From condo towers to temples: Inside Toronto architects Hariri Pontarini's stunning Chilean project

Striking circular design the result of more than a decade of work

Bahá’í Temple of South America  - Construction

The Bahá’í Temple of South America, designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, in a photo during its construction. (Photo: Guy Wenborne)



High in the foothills on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile and set against the grand backdrop of the Andes Mountains, a mysterious glowing orb appeared recently, like an alien spacecraft landed for a rest.

Last Thursday, hundreds of students crammed into the Ryerson University Architecture Department's lecture hall, eager to hear about the orb from its maker — not from a distant star, but a Canadian: Siamak Hariri of Toronto's Hariri Pontarini Architects. In late 2016, after 12 years of experimentation, invention, development and finally construction, the Baha'i Temple of South America will be open to people of any faith for prayer and worship, and Hariri's appearance was accompanied by a display of drawings, photos, architectural models, material samples and videos that tell the story of the project's lengthy development.

Bahá’í Temple of South America - side view

A side view of the Bahá’í Temple of South America. (Photo: Guy Wenborne)

Known for elegant condo towers and institutional buildings in and around Toronto, Hariri Pontarini's building "Embodied Light" is a drastic departure from their usual work. 

It is a temple made of glass, white marble and steel, with nine, graceful leaf-shaped outer walls forming a dome, and an entrance beneath each one. At night, the entire building glows from within – visible for miles – and by day, the outdoor light passes through its walls, illuminating the voluminous space within.

Commissioned by the Chilean branch of the Baha'i Faith (an independent monotheistic religion founded in Persia in 1844), the building was first conceived in 1953, when it was decided that the Baha'i Temple of South America would be built in Santiago. It would be the last of nine continental temples built worldwide (only eight currently exist – one was destroyed), and the sister to the Baha'i Temple of North America, which is located in Wilmette, Illinois.

Bahá’í Temple of South America - sketch

An early sketch of the Bahá’í Temple of South America. (Hariri Pontarini Architects)

It took a while to get the idea off the ground — almost 50 years later the Assembly held an international design competition and selected Hariri Pontarini's ethereal design from 185 entries. A Baha'i himself, Hariri had an advantage, and designed a temple that embodied one of the fundamental notions of the Baha'i Faith: light as a symbol of unity of all mankind. But apart from understanding that aspect of the faith, he had no idea how to accomplish it, he told the Ryerson audience, while adhering to the strict requirements of the project.

"Part of the mandate of these temples was that they had to be as perfect as humanly possible," he explained. "What does that mean?" 

Bahá’í Temple of South America - daylight

Bahá’í Temple of South America, Chile (Photo: Justin Ford)

It also had to be built around a perfect circle, 30-meters wide, have nine sides and nine entrances (the number nine is symbolically significant to the faith) and needed to withstand extreme seismic activity, as the site is in an earthquake zone.

But the architects ventured ahead boldly. Says Hariri, "We live for the surprise. If we knew where we were going, we wouldn't want to be there."

Bahá'í Temple of South America: Hariri Pontarini ArchitectsTo Nov 13. Paul H. Cocker Gallery, Department of Architectural Science, Ryerson University, 325 Church, Toronto, Ont. Free.

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