Sahba is an adherent. And both were intended to convey central tenets of Baha’i beliefs.

In the case of the Lotus Temple, a concrete structure composed of five concentric layers of nine lotus petals, Sahba submitted his original design at the age of 26, and arrived in India to supervise construction two years later. The lotus “is a universal symbol of all the religions,” he said.

“The main aim of the design was to demonstrate the main principal, the most important principal of the Baha’i faith, which is unity of mankind,” said Sahba. “Black, white, purple, pink, any color, we should be united.”

The Baha’i faith is the youngest of the world’s independent religions. It was founded in the 1860s in Iran by Baha’u’llah, a Persian nobleman considered a prophet by Baha’is. San Diego County has an active Baha’i community.

Sahba said Baha’is believe in the concept of one god for all people, and that all religions flow from the same source. The religion has no clergy, and is governed by elected councils at the local, national and international levels.

People of all faiths are encouraged to visit Baha’i temples, where they can read aloud from the holy texts of any religion, or pray silently, but not deliver sermons or interpret religious teachings, said Sahba.

From its opening, the Lotus Temple in Delhi has attracted millions of visitors annually — in 2011, he said, the total was 4.8 million visitors, more than the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower. A CNN report described the temple as the world’s most visited building, and it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most visited religious building in the world. It has also garnered numerous architecture and design awards.

India is a melting pot of many different religions, and believers from many faiths come together at the Lotus Temple, said Sahba. “I’m so happy to see after 25 years this is happening,” he said.

The temple sits in the center of nine pools, and was designed to be cooled by drafts of air coming across the pools, up through the bottom of the structure, with warmer air exiting from vents at the top. Inside, a skylight and other openings allow natural light to enter.

Sahba spent 10 years on the design and construction management, overseeing a workforce of as many as 800 local laborers.

Among visitors to the site during construction was musician Ravi Shankar (a longtime Encinitas resident who died in December at age 92.) Shankar composed 10 pieces of music for the temple’s opening ceremonies, said Sahba.

Sahba is “one of the few architects of his time who had the opportunity, the capability and the passion to do great works,” said Mitra Kanaani, a professor at San Diego’s NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Kanaani, who is also an Iranian native and member of the Baha’I faith, said Sahba follows in the footsteps of ancient master builders who designed, engineered and constructed their projects.

“Basically, what he has created, they’re artifacts, they are meant to remain, to sustain themselves for the heritage of this time, hopefully for centuries,” she said.

The Lotus Temple, through its symbolism, evokes feelings of serenity and peace, and also harmony with nature, Kanaani said.

While Sahba continues to lecture in the U.S. and abroad, he isn’t currently working on any projects as an architect. He said he was recently offered a large commercial project in China, but would be more interested in a cultural, educational or spiritual building.

Sahba lives in La Jolla with his wife, Marjan Davoudi, a psychologist, and has three children and five grandchildren from a previous marriage. When he’s not working as a management consultant, creating buildings or lecturing, he enjoys writing children’s stories. For two decades, he published a children’s magazine, called “Varqa,” which was translated into nine languages.

Underlying all his endeavors is a desire — inspired by his faith — to help others.

“The Baha’i faith encourages you to serve people, to be of service to mankind,” Sahba said.