Bahai News - Baha'i and Christian ideals show oneness of purpose

Baha'i and Christian ideals show oneness of purpose

By Geeta Sharma-Jensen
of the Journal Sentinel staff

April 6, 1998

Two architects. Two faiths. One philosophy -- that their religion is their wellspring of design, the philosophical root from which their corporate culture flowers.

William Wenzler, 69, an evangelical Christian, and Tom Kubala, 47, a quiet Baha'i, approach their work and their employees from their varying beliefs. Somehow, they often sound similar.

"The Baha'i faith teaches all of us have to do two things. One is to know and love God, and the other is to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization," says Kubala, a partner at Kubala Washatko Architects in Cedarburg. "So this is where the Baha'i idea of unity and oneness transfers into the purpose of a building. . . . The design we promote has to do with coherence and how a person feels physically and spiritually in the world."

One example is the cedar-sided Riversite shopping center on the Milwaukee River in Mequon. With its soaring central tower and plank sidewalks, the building is quietly at one with its surroundings, evoking both the old and the contemporary.

At William Wenzler & Associates in downtown Milwaukee, chairman Wenzler says, "Our purpose is to create spaces that help all people to understand their reason for being, which is to become -- and help all others to become -- more fully human. That's my secular way of saying I am a Christian. Because Jesus is fully human and fully God."

Wenzler was designing churches in the 1960s when he attended a seminar by the National Council of Churches for church architects. His interpretation of the discussions was that churches should use their money to further their ministries rather than build buildings.

When churches approached him, Wenzler would challenge their need for a new building -- even though he lost business as a result. He got no new church commissions for almost 10 years.

In 1973, he was persuaded to design Elmbrook Church, convinced the construction was actually needed. Still, he incorporated chairs instead of pews into the front of the church so the large hall could be used for more than just Sunday morning services.

Today, his firm accepts new church projects if conditions call for them.

Wenzler said he tries to live his faith. Preaching integration and love for all, he moved his family and firm from Brookfield to Milwaukee and put his children in city schools soon after the 1967 civil rights riots.

He prohibited sexual jokes at his firm long before sexual harassment laws came along. Staffers are asked not to swear. Architects are told not to accept projects if the proposed building is to be used for any "immoral purpose, such as pornography or an escort business."

"How can we believe in Christ and allow any of that?" Wenzler asks. "You don't live that way. And, for the sake of capitalism, you cannot run over people or abuse the environment."

So, if his firm makes a mistake, it apologizes and pays for it. Once, when staffers discovered the gradient of a driveway was not what the client had ordered, the firm redid the project -- and ate the $5,000 cost.

Trying for fairness, Wenzler uses a pay scale in which no employee, including him, earns a salary seven times more than the lowest wage at the firm. During slow times, he loans staffers to other firms rather than lay them off, though in the firm's 42-year history he sometimes hasn't been able to avoid that.

Recently, when he scaled back his hours by 40%, he cut his own pay 40%.

In Cedarburg, Kubala and his partner also were paying themselves less than typical wages -- so much so that, a few years ago when they turned over the job of setting pay scales to a group of employees, they actually got a nice raise.

Both Wenzler and Kubala say they have turned away projects in which a potential client deals dishonestly. If they discover contractors who dishonestly hold back money owed others, they won't use them again.

Kubala and his partner, Allen Washatko -- also of the Baha'i faith -- try to foster an office culture that mirrors the one-humankind tenet of their faith. The simple office the pair share has no door; rather, it's a chamber that extends from the same large workroom everyone occupies. In this large hall, everyone shares the shifting light and open feeling of the unique offices. And because the Baha'i faith preaches profit-sharing, everyone also shares in the year-end profits.

Kubala and his partner also hold weekly classes to teach staffers about unity and harmony. They believe good buildings come from the ability to remove their egos from their work, a fundamental, Kubala says, of all spiritual teachings.

"There's harmony and cohesiveness in the world." Kubala says. "So, why shouldn't this religious belief extend into the minuscule aspects of what one does every day?"

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