In the Heights: The Bahá’í Temple of South America, Peñalolén, Santiago, Chile
PROJECT The Bahá’í Temple of South America, Peñalolén, Santiago, Chile
ARCHITECT Hariri Pontarini Architects
TEXT Francisco Díaz
PHOTOS Bahá’í World News Service/Raul Spinassé, Sebastián Wilson, Guy Wenborne, and Vanessa Guillén, as noted
The taxi took 25 minutes (and some grinding gears) to take me from the Grecia subway station in the eastern end of Santiago de Chile to South America’s first Bahá’í Temple, 980 metres above sea level, in the foothills of the Andes mountains. The 9.3-kilometre route crossed through the entire municipality of Peñalolén, home to 240,000 people and to some of the capital city’s most daring architecture of the past decades.
In Peñalolén, unlike in most other parts of Santiago, different social classes live together. This is where the wall of the Andes mountains meets with shopping centers, an active airplane runway, a military precinct (where several former military officers condemned for human rights crimes during the dictatorship are jailed), a hippie-style commune, a former torture center turned memorial site, a sports park that displaced Santiago’s largest slum, two private universities, a nature reserve—and whatever else you might imagine.
The Bahá’í temple, designed by Canadian firm Hariri Pontarini Architects, alights on the precise border between the city and the astonishing landscape of the mountains, with a privileged view towards the metropolis below. The impressive structure resembles a glorious flower, its translucent glass petals contrasting with the mountains and merging with the cloudy sky. After experiencing the place, it’s hard to think of this temple anywhere else in Santiago. The Bahá’í faith, with its friendly nature, has built its South American home in an equally welcoming district.
In plan, the building is a 30-metre-diameter circle, its perimeter divided into nine bays. At the ground floor, each of these alcoves contains an entryway framed by a stone column and a curved window. As the biggest, and therefore most inclusive, one-digit number, nine is sacred to the Bahá’í. The nine entries therefore symbolize the accessible nature of the faith. Although the design is driven by the principle of non-hierarchy, an exterior stair is aligned with one of the entries, and from it begins a curving aisle that divides the plan roughly in half, providing access to 389 seats set in arches. Next to this main access, a spiraling feature stair leads to the mezzanine, which runs along the perimeter of the circle, doubling as both a balcony overlooking the ground floor as well as a place where visitors may sit on built-in benches and meditate under the 30-metre-high dome.
In order to deal with Chile’s frequent earthquakes, the temple’s foundations were built over seismic isolators—a system of stainless steel and Teflon discs, developed by Chris Andrews from Halcrow Yolles (now CH2M) in collaboration with engineers at the University of Toronto and the Catholic University of Chile. The isolators absorb the earth’s movement and allow the building to slowly slide and rise during an earthquake. “ It’s like when you are on a boat,” explains lead architect Siamak Hariri, FRAIC. This innovative system—the latest technology for a temple built to last 400 years—allows the structure to function more or less independently from the ground slab up.
The temple’s most impressive feature, of course, is its floral shape, composed of nine ascending “petals”. As they rise, each petal narrows, finally meeting at the top, where the dome is sealed with an oculus. Transparent glass separates the petals, allowing a milky pattern of natural light to illuminate the temple.
The interior of the petals is clad with translucent Portuguese marble. Their exterior is made from a material specially devised for the project: a 32-millimetre-thick cast glass, moulded into both flat and curved surfaces, developed in Canada with Jeff Goodman Studio. Each petal comprises some 1,129 individual pieces of cast glass—86 percent flat for the main surfaces and 14 percent curved for the edges—mounted on a steel armature developed by the structural engineering team and optimized by Germany’s Gartner Steel.
To create the fabrication templates for the segments, project architect Justin Huang Ford spent a week at Frank Gehry’s studio in Los Angeles learning to use Dessault CATIA, a software developed for aviation and appropriated by Gehry for architectural works including the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. This technology allowed for the geometric resolution of the surfaces and optimization of the costly materials from which they are made, producing the exact form of each of the 10,161 cast glass pieces and 8,001 marble pieces that make up the petals. This precision results in a building that looks smooth and seamless at first glance—but up close, the geometric divisions are visible, and are exactly the same in every petal. The repetition of a single element in a circular pattern creates an “ inverted tulip,” according to Claudio Orrego, intendant of Santiago Metropolitan Region.
Orrego was a key figure for the development of the building. As former mayor of Peñalolén municipality, he was pivotal in bringing the temple to his district. Before he arrived on the scene, the location of the Bahá’í temple in Santiago was fraught. The 14 years from the project’s announcement to its completion was not entirely because of its architectural complexity—in fact, the initial design barely changed since Hariri Pontarini Architects won the design competition in 2003. Most of the time was spent choosing a site in Santiago.
Initially, the building was to be located in Linderos, 40 kilometres south of Metropolitan Santiago; then, in 2005, the site was shifted to the town of Colina, 30 kilometres north of the city centre. The controversy started in 2007 when the Chilean Ministry of Housing offered the Bahá’í a 700-hectare site in Metropolitan Park—the city’s largest urban green space, atop a hill that is visible throughout Santiago—but some stakeholders questioned the appropriateness of granting such a prominent piece of state land to a specific faith. Finally, by 2008, the Bahá’í community began considering the site in the foothills of the Andes, and eventually purchased the 80 hectares of land from its previous owner, the Old Grangonian Club rugby team. Excavation work started in 2010, and construction followed two years after.
While warm and welcoming Peñalolén in retrospect appears to be the temple’s rightful destiny, the impressive location in the foothills of Los Andes seems, in some ways, at odds with the Bahá’í spirit. For if it allows the flower-like structure to be seen from a distance—and therefore to be recognized as an architectural icon—it diverges from the non-hierarchical nature of the Bahá’í temples. Chilean landscape designer Juan Grimm successfully used pathways and plantings to underscore the idea of nine entries from all directions, but on this site, the circular structure ultimately has a clear front and back, as well as a main entry. The also-white Benedictine Monastery in Santiago, by Correa & Guarda (1963), faced a site with similar characteristics, but as the church was expected to be the only point of contact between monks and the community, it was logical that the construction had a single, controlled access. In the Bahá’í temple’s case, it feels evident that the nine-doored building was largely designed before its site choice was finalized.
The fact of being located in the foothills also brings the problem of constructing on a steep slope. In two other buildings located in Peñalolén, Mathias Klotz’s Altamira School (1999) and José Cruz’s Adolfo Ibáñez University (2004), the inclined site was a starting point that became integral to each project. In the Bahá’í temple, by contrast, the iconicity of the building prevails over the location—massive site work was needed to carve out a plateau for the temple and its landscaping to sit upon.
Standing at this huge horizontal surface excavated from the mountains, with the city so distant, it feels as if you are inside one of Julius Shulman’s photographs of the Stahl house in Los Angeles. In that very moment, surveying the expanse of the metropolis below, one can’t help but wonder how many will make the trek to this sanctuary in the heights. The Bahá’í seem confident that the new temple will boost knowledge of their faith—furthermore, in time, community-oriented programs will occupy new buildings planned for the site, helping to draw people here. But at present, that doesn’t seem so easy when the building is difficult to reach, particularly for those without cars.
Hopefully, those who hesitate will nonetheless undertake the voyage. This new white architectural icon in Santiago is worth the effort.
Francisco Díaz is the editor in chief at Ediciones ARQ, and currently teaches at the School of Architecture at the Universidad Católica de Chile. A monograph on this project, entitled Embodied Light, will be published by Birkhäuser and released in March 2017. Pre-orders are available via Amazon.ca.