Papua New Guinea Baha’i House of Worship: An Interview with the Architects

I grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and it holds a special place in my heart. I was especially excited when the design of its Baha’i House of Worship was revealed several months ago, and you can read a news story all about the design here

This House of Worship will be one of two national Baha’i Houses of Worship (also often referred to as temples) to be constructed in the world in the coming years, signifying a new milestone for the Baha’i world community.

Henry Lape (left) and Saeed Granfar, Architects of the National Baha’i House of Worship of Papua New Guinea.

It’s incredible to see the uniqueness of the Houses of Worship around the world, and Papua New Guinea’s temple is no exception: it is unlike all the others, yet it is faithful to its surroundings.

Henry Lape and Saeed Granfar are the collaborating architects behind the temple’s stunning design, and I was so excited when these two dear friends agreed to chat with us about the temple. Here’s what they had to say: 

Baha’i Blog: Can you first tell us a little bit about yourselves and your backgrounds?

I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Architectural Design from PNG University of Technology. I worked in Port Moresby mostly in residential design but also in some commercial and light industrial designs. I served at the Baha’i World Center in the Office of Northern Development Projects from November 2011 – March 2014. Besides paid work, I also occasionally engage in pro-bono projects which I find to be quite enriching and fulfilling.

I was born in Australia to Iranian parents, and I spent my childhood and early youth between both Australia and Germany. My family settled in Australia in 1996, where I completed my secondary and tertiary education, graduating with a Masters degree in Architecture from Queensland University of Technology in 2009. I moved to China in 2010, together with my wife, Zha. There I had the opportunity to work for the Shanghai office of the German firm, Gerkan Marg & Partner (gmp architects). In late 2015, I was invited to support the Baha’i House of Worship project in Papua New Guinea, eventually taking on the role of co-architect alongside Henry Lape.

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about Papua New Guinea and the Baha’i Community there?

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a culturally diverse nation with over 700 distinct languages and almost 2000 dialects. Christianity is the dominant religion with over 200 denominations. A small percentage of locals have embraced Islam. Amongst the foreign/expatriate community, there are Buddhists and Hindus but there is no confirmation if locals have embraced these religions. Generally, people are spiritually conscious and receptive to religious teachings of different faiths. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of religious animosity although there has been no major hiccup of such yet. The National Constitution encourages freedom of religion.

The Baha’i population of PNG is 30,443 on record. However, due to the difficulties of maintaining statistics in a technologically challenged, as well as geographically untamed country, it is believed that the total population may be doubled this figure. Most of the Baha’i communities are rural based. There are about 300 Local Spiritual Assemblies of which only 224 have been confirmed as elected this year. Currently, five regional Baha’i Councils have been established to administer the expansion and consolidation work throughout the country.

One of the areas of Papua New Guinea known as Daga, was also featured in the recent film from the Baha’i World Centre called ‘A Widening Embrace‘.

Baha’i Blog: What was the main idea behind the design of the House of Worship?

The search for a universal theme in a country with more than 700 distinct cultural groups was a profound challenge. The striking and beautiful designs of Papua New Guinean art and architecture presented themselves as a vast body of inspiration at our disposal. However, the image which stood out to us as being able to unite them all, was that of the art of weaving. We had in fact several years ago, unbeknownst to each other, independently submitted concepts revolving around this theme. When we partnered up, therefore, it was not a difficult decision.

In traditional village life, which remains alive and vibrant in Papua New Guinea today, and in urban households alike, woven surfaces and objects are found in abundance. Throughout the islands, low land villages and the highlands, traditional clothing, head-dresses, bilums, baskets, mats, canoe sails, walls, roofs, decorative articles and artefacts are delicately woven into existence. It is an image which resonates closely with ‘home’ for many of us, a functional and inherently beautiful art form which we interact with daily. The weave finds expression in the make-up of the dome; 72 strands spiralling upwards from the earth, light filtering between them, merge at the point of unity marked by the glazed Greatest Name.

Notably, while the theme of weaving was determined relatively early on in our design process, it would be some time before the concept would eventually be moulded into its current form – with the indispensable support from the Office of Temples and Sites and a design and review process under the loving care of the Universal House of Justice.

Image render of the exterior of the National Baha’i House of Worship of Papua New Guinea at night.

Baha’i Blog: Besides the parameters set down in the Writings about the building of Houses of Worship, such as having nine sides, were there any traditional or cultural considerations you had to make sure you adhered to while working on the design?

The quest for a universal theme in a country with more than 700 distinct cultural groups has been a challenge – made all the more difficult with little to nothing published or made known about many of these tribal groups and their ways of life.

Interestingly, we had a stint at a nearby Secondary School in one of the art classes. This was an opportunity to engage the students in presenting ideas and concepts about the Temple Design. They were divided into five groups for a crash course in architectural design. Among other concepts presented by the students, two groups presented a scheme with weaving as their concept.

In addition to the underlying theme of weaving, which we consider as an integral “PNG element” in its own right, we have incorporated “Spirit Haus” entrance canopies.

The form of the nine entrance canopies was inspired by the distinctly Papua New Guinean Spirit House (Spirit Haus), a sacred space traditionally used for ceremonial purposes or to house special culturally significant artefacts. While the Spirit Haus takes on different forms across diverse provinces and village groups, we feel that the tall and outward-leaning gable roof form is a relatively universal quality of these traditional structures across several major regions — and certainly an image which the diverse population of Papua New Guinea would recognize as being associated with the sacred — as well as distinctly Papua New Guinean.

Image render of the interior of the National Baha’i House of Worship of Papua New Guinea.

Baha’i Blog: Are there any interesting stories or reactions from the people of Papua New Guinea relating to the design, the building of, the design unveiling, or anything related to the temple you can share?

I went to a local print shop and as the image of the temple appeared on the monitor, the staff gave an audible “wow”. One of them said that it is going to be an iconic building. Another time, I went to meet the chairman of Radio Light – a radio station operating under the PNG Bible Church, for a design consultation and his marketing manager introduced me as one of the architects of the Baha’i temple. He became quite excited and expressed positive remarks on the concept and offered to provide diorite for the foundation work on “lotu” price.

Baha’i Blog: What do you hope people walk away with after they’ve visited the House of Worship?

We hope that the National Baha’i House of Worship will instill in the people of PNG a renewed sense of pride, that prayers and reflections within its walls and beyond them, will inspire beautiful actions and services dedicated to the ongoing spiritual and material advancement of Papua New Guinean society, without ever losing sight of its rich cultural tapestry — the most diverse in the world.

Baha’i Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

We can take credit only for the bounty of having played a small part in a process which demanded far more than our limited understanding and abilities could offer. We are humbled to have played this part and cannot overstate that the final outcome was truly the fruit of the dedicated and patient efforts of the entire project team, under the wise guidance of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Papua New Guinea. This collaboration would, over the course of one year, transform a crude initial concept into what we sincerely hope will be embraced by the people of Papua New Guinea as their own universal place of worship, inspired and characterized by the beauty of their diverse cultures.

The unveiling of the temple’s design in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Our drive has always been to try to be of service to the community through our contributions to this project; to strive, together with the project team, to find an acceptable response to a profound and challenging brief. A further source of motivation – and in fact an inspiration throughout the course of our studies and professional lives — has been the wealth of Baha’i Writings on the subject of the Baha’i House of Worship as well as the institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar and its significance.

Baha’i Blog: Thank you so much, Henry and Saeed, for sharing this with us!

If you’d like to know about Baha’i Houses of Worship and their functions, you can read about them here.

The official website of the Baha’i Faith in Papua New Guinea is: www.bahai.org.pg and you can find out more about the temple there as well.

EMTV, Papua New Guinea’s national news station, also shared a story about the temple’s design when it was unveiled: you can watch the news story here.

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 2 Comments

  1. I can’t help my self not to mention Dr Sirius Naraqi(Neysan’s Father) who with his beautiful family were pioneers in PNG for many years and thinking that lots if not all the beautiful and impressive successes in teaching and institutional development are due to the hard working and teaching. God bless his beautiful soul and best wishes for his family.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment regarding my family and father dear Vida and thank you for your best wishes as it means a lot to me, but it was, and continues to be, the work and sacrifice of so many wonderful people who have helped make, in so many different ways, the National Baha’i House of Worship of Papua New Guinea a reality. Thank you again.

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