Spirit in the sky

Santiago, Chile -- Canadian architect Siamak Hariri spent a lifetime hoping to unite religion and technology – and realized his dream in a Baha’i temple in Chile. Alex Bozikovic reports from Santiago on one of architecture’s most ambitious undertakings

The security guard at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut stroked his hand along the concrete wall. Across the room, an architecture student named Siamak Hariri watched; as the sun washed down through skylights onto the pale floor of travertine marble, his eyes lingered on this gesture, a man’s hand sliding across a precisely crafted, glimmering surface.

Thirty years later at his Toronto office, Hariri remembers that as a turning point. “Something twigged in me,” he says with a distant smile. Yes, he was inspired by the artistry of museum’s architect, the legendary Louis Kahn. But there was a deeper resonance. “I was raised believing that we have something called the spirit, and that you elevate the spirit with your work,” Hariri says. “And when I saw that [reaction] from the security guard, I realized there’s something in architecture that can do that.”

Lifting the spirit is an aspiration rarely achieved in architecture. Hariri and the firm in which he is a partner, Hariri Pontarini, have had a project with such aspirations. The Baha’i Temple of South America in Santiago, the ninth of the faith’s major houses of worship worldwide, opened in October.

In keeping with the Baha’i faith in which Hariri was raised, it is a nine-sided space for individual prayer, with no pulpit and no icons – a contemporary building that’s open to everyone.

“Obviously, this is no ordinary assignment,” Hariri says, seated at a table in his studio. “It had to be as perfect as is humanly possible. And it had to feel like a place of worship. But how? What is that quality?”

That question has fed one of the most ambitious projects yet undertaken by a Canadian architect. It is the rare religious building that will help shape a faith tradition that is still in the process of being formed, and the rare building that takes contemporary craftsmanship and technology to their limits. Complex in its form and innovative in its materials and details, it pushes the building art in the service of spirituality.

It’s been a long and arduous journey toward that goal. “This is not a continuation of our regular work,” Hariri says. “We had to step outside, and hope that we would be inspired.”

Hariri’s involvement with the temple began in 2003, but the prologue goes back to the 1870s. The leader of the young Baha’i faith, known as Bahá’u’lláh, had been exiled from his home in Persia and wound up imprisoned in the Ottoman-ruled city of Akka. When he was set free, Hariri’s great-great-grandfather, a Persian builder, offered his services: He would build a pavilion in the “garden of paradise” that would be a refuge for the Baha’i leader and his family, including his son and successor, Abdu’l-Bahá.

What were the tenets of the Baha’i faith? For one thing, the unity of humankind: that all the great world religions are divinely inspired, but that in the modern age their followers will one day come together in a new evolution of religious faith. For another, that prayer and service to the community are joined. These ideas survived as the faith spread to North and South America in the early 20th century.

In the 1950s, Baha’i leader Shoghi Effendi asked the community in Iran to disperse around the world and spread the message of their faith. Hariri’s parents, Abbass and Mahin, followed this teaching, moving to Brazil and Europe before settling in Canada. (Today, there are approximately six million Baha’is adherents around the world; in Canada there are about 35,000.) Effendi also decreed that there should be a major temple on each continent, and that South America’s should be in Santiago.

And what should this place be for? “The Baha’i Temple is not just the building,” says Eduardo Rioseco, the temple’s director. “It is strongly connected to what we do in the community.” This, in Chile, means youth activities and community-service programs done in partnership with public schools. “The idea is to propose different ideas about how we can live together, individually and collectively.”

That is vague, and many Baha’i offer similar answers. The faith is young, and the Baha’i sensibility remains open to suggestion. “We’re at the beginning of a process here,” Filson says. “We will have centuries in which to manifest human brotherhood.”

This leaves a fair amount of openness about what “Baha’i architecture” should be like. The grandest of the eight existing major temples, one completed in 1952 near Chicago (designed by Quebecois architect Louis Bourgeois) and another in 1986 near New Delhi, are both essentially round, with nine sides and domes. So there were many questions to be answered when, in 2003, the community launched a global design competition for a new house of worship in Santiago.

In the past 60 years, religious architecture has been a relatively quiet corner, both because faith has been receding in Western life and because the mainstream of modernist architecture was all about the modern – a technological and ostensibly rational approach to the problems of urban life. The last religious building to enter the canon of world architecture is probably the convent and chapel of La Tourette, near Lyon, that the modernist hero Le Corbusier completed in 1960.

As with most global architectural competitions, the Baha’is received many entries from around the world. Hariri – with his deep links to the faith – thought about entering, but hesitated. “I just didn’t think I was worthy,” he says. “It was such a grand task.”

But his wife, the painter Sasha Rogers, talked him into entering, convinced him that it was worth a shot, and the design was born as a sketch of an inverted dome – a half-closed calla lily, perhaps.

That came with an argument born from the Baha’i sacred writings: “There is a line that, if you pray to God and if he answers your prayer, then you will be infused with light,” Hariri says. “I thought we should try to make a building where light does not enter, but is embodied. It is catalyzed.”

A structure made of alabaster, a pale and translucent stone, would catch sunlight and be transformed by it. “The sun would set one layer alight,” Hariri says, “but also pass through to the next layer.” The metaphor of illumination – common to all the major religions – is clear.

This is the point in the narrative of a building when things usually come crashing to earth.

Ever since 1997, when Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao created an appetite for showy and expressive architecture, the scenario has played out many times: A sketch and an argument wins a design competition, and perhaps they lead to an actual building, but earthly concerns such as budgets take over. Curves are simplified into flat planes; the corners are rationalized; the glow of the sketch and the poetic argument are reduced to something prosaic and vastly cheaper to build. After all, constructing even an ordinary building is a remarkably complex business. Novel forms and materials are inevitably slower and pricier. Working out complex problems takes time; clients rarely want to pay architects to explore new territory.

Canada has seen architectural dreams deflate more than once. Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto turned out to be terribly opaque. Antoine Predock’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg is a squat fortress.

Hariri’s vision might have followed suit. The budget for the project, about $30-million raised from Baha’i community donations, is not especially lavish. And yet, a dozen years later, the curves of the South American temple have remained largely intact. “I think it’s remarkable just how closely we remained true to that initial vision,” says Hariri Pontarini architect Justin Ford, who has worked full-time on the project since 2004, with more than three years in Santiago.

It did take a long time to build. The location shifted several times until the final site, formerly a private school’s golf course in the district of Penalolen, was acquired to house the temple and a grand garden by the landscape architect Juan Grimm. “Finding the site was an odyssey in itself,” Hariri says.

In the end, the temple sits in the foothills of the Andes, between mountains and city. The 26,000-square-foot building is essentially one open room, with a mezzanine wrapped in curves of walnut. The nine doors are of bronze, with custom handles. The interior is surrounded by a dome that is made up of nine elements – call them petals. These begin wide at the bottom of the building, and then narrow upward to meet in a spiral at the top, separated by crescent-shaped windows and a round window at the top. The outer surfaces of these petals are made of 32-millimetre-thick panels of cast glass, which have a ruddy, milky quality to them; the inner surfaces are made of smooth Portuguese marble. Both layers are translucent.

Stone, glass, wood and bronze – all of them detailed and built in a way that should last, as the Baha’i governing body requested, for 400 years. “These are ancient materials, but the technology is state-of-the-art,” Ford says.

Indeed, the design of the structure and the creation of its components tested the limits of contemporary building science and fabrication – the temple sits in an active seismic zone.

Consider the outside of the dome, the surface that defines the temple’s silhouette and its texture. After several years of exploration by Hariri and his team, it was clear that alabaster wouldn’t work. Project architect Doron Meinhard explains that there was a concern about how that material would behave at high temperatures. “Alabaster starts to change, irreversibly, at about 37 degrees,” he says. On a hot day in Santiago, with a power failure, the building skin might well reach that temperature.

And what exactly happens to alabaster when it heats up? It begins to turn opaque. “Which,” Meinhard says matter-of-factly, “would not work.”

Letting the light in – maintaining the integrity of the design against the constraints of structure and budget – was their struggle for a dozen years. “At every step, I had to say: ‘This is interesting, let’s try this.’ It was a constant push to keep things clear, and to protect the idea,” Hariri says. “Curves,” he adds wryly, “aren’t easy.”

Each of the nine wings of the building have two surfaces – one of cast glass and one of stone, resting on a steel structure. Each of those two surfaces has more than 1,000 separate components, in more than 150 different shapes. Meinhard talks about the shapes in categories: droop, slump, bullnose, shoulder, elbow, spine.

Each piece was shaped using digital models, which was complex work – especially the hundreds of panels that are curved, which must be cut and formed in three dimensions. (This is exponentially more difficult than working with flat pieces.)

Before going up, they had to be hand-finished “so that the edges are like butter,” Ford says. “You have to do that to achieve that feeling of craft.”

Craft: It’s the quality that Hariri admired in that Connecticut museum by Kahn, a Philadelphia architect who combined concrete and stone, modernist simplicity and forms inspired by history, and it’s central to his work today. Hariri has a few trademark materials – Algonquin limestone, mahogany-framed windows, teak floors, finely polished concrete. You can see this vocabulary largely in cultural buildings and high-end houses: the Toronto office of McKinsey and Co., a private home for BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis, and the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Hariri is embarking on two major cultural projects, still to be announced, in which this language is likely to carry through.

What’s really intriguing is the idea that the refinement of the temple project – what Meinhard calls “deep experimentation, building a project from first principles” – will spill over into more ordinary buildings, homes and workplaces for thousands of Canadians.

Hariri Pontarini’s office contains both of architecture’s two solitudes. While Hariri focuses on boutique projects, partner David Pontarini oversees condo towers and office buildings, trying to make art in the hard-headed world of commercial development. Pontarini’s team is master-planning a redevelopment for the new owners of The Globe and Mail’s current offices, and designing another project at the foot of Yonge Street in Toronto. Both rank among the biggest development schemes currently being undertaken in the city. There will be no cast glass involved.

And yet, Hariri argues, the insight into materials and unorthodox forms will inform that work. “There is a cross-fertilization,” he says.

Listening to Hariri, it seems as though the Baha’i temple has been both an anchor and a refuge from ordinary work. The process of making it was highly technical, but the goals remained transcendence and, paradoxically, simplicity. “In a world where anything goes,” he asks rhetorically, “how do you create something that feels complete?”

“Remember,” Hariri adds, “this temple has a longer aspiration. This is the dawning of a new form of expression.” In the centuries to come, he explained, this building is meant to help bring all of humanity together.

When I headed for the temple recently, I was not thinking about the oneness of all people. I was in fact feeling a bit lost: I’d landed in Santiago, a city of six million, to see how well Hariri’s dream of a prayer space for everyone had been realized.

As we headed out from the city centre, my driver pointed out a notorious site of detention and torture by former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret police.

We passed through working-class neighbourhoods and then a gated community where a dead-eyed guard refused to let us pass.

Forest fires filled the air in the Santiago basin with a smudgy haze. The Andes towered in the distance.

The driver was cursing, in English, by the time we finally got there.

A long driveway took us up into the hills to a parking lot, where a long straight stair led to the temple. Its billowing form looked at home against the mountains.

I climbed the steps with a few other curious visitors, birds chirping in the blossoming gardens, the city receding behind. I stepped in.

As I passed through the door, the temple rose like a tent, the deep greens of the landscape receding behind the pale upper folds of marble.

The quiet took a moment to settle over me.

Nearby, an elderly couple sat praying with rosary beads. A young couple with yoga mats sat and closed their eyes.

I looked through the windows, to the gardens, the city and the mountains, and then sat down, feeling the surface of the walnut bench beneath me and the broad volume of air above my head.

And then the light.

On the floor were pockets of sunlight shaped like crescents; these moved, slowly. And in time I realized that I was bathed in the soft light that permeated the very structure, and was everywhere. The stone shone.

Then two men walked in, a father and son in sneakers and baseball caps. They paused for a moment, took in the space, and then the father reached out his hand to the wall and ran it along the buttery marble, grasping it for a long moment as his eyes turned upward toward the sky.