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A winning essay of light

A Toronto architect's design for a Baha'i temple illustrates the challenges of creating places of worship, writes LISA ROCHON

Wednesday, July 16, 2003 - Page R3

Throughout the ages, darkness has been the place to escape. We've been crawling out of the caves of our minds in search of something that is, at least, less than dark. Light is what we ultimately want. Not the kind that cooks us alive in our condominiums. But the kind that moves and flickers like our hopes and desires.

At its most sublime, spiritual architecture has always attempted to capture and liberate the light. Seen through the bluish-mauve stained glass of the north rose window of Notre-Dame Cathedral, light appears to us like intelligence. At the chapel by Eero Saarinen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, light appears from a single, benevolent source at the top of the conical roof.

Religion speaks to us through liturgy and song. But architecture heightens the experience by gathering people under one spectacular roof. And what about the openings in the place where we worship? They're known as windows in other, more workaday buildings. A spiritual house, because it is understood as such, is immediately invested with extraordinary meaning the moment it is constructed. With every cut in the mosque, the synagogue, the cathedral, light is delivered like a message -- a slice of enlightenment.

In calling his winning design for a place of worship A Temple of Light, Toronto architect Siamak Hariri set for himself a formidable task. The scheme, featuring an organic form sheathed in nine veils of alabaster, has recently won an international competition for the Baha'i House of Worship near Santiago, Chile. With a preliminary budget of $20-million (U.S.), it is designated as the Baha'i mother temple for all of South America. The last of the seven mother temples to be constructed around the world was designed by Fariborz Sahba. He based his dome structure on the Lotus flower. It opened in 1986 in New Delhi, and receives an estimated 2.5-million visitors each year.

How to approach the great essays of light around the world without being derivative or redundant? To begin their answer, Hariri and his team set up a studio outside of their downtown Toronto offices. The idea was to work outside of themselves and their built portfolio. Hariri Pontarini Architects have produced the McKinsey & Co. headquarters in Toronto, a classic of urban elegance, as well as the Schulich School of Business at York University. The firm is also designing a west-end Torontofilm centre and screening room commissioned by director Atom Egoyan.

For their Temple of Light, they drew their initial inspiration from shapes -- not other works of architecture -- that allowed for the passage of light in complex and intricate patterns. They pinned up images of ice storms with people walking under a frozen-tree canopy. And they looked at glass vases and woven baskets, all of them sensuous, womanly forms. "We weren't referencing buildings, but thinking about sitting under trees and looking up," says Hariri. "If we were referencing other buildings, we would have been caught. "I remember we started to look at some forms that looked Gehry-esque. We did that early on and we said 'no.'"

A Persian by the name of Baha'u'llah founded the Baha'i faith in the mid-1800s. The religious leader authored a series of tomes outlining the need for a unity of all religions and the embracing of diversity: economic, social and cultural. Equality between men and women is a fundamental tenet of the faith. Hariri, who is a practicing Baha'i, says his connection to the religion goes back to Iran when his grandmother started following the faith. Haifa, Israel, is now the world centre for the Baha'i. The Baha'iUniversal House of Justice, composed of nine members from around the world, launched the two-stage Santiagocompetition from Haifa. A total of 185 submissions were received in the first round. Finalists were interviewed from Canada, the United States, Australia and Britain.

For months, the Hariri team, which involved up to 16 designers, developed their scheme. "We were stumbling through dark alleys -- we had no idea of where we were going," says Hariri. Along the way, small, primitive models or wire mesh and clay were constructed in parallel with computer modelling. The architects turned to Academy Award-winning Maya 3D animation software, favoured by film animators for its soft, malleable qualities. Ultimately, they hit upon an organic, slender form inspired by nature. Alabaster was selected as a luminous stone drapery for the building. Within the interior, the influence of the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, is considerable, as much for the sinewy, wooden tracery that graces the upper reaches of the dome as for the curvilinear mezzanine and side chapels that occupy the perimeter of the temple.

As is required in the design of all Baha'i temples, a dome structure was fundamental -- so too was the significance of the number nine. Rather than one main door, the temple features nine sides and nine entrances as a symbolic gesture to welcome people from many points of the Earth. The drapery is divided into nine veils. Within each section of alabaster is a grid of steel that is visible to visitors approaching the temple. From the model schemes, the building appears to rise like a shimmering dome from a plateau outside of Santiago. Hariri hopes to have the house of worship constructed three years from now.

Seating for about 500 is provided within the centre of the temple but special attention is paid to the individual in meditation. "We went to observe several temples and realized that people don't like to be in the middle. This is about private meditation," says Hariri, adding that the emphasis in the Baha'i faith is on individual prayer rather than chanting together in unison. "You're there to really be alone with yourselves."

The temple is set on a vast, 17-hectare site next to the Pan-American highway. Nine prayer gardens and nine lily pools that extend directly to the temple's walls define the landscape. More alcoves are provided on the second floor where people can look out through glass fritted with a pattern of lines to view the landscape.

What separates decent attempts at architecture and masterworks has to do with layers of interpretation. What else is there to see in a strip mall but a long box structure produced for commerce and by the bottom line? In A Temple of Light, there is the stillness of the alabaster veils, like the wings of birds in a resting position. But there is movement in the way the nine veils have been torqued around the apex of the dome, a gesture that also makes each veil look distinct from the others. Inside, a visitor might read -- as we do with Gaudi's Casa Batllo in Barcelona -- the outline of animal bones. A geneticist friend read an energy-giving molecular configuration in the underside of the dome. The female body is wonderfully alive in the scheme, too, but so is the spiralling form of snails or sea urchins.

As for the presence of light in the temple, Hariri has imagined it as a rite of passage -- from the outside, light travels through the outermost layer of alabaster, through the curved steel structure that is itself enclosed in glass and through the inner layer of alabaster before passing through the screen of the white-stained wooden tracery. At last, the light -- and the message that might be read into it -- reaches the visitor. Heavily fritted glass connects the veils from the oculus of the dome down to the private alcoves. With this design, Hariri contributes not only a luminous house of worship, he gives to Chile a spectacular essay of light.

Hariri's drawings and models of the winning design for A Temple of Light will be exhibited at the George Brown School of Design in Toronto beginning Aug. 6. For information: 416-415-2000.

©Copyright 2003, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

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