"The school of architecture that I studied at some 30 years ago happened to be across the street from the wonderful art gallery designed by the great architect Louis Kahn. I love the building, and I used to visit it quite often", said Siamak Hariri—principal at Hariri Pontarini Architects—to kick off a recent TED Talk in New York. "One day, I saw the security guard run his hand across the concrete wall. And it was the way he did it, the expression on his face — something touched me. I could see that the security guard was moved by the building and that architecture has that capacity to move you. I could see it, and I remember thinking, 'Wow. How does architecture do that?'"

Siamak Hariri at the recent TED Talk, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects

Three decades later, it's still a question that factors into much of Hariri's work, including the recently-completed Bahá'í Temple of South America, a new architectural landmark in the Andean foothills of Santiago, Chile, and the subject of Hariri's recent TED Talk. The 2003 open call for designs responded to by the Toronto-based firm—one of 180 submissions from 80 different countries—brought up additional questions, specifically how does one design a sacred space in today's secular world, and how does one even define what's sacred today?

The Bahá'í faith's temples share a number of common features that needed to be incorporated into the building's design; a circular room, nine sides, nine entrances, nine paths, no pulpits, and no altars. The resulting design draws from a quote from the Bahá'í writings saying that “if you reach out in prayer, and if your prayer is answered, that the pillars of your heart will become ashine”. Inspired by this quote, Hariri came up with concept of a building that absorbs and emits radiance, asking "how could we make something architectural out of that, where you create a building and it becomes alive with light?" 

Bahá'í Temple of South America, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects

An initial concept described by Hariri as "looking too much like an egg" evolved into the current organic form, with inspiration drawn from the time-lapsed movement of plants reaching for light, Japanese baskets, and the spiral form of the cosmos. This base concept developed into a sketch displaying a form sheathed in layers, with translucent cladding framing an underlying support structure. Curving lines merge at the pinnacle of the structure, giving off the impression of undulating luminous drapery.

Bahá'í Temple of South America, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects

Next, much consideration was put in to the building's materiality. Following experiments with alabaster cladding, Hariri ended up going with a unique type of borosilicate glass to give the building a "shimmer[ing]" quality. "Borosilicate glass, as you know, is very strong, and if you break borosilicate rods just so and melt them at just the right temperature, we ended up with this new material, this new cast glass which took us about two years to make", said Hariri.

Special borosilicate glass used on the building's exterior, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects

Following seven years of bidding and design work, construction of the temple commenced in 2010, wrapping up six years later with an October 2016 opening attended by 5,000 people from 80 countries. To build the new landmark construction crews employed 2,000 steel nodes, 9,000 pieces of steel, 7,800 stone pieces, and 10,000 cast glass pieces. The cutting-edge design required the use of aerospace technology, extensive prefabrication, and even robotic machinery, all executed within 3% of the project's $30 million budget.

Bahá'í Temple of South America under construction, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects

Siamak Hariri's Bahá'í Temple of South America has received its fair share of critical acclaim, taking home some of the industry's top honours including the RAIC Innovation Award, the World Architecture News Best Building of the Year (selected by 97 judges around the world); Architect Magazine's Progressive Architecture Award (architecture's top unbuilt projects award); the Canadian Architect's Award of Excellence, and the International Property Awards. A project profile in National Geographic Magazine has introduced the building to a whole new market, pairing its organic design elements with the rugged setting of the Andean foothills.

Bahá'í Temple of South America's 2016 opening, image courtesy of Hariri Pontarini Architects

You can see Siamak Hariri's full TED Talk here. In the meanwhile, let us know what you think of the project by leaving a comment in the space provided below.