An Earthly Paradise: Bahá'í Houses of Worship Around the World
Author: Julie Badiee
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1992, 144 pages
Review by: Jackson Armstrong-Ingram
Even though the title would lead one to expect this book to be a fairly comprehensive account of Bahá'í houses of worship, only the first chapter gives a brief account of such structures around the world. The second chapter discusses the "language of symbolism," and the remaining chapters are "meditations" that posit "universal forms" and seek to relate Bahá'í Houses of Worship to them.
This short book includes a large number of illustrations, so there is not that much actual text. Therefore it would be unfair to expect the author to be particularly detailed in her discussion. Equally, brevity is not always conducive to strict accuracy. Yet, the major problem with the book is that it fails to do what it proposes. Time after time, an unobjectionable presentation of some aspect of world religious structures and symbolism raises issues that are simply not explored in relation to the Bahá'í case. It is hard not to get the impression that the author is avoiding the implications of the data presented in favour of the repetition of stereotypes. Even when the line of reasoning cries out for it, she presents no challenge to the accepted understanding of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár as a concept or as particular buildings.
To take just a few examples at more or less random: Included in a discussion of the relation of mountain sites to pilgrimage are remarks on several of the houses of worship. Yet, pilgrimages are exceptional events in the life course-often literally a once in a lifetime occurrence - so what are the implications of building a structure that is intended for regular community worship in a symbolic context and/or physical location that suggests infrequent access? There is a discussion of the use of fountains and flowing water in religious structures and the relationship between these and concepts of purity and ablution. Yet when discussing the Bahá'í case there is only concern with water as an element in landscaping and no mention that there are Bahá'í concepts of ablutions.
The symbolism of the circle is discussed, but the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár is not circular. There is no general discussion of polygonal structures, with the exception of a short paragraph mentioning polygonal Islamic tombs as symbolic paradises. This is a good example of the lost opportunities in this book. There is much more mileage to be got out of a discussion of polygonal tombs, baptistries, and shrines in relation to the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár than in the superficial allusions to most of the world's religious architecture made here. The book also discusses and illustrates the Taj Mahal. Yet there is no mention that this was one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's favourite buildings and that he often suggested it as an aesthetic model for a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár.(1)
Apart from this continuous fracturing of the discussion by avoiding where it might lead, the book is flawed in its approach to Bahá'í houses of worship as aesthetic expressions of the Bahá'í Faith in two basic ways: Buildings are discussed as if they were identical to architects' designs. Buildings designed by Bahá'ís and by architects who were not Bahá'ís are discussed as if they represent "Bahá'í" religious symbolic expression equally.
On the more technical aspects of the discussion of the buildings, there is no consideration of the development of individual designs or of the relationship between designs. They are discussed as if each building was related to "universals" and there were not significant derivational relationships between the buildings themselves. There is a consistent conflation of design/designer and built structure without any consideration of the processes that lead from design to building. This is seen particularly in the assumption of intentionality in whatever seems symbolically significant to the author.
For example, in a rather strained attempt to build a connected series of "progressive revelation" symbols on the pylons of the Wilmette house of worship, the author states that an arched form "appears" to be a symbol of a "small door" and thus may represent the Báb. Actually, in the original design, where all the decoration of the pylons was intended to be pierced, and there was to be a spiral staircase going up the pylon, this was a window. It is now an infilled form because of the development of the design to accommodate both budget and the technical capacity of the Earley Studio which did the castings.
A more egregious example of trying to find symbolic significance in the accidental and attribute this to the intention of the architect is when the number of castings required to complete the dome and the ribs is revealed to be a multiple of nine. Of course it is: The dome has nine sides and there are nine ribs, however many pieces one uses for each the total is bound to be a multiple of nine. And we might note that the architect was dead before these castings were arranged for or made.
The reader is informed in the notes that Bourgeois died before any of the decoration was done. However, this note is to a section quoting Bourgeois on the symbolism of circles which is illustrated by a photograph of the interior of the dome of the Wilmette building. Again, the reader who goes to the note will find that this interior was actually developed by Alfred Shaw (but will not find the information that Shaw was not a Bahá'í). It is suggested in the note that Shaw "translated" the Bourgeois design into something more "viable" that represented a "simplification" of it while being "much changed." In actuality, the Shaw design has virtually nothing of Bourgeois in it except, ironically, for the dome which is a reworking of Bourgeois' design for the ceiling of Foundation Hall not his design for the interior being discussed.(2)
Another example of where the notes provide better information than the main discussion is that it is correctly stated in a note that a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár is not required to have a dome nor is it required to have nine doors. This issue of nine doors neatly encapsulates the problem of not looking at the connections between the buildings. They are presented as if each is derived from/connected with "universal" forms, when the reason that extant buildings have nine entrances is because the Bourgeois design has, and the accident of it being built, compounded by the Ishqabad temple becoming lost as a model structure, led to a popular Bahá'í expectation of nine doors that was particularly carried out by the non-Bahá'í architects who were designing Mashriqu'l-Adhkár on a motific basis from information supplied by their clients. Historically, most Mashriqu'l-Adhkár designs have not had nine doors.(3) It is a major flaw in a discussion of the aesthetic/symbolic aspects of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár to ignore the porched polygonal form used in the majority of historical designs which is as legitimate as the more generally familiar regular polygonal form. The notes as a whole suggest the author did do considerable research and is familiar with much of the relevant source material; it is unfortunate that this level of information was not integrated into the book's argument.
As the longest note refers to my book on the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár - which indicates the author had access to information that made the factual errors about the Wilmette building unnecessary--it seems that I should acknowledge that comment. The author claims that in my book I suggest that Bourgeois plagiarised his design, and that this represents a misunderstanding of the creative process, as "any art or architectural historian knows, designers, artists and architects often use themes and forms of those who have gone before them; they also adapt and incorporate the language of their contemporaries." Although this author is not the first to suggest it, I never stated that Bourgeois was a plagiarist. What I did was document (using, among other sources, Bourgeois' own words) how the design that was chosen at the 1920 Bahai Temple Unity convention was begun in 1917 immediately after Bougeois saw various designs by Remey exhibited alongside the design he had submitted in 1909 and which he had been unsuccessfully trying to revise for eight years; and that a comparison of forms and motifs between the designs shows a high degree of derivation from the Remey designs in the one by Bourgeois.(4) Of course, the 1909 submission had derived from the 1906 Peace Palace design by Bourgeois and Paul Blumenstein (and this itself has a number of features in common with a much publicised 1902 building in Turin). I suggested that the Bourgeois design (as chosen in 1920, and as revised by 1928) derived elements from a number of sources which seems to be exactly the aspect of the creative process outlined above, and the aspect of the creative process missing from the discussion in the main text of this book.
Finally two production points: As the book is so heavily illustrated, it is unfortunate that a number of these are reproduced from older photographs with significant colour deterioration when there seems no reason why a more recent photograph of good colour quality could not have been used. It is also to be regretted that in a book where the term appears so frequently and refers to a major theme of the discussion that "curvilinear" is misspelt throughout.
- This is mentioned in many sources from the time of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and discussed in the correspondence between Shoghi Effendi and Charles Mason concerning about the design of a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár for Mount Carmel.
- R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, Music, Devotions, and Mashriqu'l-Adhkár (Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History, volume 4) (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1987) 212-214.
- The majority of the designs submitted to the Bahai Temple Unity Board in 1909 and 1920 had one side of the building developed into a prominent entrance. Such a porch feature would actually be more practical in climates that require a transition between outdoors and the worship space to allow for the removal of coats, etc. Remey's designs accepted by Shoghi Effendi for Mount Carmel and Tehran featured such porch entrances.
- Armstrong-Ingram, Music 179-215.