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Gurudwara Adds to Architectural Landscape

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    Alan Hess
    With all due respect to the old saying, form follows culture more often than it follows function.

    The new Sikh temple (called a gurdwara) in San Jose's Evergreen foothills, which opened in August, proves the powerful influence of memory and tradition shaping local architecture.

    The gurdwara sits foursquare on a rise with a spectacular view of the valley, one of several prominent monuments (including Evergreen Valley high school, a retail area designed as an old-fashioned town center around its plaza, and a planned library) gracing the Evergreen district.

    A tall promenade rings the structure; colonnades link it with two auxiliary buildings. The columns are fluted with lotus capitals. The decorative scallops of the arches were originally created to catch the light and shadow of hot India, and they work just as effectively in our warm, sunny climate.

    This is Phase 1; a larger, 70,000-square-foot addition is scheduled to break ground in the spring. The gurdwara (which means ``the gateway through which the guru can be reached'') serves as a gathering place for the South Bay's large Sikh community.

    A century ago Japanese and Indian architecture inspired the enormously popular craftsman bungalow; the craftsman style is Japanese-inspired, and bungalow is an Indian word. So we might see a glimpse of Silicon Valley architecture of the future in this new-old architecture -- if today's architects let themselves create a new fusion architecture. That doesn't mean that the temple's golden onion domes and scalloped arches will be the fashion of the future. It means that Santa Clara County's extraordinary ethnic diversity is introducing new styles and types of buildings that should enrich us all.

    The gurdwara design by architect Malkiat Singh Sidhu doesn't imitate any particular historic temple but echoes many of the Mughal style temples in the Punjab region of India, the home of the 500-year-old Sikh religion. Their domes and ornamental arches are a dignified classic style that matches the High Renaissance style of St. Joseph's cathedral downtown.

    The temple's main building topped by the large gold dome is a reception hall. It identifies the building from afar; inside it is painted with a blue sky and clouds, and the words ``God is One.'' Like the Golden Temple of Amritsar, India, this building has doors on all four sides, symbolizing that all are welcome from all directions. On the second floor is a large hall, now used for reading the scriptures, as well as a small museum on Sikh history and beliefs.

    As at the temple at Amritsar, water plays a major role in the design. The temple sits in a large artificial lake that sets off the gilded building and provides a long causeway approach for visitors. In the Evergreen neighborhood the water is not so extensive, but pools with fountains flank the main building, and a waterfall plunges down the steep hill at the main entry.

    But of course this is California in 2005, and the stone buildings of India are translated into stucco. They are ornamented with the disabled-accessible water fountains, glowing green ``exit'' signs, fire safety doors and embossed-acoustic-tile dropped ceilings of contemporary California buildings. The fruitful process that blends ancient architecture with modern times is a two-way street: the ethnic architecture of immigrants influences California, and California influences the ancient ways of architecture. This is how architecture progresses.

    Everyone made a fuss a few years ago when Mayor Gonzales asked Richard Meier to add a dome to his city hall design; modern architecture isn't comfortable with adding something for purely symbolic reasons. But such symbolism is usually accepted in religious buildings.

    The temple's elegant, shapely dome rises in a light and airy gesture to the sky. It is fluted in the traditional manner, giving it a plastic energy quite different than the static European domes of St. Joseph's cathedral, sitting weightily on its base. Smaller domes, more akin to fabric canopies, perch on the temple's corners; they are made of glass fiber reinforced concrete.

    Clerestory windows at the dome's base bring light down into both levels of the building. In the reception area, rooms for storing shoes are provided, as shoes are removed and heads covered before congregants attend services. Marble floors inside and granite pavement outside reflect the rich patterns of the Punjabi temples, adding rich tones of green, rose, mustard and alabaster.

    Sikh religious services are relatively simple. Readings by priests or lay people from their holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, constitute most of the service, along with hymns. Though the words are sacred, the space is not, in the way that a Catholic church's altar is dedicated as sacred space for the priests and the ritual. The Sikh temple includes several large halls that can be used interchangeably for several purposes, including scripture readings, weddings, anniversary celebrations and dining. There are no seats or pews; everyone sits on the floor, underscoring the equality of all. Men and women attend the same services, though they sit on opposite sides of the room. The person reading the scriptures sits on a platform adorned with flowers and offerings, indicating the honor given the holy word.

    From the reception hall, doors lead out to the two one-story halls on either side. Finished much like the ballroom of a modern hotel, with a folding wall down the center to divide the space for convenience, the rooms are filled with light from windows on all walls.

    In a religion and culture like the Sikh's, tradition is not a dead hand but a living presence in the lives of its adherents. From its iconic dome to its pewless, flexible gathering rooms, the new gurdwara is shaped to reflect the needs and beliefs of the people using it. Growing out of an ancient culture, it shows us another way to look at architecture. Here's the lesson for us: the past has a place in the present. Symbolism, meaning, history and memory should be in every architect's tool box.

    Alan Hess writes about architecture once a month in Arts & Entertainment. Write him at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190 or e-mail him at
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