The temple that welcomes all religions, or none at all
"That dimple you see over there," said Siamak Hariri, pointing to the surface of his award-winning structure nestled in the Andean landscape on the outskirts of Santiago, "that little subtle inflection, the way the line goes round is very deliberate -- do you find that satisfying?"
"And you're not Chilean" he responded, alluding to an aspiration of his firm, Hariri Pontarini Architects, for the Bahá'í Temple in Chile: they wanted to create a universally attractive form.
Openness, in spirit and in form
Previously a barren golf course owned by the elite Grange School in Santiago, the 10-hectare site -- which took nine years to find - has been transformed into a space envisioned to be open to all, regardless of background, religion, gender, or social standing.
"This is a place that is welcoming all the religions, or if you have no religion," said Hariri, who is a Bahá'í himself, during the opening of the Temple in October 2016.
"It's an architectural challenge. How do you give something a form that means this?"
In spirit and in structure, the building was to embody the unity of mankind, which is a central belief of the Bahá'í Faith, an independent religion founded in 19th century Iran.
The Chile Temple is the final Bahá'í continental temple to be built, joining eight others, including the Temple for North America in Wilmette, Illinois, and the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India.
A Bahá'í Temple has only a few criteria: it needs to be "a nine-sided domed structure with nine entrances to symbolically welcome people from all directions of the earth for prayer and meditation."
Faced with this architectural challenge, Hariri and his creative team did not want to take inspiration from other buildings. It could not look like a mosque, a synagogue or a church as this may alienate certain people.
Equally, drawing on the culture of one or some of the indigenous communities of Chile was not a priority, as it would involve excluding others. "They're not all the same, you can't just lump everything together," Hariri told CNN, "if I went Quechua, the Mapuche would not be represented, and so on. It is very delicate."
In search of a "feeling"
Rather, they were in search of a "feeling" and aesthetic cues were taken from taken from outside of architecture.
"We looked to organic forms: a cheekbone is a universal thing, right?" asked Hariri rhetorically, later mentioning the veins of a leaf, the curve of a woven Japanese basket, and the folding of robes in paintings of the old masters.
On some days, the Temple looks like it has always existed as part of its organically formed backdrop, the Andes. The radial gardens, designed by acclaimed Chilean landscape architect Juan Grimm, are made to blend into the Andean environment, creating a "garden that has no limits."
Above all, light is the defining trope of the structure: Hariri feels that "light is universal" and can act as a symbol of unity. The temple was designed to cause visitors to feel like they were gazing up at the heavens or turning towards the light, like a plant moves to face the sun.
Nine wing-like panels of translucent cast glass subtly spiral to form the temple dome, converging 90 feet above the ground with a clear glass oculus holding a Bahá'í symbol known as "the greatest name." Daylight passes through the glass and floods the white marble interior and after sundown, light from within causes the structure to quietly glow in the night.
"The temple is like a drapery of light," says Hariri, "It's not light passing through -- it's captured light."
In pursuit of this "feeling", the multidisciplinary team adopted three-dimensional modeling software CATIA, made for industrial design and aerospace engineering and rarely used in architecture, which was a daring move and "breathtakingly hard" 13 years ago at the beginning of the project.
Another technical feat was the installation of a pendulum isolation system to make the building resistant to seismic activity. Three universities -- in Canada, Los Angeles and Chile -- collaborated to create a system that allows for 600 millimeters of movement, so that the whole building rocks and returns to the center in case of an earthquake.
Coexisting with innovations in technology and machine-to-machine production is an artisanal quality, created by the use of ancient materials like bronze, cast glass, and stone.
The bronze doorways are molded by hand, and the cast glass on the exterior of the Temple was invented using melted down test tubes and petri dishes in the studio kilns of Jeff Goodman, a Canadian glass artist known for his ornate blown-glass creations.
Over 30,000 square meters of glass were fired in a bespoke factory of six kilns to produce around 1,100 glass panels of various shapes and sizes, which slot into place to form the exterior of the "wings," supported by steel frames coursing through the edifice like the veins of a leaf.
"It is a very deliberate intersection between the ancient and the absolute new. That's not just architectural, it's philosophical," mused Hariri, intimating the Bahá'í belief that all the religions of the past and future are one, "this extension both forward and back is very symbolic."
Faith in the theories
Looking at the finished structure, Hariri is happy and perhaps relieved: there was no guarantee that the computer modeling would translate into the desired effect of "embodied light," captured in the glass.
"That was one of our biggest worries, would that in fact happen -- it's a theory!" he breathed, "You hope it does, that [the light] does kiss that marble."
The Temple is built to last 400 years: time will tell if the theory of a universally attractive form holds, too. So far, so good.