Chile temple design wins architectural acclaim even before ground is broken

SANTIAGO, Chile — Though ground has not been broken and its projected completion is still three years away, the Bahá'í House of Worship planned for this city has already drawn accolades from more than 40 international architectural and design journals from as far as Italy, Germany, Australia, and Russia.

Reviews in journals ranging from The Architectural Review to Civil Engineering to Metropolis to Canada 's Architecture and Ideas cite the temple's innovative design and spiritual purpose.

The Architectural Review, for example, recently noted that the House of Worship “should become a gentle and welcoming beacon to the whole of South America.”

In April 2005, it was announced that the site for the new temple had been acquired. The first Bahá'í House of Worship in South America will be built on a 100-hectare site in the Andean foothills in Chacabuco Province, about 35 minutes by car north from the center of Santiago.

The building will be located on the top of a hill there, with a panoramic view of the mountains in three directions.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the US$27 million temple will be held on a date to be announced, and the building should be completed in about three years, said Douglas Moore, director of the Office of Public Information of the Bahá'í International Community.

Mr. Moore also noted that the Bicentennial Commission of the Chilean government has designated the Bahá'í House of Worship as one of a limited number of official projects in the private sector to commemorate Chile's 200 years of independent nationhood.

“We are glad to see the civil authorities' recognition of the significance of this edifice and their confidence in the benefit the undertaking will bring to Santiago and to Chile as a whole,” he said.

Mr. Moore added that the project would be financed entirely by voluntary contributions from Bahá'ís around the world.

Representatives from all national Bahá'í communities in the Western Hemisphere will be invited to attend the groundbreaking ceremony, with a special emphasis on the countries and indigenous peoples of South America.

The temple, designed by Canadian architect Siamak Hariri, will be clad in forged glass and Spanish alabaster. The translucent stone will allow sunlight to filter through during the day and the temple to emit a warm glow from the interior lighting at night.

The design also features nine distinctive “wings” or “blades” that torque gently upwards, forming the temple's dome.

The highest praise so far has come from Canadian Architect, which honored the design with one of its 2004 Awards of Excellence. One judge noted that “while the spiritual aims of the building are not clearly articulated, this project represents a rare convergence of forces that seem destined to produce a monument so unique as to become a global landmark, or one of the ‘wonders of the world.'

“One can only marvel at the architects' commitment to originate this form, the energy with which it has been developed, and the power of religious belief in motivating artistic achievement,” said the judge.

Widespread coverage of the design was sparked by a story that ran in the influential Wallpaper magazine in November 2003. Since then, Hariri Pontarini Architects has been fielding enquiries from journals around the world, some fascinated by what Toronto-based artist Gary Michael Dault has described as “a soap-bubble that has alighted, momentarily, on the ground — an evanescent architectural grace-note come to rest in a rugged, sublime setting.”

Mr. Hariri, co-founder of Hariri Pontarini Architects and project leader for the temple, said the widespread interest in the design can partly be attributed to its break from the traditional function of places of worship associated with the world's other major religions.

“It's hard for people to get the fact that it's not a church,” said Mr. Hariri, “and it's not a mosque and it doesn't have a pulpit and it doesn't have a clergy. And so they say, ‘What do you do in there?' It's quite alien to them. A synagogue is a synagogue. Architecturally, the fact that it isn't embedded in ritual somehow makes it challenging — and interesting. So really, it's about the form and the fact that it's something a little new in the architectural world.”

Houses of Worship were prescribed by the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh, to be places of worship in which people of all backgrounds and beliefs could gather, without ritual, to meditate and to read and sing the sacred scriptures of the world's religions.

Designated as the “dawning-place of the praise of God,” the House of Worship is a spiritual center around which in the future will be established institutions of social service, including a hospital, a pharmacy, a school for orphans, a home for the aged, and a university for the study of the sciences. There are currently seven Houses of Worship in the world. The Chile temple will be the eighth, putting one on each inhabited continent.

Like the Chile temple, all of the other Houses of Worship have nine sides. The number nine has symbolic value in the Bahá'í Faith, being the highest digit and representing completion and unity.

Nestled in the space between the wings on the ground floor of the temple in Chile will be nine alcoves for individual, private meditation. Plans also call for a lily pool enclosed by a large garden outside of the building.

The architectural team made a conscious effort not to rely on any existing architectural styles or traditions in its design of the temple. Instead it looked to objects and phenomena of nature: the experience of looking up at slivers of light through a canopy of trees; the play of light diffracted through icicles; woven baskets; swirling skirts.

“People find it compelling on so many different levels,” said Naomi Kriss, communications liaison for Hariri Pontarini Architects, “whether it's the architecture or the engineering or the technology that we're using, or the spiritual side of it. Whether the building is Bahá'í or not, people are asking, ‘How do you design a House of Worship in this secular age?'”

Drawing this much media attention in the architectural world so early on is unusual, “but then again,” added Ms. Kriss, “so is the design.”