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November 16, 2015

Siamak Hariri and the architecture of “Embodied Light”
The Bahá'í Temple in Santiago, Chile.

The Bahá'í Temple in Santiago, Chile
Ottawa, November 16, 2015 ­ Canadian architect Siamak Hariri spoke to a packed lecture theatre at the National Gallery of Canada about the creative process behind the nearly completed Bahá'í Temple of South America. After a brief introduction to the evolving philosophy of his Toronto firm, Hariri Pontarini Architects, he shared some of the fascinating design challenges of this project. Hariri's accessible presentation style captured the imagination of both the professional architectural community and the members of the general public who were present that night.  

Worldwide, the Bahá'í community has constructed a House of Worship ­ or mašriqu­l­'aḏkār ­ on every continent The Bahá'í Temple in Santiago, Chileexcept South America. The Santiago temple will be the eighth and final continental “mother temple.” The competitive process included some unusual building specifications, such as a four hundred year building mandate. The temple also needed to withstand considerable seismic activity, since it sits on a major fault line running down the Andes. Hariri's winning bid boldly proposed a temple of glass.

From the beginning, their guiding vision for the project was a “temple of light.” Hariri narrated the winding journey to the final design. A recurring theme in his talk was Bahá’u’llah’s parable of the mystic seeker and his troubled quest for his beloved Layli. Hariri described many design dead­ends and failed experiments with materials. As with the story of Layli, intractable problems gave way to unexpected breakthroughs. Consistently, they maintained their focus on a vision of a sacred building of “embodied light."

The Bahá'í Temple in Santiago, ChileBeyond its translucent nature, the other characteristic of the temple is its dynamic motion. It appears to be twisting around a central oculus in the centre of the ceiling. Hariri spoke of their desire to create a sense of "movement and stillness coexisting." 

The design team asked questions like “what would this building feel like?” They imagined the irregular passage of light that one experiences sitting under a canopy of trees. They strove to create a sensation resembling the organic warmth of illuminated alabaster. Discussing the textures and forms that inspired their design, Hariri rarely mentioned other buildings. He referred to organic natural shapes such as eggs, shells and wings. He studied non-architectural cultural objects: Japanese baskets, billowing sails, canvas tents and the whirling robes of Sufi dancers.

The Bahá'í Temple in Santiago, ChileThe innovative building techniques required traditional physical models and cutting­edge 3D rendering software. Their ideal building materials had to be invented and factories were constructed to produce them for construction. A steel lattice system of connector rods and irregular nodes frame the nine wings. These rest on concrete seismic isolation pads equipped with pendulums that permit each wing to move two feet during an earthquake. The steel skeleton is clad with a translucent skin made of three thousand square feet of custom shaped cast­glass panels. Portuguese marble provided a warmer texture on the interior, "like a jacket liner." The interior tracery, made of nickel­plated stainless steel and oak, was inspired by the abstract expressionist “white writing” paintings of Mark Tobey.

Hariri explained some fixed design elements found in all Bahá'í Houses of Worship. They should be welcoming to all, even those with no faith. Thus, Bahá'í temples have nine doors rather than one. They are  circular and don't resemble churches, mosques or other forms of religious architecture. 

The Bahá'í Temple in Santiago, Chile This critically appraised design has been under construction for several years and is scheduled to open in 2016. For more information and links to the official photo and video logs of the construction process, click here.

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