Casting light on design of Temple

July 1, 2003
Emanating light...the apex of the Temple.

HAIFA, Israel — The architect of the new Baha'i Temple to be built in Chile, Siamak Hariri, sat down recently for a wide ranging interview about everything from the creative process to details of the design.

Light of inspiration

"The first concept was a temple of light," said Mr. Hariri, a Toronto-based architect.

"Light, after all, is the connecting force of the universe and all religions celebrate its spiritual delights.

"That was our starting point -- that it would glow with a dreamlike serenity which will explore the range of the phenomena of light and shadow in continual interaction."

Stimulation for that inspiration, he said, came in part from a close examination of the dome of the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, Illinois, in the United States.

However, Mr. Hariri said the creative team did not look at other buildings as a reference point for the design of the structure.

An alabaster model of a "wing" of the Temple. Slideshow
4 images

An alabaster model of a "wing" of the Temple.

Natural objects

"We wanted to capture the magic of looking under a canopy of trees in full daylight and at night -- we looked at many references but none of them were buildings," he said.

"We looked at unconventional sources, from white markings or tracery, at interesting Japanese baskets and how they interwove, at leaves of trees in Moscow with ice on them."

Those initial steps were just the start of what Mr. Hariri described as a challenging creative process.

"We were after a feeling," he said.

"We had highs and lows in the process, (it was) never linear. As most experiments go, the deep lows were followed by accidents and breakthroughs. Eventually the final form of the Temple began to take shape."

In one of the early stages, the creative team experimented with backlit resin, and with the way strands of copper interwove, he said. Computer and physical models were made.

Eventually the idea was born of using alabaster, a translucent stone. At first it was thought it would be too soft but that turned out not to be the case. Curving glass was selected as the medium to link the nine leaves.

The decision to use interior tracery out of nickel-plated stainless steel or white-stained oak was influenced by the "white on white" paintings by Mark Tobey.

The team, which grew to number 18, included not only design professionals but also engineers, musicians, animators, and experts in the complex "Maya" computer program, which is typically used for animation and industrial design rather than architecture.

Final form

Mr. Hariri said that when the final form emerged, the team was surprised and delighted to find that it conformed to classic proportions. The structure will be almost as wide as it is high.

He said the design parameters as laid down in the Baha'i Writings were taken very seriously -- the Temple had to have nine sides and a dome. There was symmetry in that the nine "wings" were the same shape but at the same time there was a carefully studied variety.

Mr. Hariri said he welcomed the fact that people gave various descriptions of the shape and appearance of the planned Temple.

"No architect wants their building to be one line, especially when it is to do with something as deep as the Baha'i Faith," he said.

"In the end, it is hoped that this sacred building will feel both simple and understated, and, at the same time, complex enough to accept and hold a rich multiplicity of readings and experiences."

Some, he said, had compared it to a ribbon, others to something marine. There are those who have seen it a cloud, a bubble, as something about to ascend into the heavens.

The nine alabaster wings have also been compared to "leaves".

Mr. Hariri referred to it as "temple as tent, room, sanctuary" -- and also used the analogy of a turban. He said it was to be both monumental and intimate, subtly structured and ordered yet capable of dissolving in light.

Asked what he most liked about the design, Mr. Hariri said: "Its softness. It is not found very often in architecture, softness. It is an embracing softness. The way it rests is soft, the light is soft, the detail is soft."

Interior ideas

Mr. Hariri said he noticed that many worshippers at the House of Worship in Wilmette wanted to be at the periphery.

As a result of that observation, he and the team for the Chile Temple put a lot of work into the alcoves on the ground floor and in the mezzanine, so that visitors could nestle there and look out through the glass to the landscape yet would always be able to see the Greatest Name (calligraphy of the name of Baha'u'llah) at the apex of the dome.

"What happens is normally that people come and say prayers and leave -- so the scale should be intimate," he said.

There will be seating for 500 (with an extra 100 in the alcoves) so there would be no feeling of being in an auditorium, he said.

Alabaster, oak and glass

The alabaster of the type that will form the wings is hard and resistant to scratching. When held up to the sun the marble-like stone lights up and reveals patterns, some looking like snow crystals.

The wings will be hollow with a steel framework in the middle. The framework, like veins in a leaf, will be clipped to the alabaster. There will be lateral stiffness in the wings obtained by the central rib being clipped to them at three points at the mezzanine level.

Mr. Hariri said that when pondering the concept of a temple of light, the team thought of a glass temple, but seismic and other considerations, such as its ephemeral nature, led to the rejection of that idea.

"We liked the solid enduring image that stone has naturally, but we didn't want to give up the glow," he said. Glass, therefore, was retained to play its part between the wings.

"The glass wraps up and around, like a ribbon. These glass ribbons between the wings transform, in one continuous form, from being an oculus at the very top (where the wings nest together) to skylights to a windows at the mezzanine level to the alcoves at the base."

The glass will be silk-screened or fritted to filter the light. Inside the dome the silvery white tracery will cast dappled patterns on the interior.

Pools and gardens

Look for a straight line in the pools and gardens and your search will be as fruitless as trying to find one in the building itself.

The paths around the gardens will not be straight, but slightly oblique. Mr. Hariri described these as being "like the veining of the lily leaf". There will be two pathways to circumambulate the Temple.

The nine prayer gardens adjoining the Temple "are really there to serve the alcoves," said Mr. Hariri. Three of those gardens would be in fact lily ponds, green rather than blue. A main purpose of the ponds is to reflect the Temple.

The gardens will emphasize indigenous species of Chile. A grove of weeping elms will adorn a viewing mound set away from the temple.

Avenue of approach

Mr. Hariri said people would approach the temple on foot along an avenue that points in the direction of the Shrine of Baha'u'llah in the Holy Land. The first two thirds of the approach will rise on a three degree slope and the last third will descend at the same angle, making the land surrounding the Temple seem like arms enfolding it.


Conventional model makers found the design too challenging to attempt so the computer design was sent to a "rapid prototyping oven" normally reserved for industrial purposes. Each of the nine plastic wings took 40 hours to construct. The wings of the model are removable so that the interior can be viewed. It can also be examined from underneath.


The Temple will be about 30 meters tall, about the height of the Shrine of the Bab. It will be between 25 and 30 meters wide.

The starting and finishing dates of construction are yet to be firmly established. The cost is yet to be announced but it will be paid for exclusively by contributions from Baha'is worldwide.

Creative team

Mr. Hariri emphasized the contributions of the team, and the consultations in which inputs from all members led to the progress of the design.

A Baha'i, Siamak Hariri, was born in 1960 in Bonn, West Germany. He is the son of Baha'is who heeded the call of the then head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, to leave their home in Iran to help the development of the Faith worldwide. They went to Brazil and then to Germany. A graduate with a Masters degree from Yale University School of Architecture, Mr. Hariri is a partner of Hariri Pontarini, Toronto.

His firm recently won a competition to design the city's waterfront as part of a team. Among its recent commissions have been the new $110 million Schulich School of Business for York University, and current work includes the Law School and School of Economics for the University of Toronto. He and his wife Sasha, an artist, have two children: David Amin, 13, and Yasmin, 10.

Other temples

Mr. Hariri said the design for the Chile Temple had moved away from the two-step structure of the seven other Houses of Worship where the dome rises from a substantial base.

The Chile Temple, in contrast, rises immediately from the ground.

Mr. Hariri said he wanted it to sit comfortably among the other continental Temples.

Although not basing the design of the Chile Temple on the other Houses of Worship (or any other building), the design team was nevertheless inspired by them.

"We were attracted to the Wilmette and Panama (Temples)," he said.

"I've always loved the Wilmette Temple, and particularly its dome . . . so we tried to capture the spirit of that temple, yet perhaps in a new way -- we all went there and were allowed to climb inside the dome. That was our beginning."

The team looked at the original drawings of the architect, Louis Bourgeois, impressed by the full-scale 50-meter drawings he did.

"The dedication of Mr. Bourgeois inspired us greatly -- he was clearly in touch with the Spirit. The drawings were stunningly beautiful.

"We also love the way the Panama Temple is so understated.

It transcends its own sense of itself, sitting majestically, quietly yet confidently connected to the landscape."

As for one of his favorite designs, Mr. Hariri nominated the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, designed by the Canadian architect, Sutherland Maxwell.


Mr. Hariri's team was selected to be on a short list of four.

"We were shocked to make the short list," he said. "We had only the beginnings of a concept."

"It is a testimony to the generosity and deep insight of the Universal House of Justice that they realized -- more than we realized -- that the concept had some potential yet it needed more time and space -- and they were very kind to give us the time and space."

For more on the Chile Temple see and