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Faith Finds a Pearly Pantheon: 9th Bahá’í Temple, Chile

Posted by
on January 09, 2017 at 01:00 PM

In a most forgettable year that appears to have been lost to the darkness of extreme polarisation and divisive undercurrents, of seemingly perpetual crisis and resultant disillusionment the world over, a little glimmer of faith has managed to hold up its shimmering, pearly flicker at the rolling foothills of the South American Andes. The construction of the 9th Temple of the universal Bahá’í faith in Santiago, Chile, which took a painstaking decade after its initial conceptualisation by Canadian architect Siamak Hariri, was completed and opened to public in October 2016. Siamak Hariri of Hariri Pontarini Architects, himself an early convert to the Bahá’í faith, has lovingly crafted this unique specimen of inspirational architecture by pushing the boundaries of structural technology through perseverance to achieve an apparently impossible adherence to the organic ethos of the original concept – in itself, an exercise in unflappable faith. Visualised and planned, not just as a Bahá’í place of worship, but as a tranquil refuge for introspection for the locals and an attraction for the Santiago tourist, this exceptional piece of architecture has been conceived to last a thousand years.

© Courtesy of internet resources

One of the most remarkable aspects about this structure dedicated to a universal faith of peace and brotherhood, other than its exceptional form, is the material that has been used to achieve it. A double skin of pearly white translucence that makes up each of the nine petal-like veils that enclose the circular inner space looks more like a naturally occurring material like stone, which supports the aim of maintaining an organic aura. Interestingly contrary is the fact that this material is entirely man-made by artistic human hands that researched and crafted it over a period of years!

Siamak Hariri’s concept for the temple, which won the two phase competition to design and build it, was to allow natural light into the structure and use it in the design, based on the Bahá’í belief in light as the unifying agent for humanity. With the aim of achieving this objective, the architect collaborated with renowned Canadian glass artist, Jeff Goodman, an expert at ornate blown glass creations, for a period of four years by the end of which the prototype for the faceted translucent glass panels that were to clad the structure was ready. Now aptly named Temple Glass (also called Pyrex), these cast glass panels are created by kiln-forming Borosilicate glass into unique patterns and polished by hand at Goodman’s studio. Apart from the aesthetics, the cast glass has virtues like minimal thermal expansion and earthquake resistant strength. 

So, now the Bahá’í Temple stands at the foothills of the Andes in Santiago with the unique rolling landscape of the region framing its singular form. The faith is based on the fundamental principles of one-ness of all humanity and its search for truth, unfettered by superstitions or prejudices of caste, class, community, religion, region, economic or social differences, nationality or gender. In keeping with these principles, their places of worship are required to be in a nine-sided (nonagonal) circular space devoid of any idol or picture, allowing entry from all nine sides. This Chilean Temple has been designed by the architect as a space enclosed by nine petal-like veils that form a domical bud around it, allowing in the spaces between them glazed slit openings that allow nine entries at their bases. Each veil is shaped by a space frame structure that is clad on the outside with faceted patterned Temple Glass Panels, each one of which is differently shaped to maintain the organic feel, and translucent white Portuguese Marble on the inside. The nine petals meet  around a central sky light – a circular oculus allowing day-light to stream in, etched with the  Bahá’í message. The design was perfected using software such as Rhinoceros, RSTAB and RFEM.

The resultant exterior effect is spectacular and dynamic. By day, the organic form of the bulbous dome gleams with its nine sails as if in billowing motion, their pearly brilliance lit up by the sun. By night, it becomes an asymmetrical domical candle ablaze with the lights from inside emanating through its skin. The surrounding landscape, designed by landscape designer Juan Grimm, with a large reflecting pool, curvaceous meditation paths and indigenous, drought resistant planting complements the Temple’s ethnic sheen that plays hide and seek as one approaches it along the steps up the mountainside. The landscape design supports the local municipal body’s environmental program called “Crece Verde” or “Green Growth”, In keeping with the Bahai belief in voluntary service to society as a means to heighten their spiritual ethos, an existing golf clubhouse on the property has been converted into an education centre for youth. All these aspects contribute towards making the House of Worship an ideal social anchor.

The equally spectacular interior of the temple is minimal and pristine in its articulation, sans rituals, pulpits, priests or icons; bathed in white luminance with an openness and transparency that is basic to the faith. The arrangement of leather lined seats on the walnut wood floor at two levels follows the curvature of the space containing them, where around 600 visitors can be seated at a time. As the eyes follow the upward motion of the towering enclosing veil walls and glazed interstices, they come to rest as they look straight up at the light filled central oculus, connecting the spirit in prayer with the universal power up there.

Architecture has been called frozen music. It has been hailed as the expression of values. But, if indeed, one looks for architecture that successfully articulates the intangible, we have already found one of the finest examples this past year in the Bahá’í Temple of Santiago.

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