Deeper Into the Temple of Light

Architect Siamak Hariri’s winning entry for the design of a Baha’i temple in Santiago, Chile took inspiration from his own practice of the Baha’i faith. In this Web exclusive, Hariri, a principal of the Toronto-based architecture firm Hariri Pontarini, and the project’s associate-in-charge, Mike Boxer, discuss their temple and its nine luminous alabaster wings; the computer software programs they used to create the design; and how they captured the essence of movement in the final product.

Hariri on working with Gehry Technologies:
After the competition, we had no idea how we were going to get into working with [computer rendering software] CATIA. The folks at Frank Gehry’s office [who designed the CATIA software] were so kind to say, “Come on down, we’ll show you how to do this stuff.” They were starting Gehry Technologies and needed a few pilot projects, and they thought this one was really fitting.

On all fronts, this project is touching the edge. Even people at Gehry’s office said, “You know what? This is really out there in terms of its complexity.” It’s so disciplined, so unforgiving. If you have a freeform curve and you’re a little off, it can be a little forgiving. But this can’t. Everything has to come together.

Look at any one panel on the nine wings: if you look at the same panel on another wing, it would be the same. But within the one wing there are 900 panels, and the shape of each panel is different. Gehry’s people kept saying, “No, you’ve got to make all the panels the same,” and we said, “No, the whole idea is we want it different.” That was a very interesting discussion; at the end they kind of liked that the panels were different.

On working with the engineer, Chris Andrews:
We have a terrific engineer, Chris Andrews, just an amazing guy. He sketches! It’s hard to find an engineer that actually sits with you and sketches and is conceptual.

The site is in a very serious seismic zone, category 4. Chris is just thrilled with the temple’s design because it can’t be better: there’s a ring at the top, there’s a ring at the mezzanine, which is roughly the one-third point, and then there’s a ring at the foundation. So it just happens that those three rings make the structure very stiff.

Mike Boxer on using the computer software program MAYA:
MAYA can be set on a smooth surface or a faceted surface, and we found that we were able to go back and forth between the two. When it was too smooth, the building looked like a cartoon—all these plasticky shapes. But we wanted it to fall in the traditional of cathedrals and churches, where you can really get the sense of craftsmen having built this thing.

So when we saw that we were able to generate these flat panels that had a ribbing, it appeared as though it has structure to it, like it was made out of pieces. And these structured shapes, because the geometries are so wacky, created infinite numbers of types of panels.

We tried to take the organic shape and put a very regular human horizontal pattern on it, but the whole thing became very static, and so we went back to the shapes that the computer was helping generate. It just looked more natural to the project. The design wants to be organic and kind of otherworldly, but it also really wants to be grounded.

This is where the building is really breaking ground: it’s got a lot of these very innovative shapes that we’re able to generate with this new software and process, but [it is set] in a very traditional form of architecture and material construction.

On capturing movement in the design:
The temple is shaped like a fan coil. This thing, if it were really light, would spin like a machine. We’re trying to build in a lot of implied movement, because a huge part of the Baha’i faith involves movement—walking while meditating. They call it “circumambulating.” It’s done either alone or in a group, in a clockwise direction.

So the building is not only for sitting and worshipping within the temple, but they want people to walk in a circular way around it. The gardens have these rings of walkways that will ultimately lead you around the building.

We also added a mezzanine level. There’s a stair access to it, and there are these little meditative corners that have rugs and people can look out those windows at the Andes. Again, it’s circular so you can circumambulate at the upper level and not disrupt the people down below.

We’re pretty excited about the views. There are these gaps between each of the alabaster wings that are clear glass, so you’ll get nine of these windows, and they’ll all have these framed views that will be different from one another.

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