Siamak Hariri: How Do You Create A Sacred Space? To design the Bahá'í Temple of South America, architect Siamak Hariri had to reimagine what a sacred space looks like. He found his answer and design in illumination.

Siamak Hariri: How Do You Create A Sacred Space?

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On the show today - the power of spaces.


SIAMAK HARIRI: I think I was raised associating beauty and aspiration with what you're here to do, you know?

ZOMORODI: This is Siamak Hariri.

HARIRI: That your work, if it's really done well, is like worship.

ZOMORODI: He's an architect based in Toronto.

HARIRI: It's an act of worship. It's an endearing act of worship. And it doesn't matter whether it's a business, school or temple - everything done really, really well with care - tremendous care - that that is really an homage to your higher purpose. And I mentioned it in my TED Talk...


HARIRI: 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.

We used to go across the street all the time and visit this building - it was a beautiful building.

And 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...

I could see that the building touched him...

...Something touched me. I could see that the security guard was moved by the building.

I mean, I don't know if you've ever had that happen to you, where...

And that...

...You know, makes your knees weak or something like that.

...Architecture has that capacity to move you. I could see it and I remember thinking, wow, how does architecture do that? At school, I was learning to design. But here - here was a reaction of the heart, and it touched me to the core.

ZOMORODI: Over the next 30 years, Siamak designed schools, galleries, theaters - large and technically challenging projects. But he was always chasing a feeling.


HARIRI: You aspire for beauty, for sensuousness, for atmosphere, the emotional response. That's the realm of the ineffable and the immeasurable. And that's what you live for - a chance to try.

ZOMORODI: And then, in 2003, Siamak got his chance.


HARIRI: There was an open call for designs for the Baha'i Temple for South America. This was the first temple in all of South America - it's a continental temple. A hugely important milestone for the Baha'i community because this would be the last of the continental temples and would open the door for national and local temples to be built around the world. And the brief was deceptively simple - a circular room - nine sides, nine entrances, nine paths - allowing you to come to the temple from all directions. Nine symbolizing completeness, perfection.

It's a whole new typology, it's a whole new form, it's a whole new thing. It has no pulpit...

No pulpit... There's no clergy.

...No sermons.

So now, you're not even dealing with precedent.

And in a world which is putting up walls, the design needed to express, in form, the very opposite.

So you have to create a place which will accept everyone from all backgrounds...

To people of all faiths...

...Saying that all of humanity is one - all the faiths are one.

A new form of sacred space. It was like designing one of the first churches for Christianity or one of the first mosques for Islam. So we live in a secular world. How do you design sacred space today? And how do you even define what's sacred today?

ZOMORODI: It sounds daunting. I mean, it's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity for any architect. But you are also Baha'i - right? - and so this was a really big deal.

HARIRI: Manoush, I was brought to my knees so many times, I can't tell you.

ZOMORODI: What happened?

HARIRI: Well, I didn't think I had any way to contribute to this incredible conversation. And putting yourself forward for something like a Baha'i Temple is absolutely - like, it's just overwhelming. You're never - you never feel that you're worthy. But how many times in your life do you have the opportunity to actually put your work in line with an aspiration that is as high as you could reach, that pushes you to your furthest reach? And that was, really, how I remember it. And then...


HARIRI: ...This thing took me in - this quote took me in - this extraordinary idea.

ZOMORODI: What was the quote?

HARIRI: It was it was a quote from Baha'u'llah and it says that a servant is drawn unto me in prayer.


HARIRI: It says that if you reach out in prayer, that the pillars of your heart will become ashine. And I love this idea of the inner and the outer. Like, when you see someone and you say, that person's radiant. And I was thinking, my gosh, how could we make something architectural out of that, where you create a building and it becomes alive with light? Like, alabaster - if you kiss it with light, it becomes alive. And I drew this sketch - something with two layers, translucent with structure in between, capturing light. Maybe a pure form a single form of emanation that, you could imagine, would be all dome. And everything we kept making was looking too much like an egg - a blob.

The beauty of a design process is, if it's done in a way that's really exciting, is you don't know where you're going.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) It's terrifying.

HARIRI: It's terrifying. We worked like crazy. We were in a very dark spot. But I remember it clearly, and then I saw a little video which showed a plant moving in the direction of light. You ever see those where...

ZOMORODI: Is it time-lapse video?

HARIRI: It's time-lapse - yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And you move the light and the plant goes this way and then the other way.

ZOMORODI: It's like a dance.

HARIRI: Yeah, it's absolutely miraculous, I think. And it just occurred to me that prayer is also movement - it's action. And so imbued in the design became rotation and torquing, and that movement was the breakthrough.


HARIRI: A single totalized form, a perfect 30 meter circle composed of nine wings that torque slightly in a spiral, and it is a dome but it's not a dome.

ZOMORODI: It's kind of like a translucent rose bud pointing to the sky.

HARIRI: Yes. Oh, my goodness. That's when we said, wow, that's it.


HARIRI: And then we ended up with this. This is this temple with two layers, nine luminous veils, like, luminescent drapery. One hundred eighty submissions were received from 80 countries, and this was selected. So we went to the next stage of how to build it. We had submitted alabaster, but alabaster was too soft. And we were experimenting, many experiments with materials, trying to think how we could have this kind of shimmer. And we ended up with borosilicate. And borosilicate glass, as you know, is very strong. And if you break borosilicate rods just so and melt them, we ended up with this new material, this new cast glass, which took us about two years to make.


HARIRI: And it had this quality that we loved, this idea of the embodied light. But on the inside, we wanted something with a soft light, like the inner lining of a jacket. On the outside, you have protection, but on the inside, you touch it. So we found this tiny vein in a huge quarry in Portugal with this beautiful stone, which the owner had kept for seven generations in this family, waiting for the right project, if you can believe it. It's beautiful. And the way it lights up, and it has that translucent quality.

And then because of the way this temple was designed, during the day, the light is moving because the sun is moving. And so there is an oculus at the top, and there's these slivers of light, and the whole figure is moving with the day. And in the early morning, the light in the temple is this beautiful blue, you know, that dawn light. And in the afternoon, you have to experience it. It's this beautiful sunset orange light. The whole temple becomes completely immersed in this afternoon sunset light. And then, of course, at night, it reverses itself where it becomes emanating light. So it emanates light and becomes this structure that has this sense of flow to it.

I've been there many times and watched it. And what I love the most is the stories that come from people. They say that they feel something and that's - it's like the security guard - right? - that runs his hand - this emotional reaction. And so definitely that's happening. I mean, I saw somebody - I'll never forget. He was like a biker. He had tattoos from top of his head to the feet. And he was sitting motionless for 30 minutes. I'm telling you, Manoush. And tears are coming down his eyes. And I thought, wow. So this is what you want. You want a space that just belongs to everybody.


ZOMORODI: It might be a while until you are able to travel back to the temple. Does that make you sad, you know, because of the pandemic and travel restrictions and who knows where things are going with the virus spreading?

HARIRI: No. In fact, until you just mentioned it, I didn't even think of it. I...


HARIRI: No. I think that it's not mine. As I said, I think, really, it's way bigger than me. And so I don't have that kind of relationship with it. I think that whatever I can do to safeguard its beauty and as they add and change and move things around, safeguard the vision - and if they allow me, that would be great. Otherwise, I just feel like it's way bigger than me, you know?


ZOMORODI: That's architect Siamak Hariri. To see his full talk and photos of the beautiful Bahai'i Temple of South America in Santiago, Chile, go to Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about the power of spaces. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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