Temple of Light

When leaders of the Baha’i faith put out a call for the design of a new temple in Santiago, Chile, the competition brief was more like a philosophical puzzle: the space must clearly feel like a house of worship but must not prioritize the iconography of any one religion over any other. It must be welcoming to everyone—the type of place, they said, that a six-year-old child would be attracted to—but it must also be as perfect in form as humanly possible. And it must be domed, with exactly nine sides and nine entrances.

Surprisingly the winning proposal, by Hariri Pontarini Architects of Toronto, started out as one of the least developed of the initial 185 entries—an abstract concept rather than a completed design. But then firm principal Siamak Hariri had an advantage of insight: he happens to be a Baha’i. “There was this really wonderful quote in our Baha’i writings that when a person becomes transformed, their inner being becomes a structure of light; people recognize your radiance,” Hariri says. “So I thought, What does that mean architecturally? How do you create a structure of light?”

The answer—developed in detail after the firm was short-listed—was a dome of nine wings made from translucent alabaster that would glow softly from within at night and admit natural light into the interior during the day. Beneath the alabaster is an interior volume of perforated wood tracery; combined the two materials create a sense of dappled light shining through tree branches. “You’ll see an inner form and outer form,” Hariri explains. “We’re hoping that’s symbolic of a higher reading. There are inner and outer forms in all of us.”

The 21,000-square-foot temple, scheduled to break ground in 2005 and be completed in 2008, is as vigorous a structure as it is a metaphor, its ethereal beauty grounded in exacting science. The dome’s dimensions are a perfect square (the width equals the height), and each of the nine wings is a complex grid of steel frames and alabaster pieces. “We wanted something that was highly organized, repetitive, and symmetrical but that embodied the possibilities for variousness,” Hariri says.

The perfect tool for this process turned out to be MAYA modeling software, which Hariri Pontarini had never used before. “We don’t usually like working with regularized symmetry,” says the project’s associate-in-charge, Mike Boxer, “so MAYA was very interesting because we were able to work on one of the nine sides and be as asymmetrical as possible, and the computer software would automatically make nine copies all the way around.” The team combined this experiment in technology with its preferred method of traditional model building, developing an extended dialogue between the two tools that would take new information from each and feed it into the other. With help from Gehry Technologies—the offshoot company Frank Gehry has formed to school architects in modeling software—the team then poured the data into CATIA to create a final computer-milled model.

The process was fitting for a building that is essentially a paradox: a “sculpted stone drapery,” as Hariri calls it, that appears to be soft, light, and in motion although it is made of unyielding steel and stone. “It is highly structured and ordered,” Hariri says, “and yet it looks free-flowing and teases your eye a little bit.”

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