The first time I visited the Baha’i Temple, about ten years ago, I said “Wow! This building is so symmetrical” and then didn’t think much of it afterwords.
I’d like to believe that my architectural frame of reference is more sophisticated these days, so I made another visit to the temple. This time my reaction was “Wow! This building is so symmetrical! and “Oh man they have great public bathrooms!”
The Baha’i Temple is in Wilmette, IL, a short train ride North of Chicago. You can visit any day of the week for free (and they don’t take any donations from people outside the faith.) A visitor center with the aforementioned excellent bathrooms is at the foot of the temple.
This is one of eight Baha’i Temples in the world and the only one in North American so it’s a bit of a tourist attraction. Designed by Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois, the temple took 32 years to complete, beginning in 1921, with construction halted during the Great Depression.
Nine is a sacred number in the Baha’i faith and the temple design reflect the number nine, well, everywhere. The building has nine sides and nine doors and is surrounded by nine gardens (you haven’t forgotten what I said about the symmetry, have you?)
One of the nine gardens with—wait for it now—nine fountains.
The building is constructed on a steel frame covered with white tracery made of concrete mixed with ground quartz.
The design elements are eclectic with Gothic and Moorish bits, as well as ornamental details using symbols from several world religions.
The, ahem, nine point star is in heavy rotation on the temple’s façade as well as in the interior (no photos allowed inside though).
After hanging out around the temple for a while I got this feeling, the building design reminded me of….something. I thought at first it was the Louis Sullivan style of decoration, well known in Chicago architecture. (See above for a detail of his Carson, Pirie, Scott building). Though, on consideration, it wasn’t the Louis Sullivan style I was thinking of. What the heck was this Baha’i temple reminding me of?
Finally, I got it—-it was the Disney Store!
On the left is one of the nine ground level pillars of the Baha’i temple. On the right is the pillar from the store front of the flagship Disney Store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
In the first photo you can see ornamental elements from the temple, with the star of David and a swastika (don’t freak out—-this is referencing the ancient Hindu symbol, not the swastika co-opted by the Third Reich). In the second is another example from the Disney Store. (I can’t swear to it, but somewhere in the Disney Store façade Mickey Mouse must be holding a nine point star.)
The Baha’i religion is the most sensible sounding, inoffensive and humanist centered faith I’ve ever encountered. Here are some of the core principles of the Baha’i, as listed in a flyer I took from the visitor center:
- Oneness of humanity and dignity of every human being
- Freedom from prejudice
- Equality of women and men
- Harmony of faith, reason and science
The people I know who practice Baha’i are as sincere and lovely as the principles of their religion would suggest. I really, really want to throw myself in admiration at the foot of one of the nine symmetrical staircases and say “This is it! The most perfect religion ever!” And yet, the art historian and lover of world culture in me just says, “Meh, Disney religion.” It’s like reading a novel where everyone is nice and gets along, and there’s no crisis of character or tragic circumstances. That’s a great life, but a deadly boring book. What’s a religion without insecure gods, incestuous origin stories, contradictory and antiquated law and bloodthirsty art? Something tells me that if such an admirable religion exists, it would build a temple in honor of dignity, equality, symmetry and the number nine.
How we got to Wilmette: train.
Where we slept: at home. Price: mortgage, assessments and utilities. Recommended: highly.