Introduction

I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was seven years old.

My family lived modestly in a simple home in Montana, while my father was studying to become an air traffic controller. Before this, we had moved a few times after I was born in the Misawa Air Force Base in Japan. Maybe because of these moves, I was particularly aware of my changing surroundings.

One day, my father’s colleague invited us to his new home. As soon as I stepped in, I was in awe. It felt majestic and full of light. It had a high wooden ceiling supported by huge timber beams that seemed to soar into the sky. A massive stone fireplace anchored the center of the house. A wall made of glass from floor to ceiling led to a wide balcony, and when I walked out, I discovered a view of the wandering valley and mountains. It filled me with wonder.

Then, the owner of the house said something that further stirred my imagination: “I designed it myself.”

My second-grade brain was amazed. A person can design a house? What does that mean? How do you do it? Can you just draw a picture of something awesome, then make it real? And that was that. I was hooked. I became consumed with drawing floor plans for houses and mazes. I drew maps for dungeons, spaceships, and cities. Designing environments became integral to my imagination and play. I daydreamed about how to make my drawings real. Soon, I learned that this magical process of making drawings of buildings come to life was called architecture, and the wizard was called an architect.

During elementary school, we moved yet again, this time to the Midwest. By middle school, I was learning the basics of drafting and house design. My dream of becoming an architect helped me stay focused (and mostly out of trouble) during my adolescent years. My parents set a solid foundation for the importance of education, and they were always supportive of my goals.

I went to architecture school at Ball State University, where I loved spending countless all-nighters working in the studio. I immersed myself in learning about the great architects who resonated with my developing sense of style: Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and Tadao Ando, among others. I learned that architecture is about more than buildings — it’s about people. Architecture helps us feel protected, inspired, and happy. It can reveal who we are and convey our values and desires. It can express our ways of life, our material culture, and our spirituality. It can tell stories.

It was also at this same time that I began to study the Baha’i Faith. (How I discovered the Baha’is is a topic for another post.) When I first arrived at the university, I found the local Baha’i community in Muncie, Indiana. They became my second family, in particular Gwen and Behrouz Kousari, who supplied me with many evenings of delicious Persian food, as well as spiritual food. During Bahá’í fireside gatherings in their cozy cottage, we would get immersed in conversations that connected spiritual principals with the architectural concepts I was studying.

Sometimes, I would arrive at their house, greeted by a beautiful spread of Persian food fit for a dozen people. “How many people are coming tonight?” I would ask. “This is just for you,” they would reply. For hours, we shared ideas and angst about how to solve the world’s problems — racism, prejudice, war, poverty, economic inequality, politics, and the environment. It could have been easy to fall into a deep state of cynicism and negativity, but the Kousaris and other Bahá’ís I was meeting had a gift they shared that forever framed my attitude: hope. They faced these global issues with confident optimism and faith in humanity’s ability to come together and work toward the common good.

One evening, we watched a documentary about the construction of the Baha’i Temple in India — a bold, graceful design with geometry inspired by a lotus flower. Incredibly, the Temple was built largely by the people who would use it, many of them women. The Temple became a tranquil place for prayer and meditation in the midst of the chaos of New Delhi. The idea of sacred architecture unifying and empowering a community inspired me immediately and profoundly. This sparked my journey of learning more about Baha’i and other religious architecture. Sacred space, with a focus on Baha’i architecture and its effect on the human spirit, became the topic of my senior thesis at Ball State.

On the day that I finally presented my thesis on sacred architecture in 1992, my advisor presented me with an award for “Outstanding Thesis.” Moments later, I proposed to my wife, Amethel. That was a perfect day. Then and now, she has inspired a clear vision and purpose for me personally and professionally. In the last 25 years, the journeys we’ve taken together have fueled me. Through the ebb and flow of raising a Baha’i family, and growing a business in a volatile market, I can’t imagine a wiser mother, partner, confidante, or best friend.

The Bahá’í Faith, the newest, yet second most widespread independent religion in the world, was born in Persia in 1863. Baha’is seek to build a peaceful world, driven by the principles of social and economic justice, equality, and unity. The first Baha’i Temple was completed in Russian Turkistan (now Turkmenistan) in 1908. The next Baha’i Temple, built in the Chicago area, was completed in 1953. Today, there are seven Baha’i Temples: the U.S.; Sydney, Australia; Kampala, Uganda; Frankfurt, Germany; Panama City, Panama; Apia, Western Samoa; and New Delhi, India. There’s one under construction in Santiago, Chile. Baha’i Temples have a few prerequisite elements: a structure with nine sides, a dome, and surrounding gardens. Aside from these commonalities, each Temple is distinct and influenced by its cultural and geographic context.

The Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel is home to several sacred shrines and administrative structures. Around the globe, there are Baha’i community centers and schools. There’s much to glean from the first Baha’i architects, including Louis Bourgeois, who designed the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette; Fariburz Sahba, who designed the Temple in India; and Hossein Amanat who designed buildings at the World Center and the Temple in Western Samoa. These and other Bahá’i architects began developing a language to speak about architecture’s role in creating a fertile, inspiring atmosphere for prayer, meditation, and the unification of people from all faiths and all walks of life.

The language of Baha’i architecture continues to evolve with the growth and the changing needs of the global Baha’i community. I’ve been honored to examine Baha’i architecture as the architect of record for the renovations of the Baha’i Temple in Chicago, and its new Welcome Center. I also designed Unity Hall at Louhelen Baha’i School in Michigan with my mentor, Gregory Maire. We also had the honor of working with the dynamic Baha’is of Nashville, Tennessee to build their community center. I’ve consulted with other communities about building and renovating Baha’i centers.

With these projects, and others that were not necessarily religious structures, I’ve delved into the role of architecture in cultivating a spiritual environment. With any project, I always consider these important questions: “How can this space inspire awe? How does it foster a peaceful and protected state of mind? How can it facilitate positive human interaction? What impact does it have on the environment?” Thinking about architecture from a spiritual perspective has been a lifelong meditation. My architectural practice has evolved into a greater exploration of finding ways to manifest spiritual principles throughout all aspects of our work. Architecture firms are traditionally named after the principals. For my firm, I chose One World Architecture to reflect our organizing principles to serve others with integrity, and to respect the natural environment while innovating the built environment with creativity, collaboration, and passion. We’re conscious of the fact that our actions, big or small, can have a positive or negative impact on others and the environment. Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson sums it up: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”

In this blog, I’ll continue to explore the intersections of architecture, art, science, spirituality, social and economic justice, technology, culture, and more. I’ll talk about things that inspire me or challenge me. These days, I look at my seven-year-old son, and he reminds of my seven-year-old self: curious, eager, experimental, consumed with drawing, and building with LEGOs. I also see myself in my imaginative 13-year-old son, who has already set his sights on taking over my architecture firm one day. (However, I’m not as handsome as either of my sons. My wife gets credit for that.) My family is at the top of the list of what inspires me, as well as what challenges me. I want my kids to look at the world with a similar sense of wonder that propelled me when I was young. As a father and as an architect, I’m always interested in finding ways to encourage creativity, imaginative play, and problem-solving. Whether it’s for my kids, for myself, for my team at work, or for my clients, learning to look at any project with a sense of wonder and limitless potential is always key to our collective success.

I look forward to sharing ideas and learning from your insights. Thank you for reading and for joining in this journey.

Author: Ken Parel-Sewell

Principal of One World Architecture

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8 Comments

  1. Ken,
    Really enjoyed reading about you from age seven to today! Did you know that Gregory attributes his becoming an architect to being able to play with his Grandfather’s stone blocks? I learned so much more about your life trajectory, including the thesis on sacred architecture and your proposal to Amethel. Your goals, aspirations, beliefs, and principles are so beautifully explained and reflect the beautiful, loving person you are. Any one who has you as an architect is blessed. I know that Gregory and I have been with you in our life!

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  2. Ken,

    This was such a delight to read. Having been a witness to a good portion of your incredible trajectory from kid to man, this was a terrific fleshing out of the details of your path. There is such a tremendous amount of good to be proud of in all the things you’ve built — not just in the things you’ve built from brick and mortar, but perhaps even more so in the things you’ve built with simple, unyielding love & respect. I’m so lucky to count you and yours as mine.

    Much love,
    Carrie

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  3. Thank you Ken for sharing your story with us and creating this blog site. It is inspiring and exciting to read!

    Loving greetings,

    Nadia

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  4. Dear Ken,

    Thank you for sharing your blog. What an amazing journey. Janis and I are happy you have shared your story with us and that you and your family live in our community, it was “love at first sight”. Please know that “our casa Es su casa”. May you continue to be inspired and guided by the Blessed Beauty.
    Love,
    Marcia and Janis

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  5. Wonderful post! I enjoyed reading about your inspiration for becoming an architect and your life events – so beautiful! Lovely writing, too. I’m very much looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your inspiration / creative fuel here! Your love and enthusiasm is inspiring me.

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  7. Ken – How fun to read your story and learn more about your passion for sacred architecture. I’m going to send this to Avery. I’m sure she’ll find it inspiring as well. :)

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  8. Ken, I loved reading this and getting a glimpse of your early inspiration. Thank you so much for sharing it. I especially love the connection between architecture and magic. You’re a wizard with words as well as design!

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