The prestigious biennial Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) International Prize is not a typical architectural award.
An international jury of six highly distinguished architects has to choose a building that stands out for being “transformative within its societal context” and “expressive of the humanistic values of justice, respect, equality, and inclusiveness.” This they have to do from among an extraordinary selection of architectural structures from around the world that have impacted the social life of the communities within which they were built.
This year’s RAIC International Prize of $100,000 was awarded to the Bahá’í House of Worship for South America. The prize money is being dedicated to the long-term maintenance of the Temple. Commissioned by the Universal House of Justice and designed by Canadian architect Siamak Hariri, the House of Worship for South America has become an iconic symbol of unity for Santiago and well beyond. Overlooking the city from the foothills of the Andes, the Temple has received over 1.4 million visitors since its inauguration in October 2016. The House of Worship has not only symbolized unity but it has given expression to a powerful conviction that worship of the divine is intimately connected with service to humanity.
The connection between the built environment and the well-being of society was a preeminent concern for the Jury of the RAIC Prize. Diarmuid Nash, the Jury Chair, explains that three architectural projects were selected as finalists for the transformative impact they had on their respective communities. “The Bahá’í Temple was a community project. Numerous volunteers worked on this project, similar to a way a community project works in a small village, but this was on a global scale.”
“But the Temple went beyond the community,” he continues. “It extended the principles of the Bahá’í Faith—that every person is equal, that every person can come here to reflect and regenerate. It had this impact that rippled beyond the community and attracted more and more people from all walks of life.”
The process of selection was rigorous and extended over six months. Jury members were asked to perform site visits as part of their research and selection process. “We asked Stephen Hodder, former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects and guest Juror, to visit this project,” says Mr. Nash. “We thought he would have a dispassionate eye.”
Mr. Hodder visited the Temple for three days earlier this year and spent a significant amount of time with the local community. He later shared his impressions with the Jury, referring to the House of Worship as “truly transformational, timeless and spiritual architecture, the like of which I have never experienced, and the influence of which extends way beyond the building.”
Speaking about Mr. Hodder’s visit, Mr. Nash says “Stephen said to me that he had not felt such an emotional impact since he had walked into Ronchamp, which is a very famous chapel all of us have visited in our architectural careers. It is a touchstone of modern architecture. He said ‘this goes beyond Santiago, it reaches out to the world.’”
Mr. Hodder in his comments to the Jury shared the following thoughts:
“How can it be that a building captures the spirit of ‘unity,’ a sacred place, or command a prevailing silence without prompting? The interior space spirals upwards vortex-like culminating with the oculus within which is the inscription ‘O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious’. Seating orientates to Haifa and the Shrine of the Báb, the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh…. But why do people flock to the Bahá’í Temple? Is it the garden, planted with native species and lovingly cared for by volunteers, or the view over Santiago and remarkable sunsets, or the curious object set against the mountains? The Temple is the anchor…At night, the opacity of the cast glass outer skin, and the translucency of the Portuguese marble inverts, and the dome appears to glow ethereally from the inside…. The Temple has not only afforded a focus for the Bahá’í community but in their commitment to ‘service’ also for the neighbourhood and its well being.”
It was not only the impact of the Temple on society but also the nature of its craftsmanship that struck the Jury. “It was lovingly assembled,” says Mr. Nash. “The woodwork, the stonework, and the glasswork—they all have the sense of a hand shaping them, which is remarkable for a project so sophisticated. This had a powerful impact on the Jury. There was this sense that the hand of the community had crafted the outcome.”
In the wake of the award, Mr. Hariri has been reflecting on the endeavour. “Hundreds of people sacrificially worked on this project with great dedication, enormous skill, and put themselves forward at the very frontier of what’s possible in architecture,” he explains.
“The Temple reflects an aspiration. What architects do is put into form aspiration. When you have a chance like this, where the aspirations are so great, it requires the furthest reaches of imagination to meet that challenge.”
The award was presented on 25 October at a ceremony at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto. “Above all,” said Mr. Hariri in remarks he made that evening, “our gratitude extends to the Universal House of Justice which was our unwavering source of guidance, courage, and constancy.”
Mr. Nash, who was there, says that as the talk finished people were standing and cheering. “We were all very inspired. It’s a project that has a life of its own. It is supposed to be a building built to last 400 years. I suspect it will go well beyond that.”
In Norte del Cauca, the land is blanketed by sugar cane plantations. They run for miles, under the watchful gaze of the Andes.
Scattered amid the expanse of monoculture fields, villages and small farms dot the terrain. In recent decades, these traditional farms and the lush greenery of the region have been largely overtaken by vast fields of sugar cane crop.
Here, in the village of Agua Azul, and in neighboring communities, people have been talking about the revival of the natural habitat. This conversation was catalyzed in April 2012, when it was announced that a Baha’i House of Worship was to be built here for the people of the region.
Over the period since the announcement, as the community has set out to prepare itself for this momentous development, a heightened consciousness of the nature and purpose of the House of Worship has given rise to an acute awareness about the physical environment and its relationship to the spiritual and social well-being of the population.
“There were several meetings early on, when plans for the Temple were announced,” explains Ximena Osorio, a representative of the Colombian Baha’i community. “People were inspired by the concept of the House of Worship, how it brought together devotion and service, how it was to be a place of worship for everyone.”
“Gradually, conversations arose about the types of trees and flowers that would surround the Temple,” says Ms. Osorio. “They wanted the landscape to capture the beauty and diversity of the region.”
Over time, the conversation evolved. “An idea emerged,” continues Ms. Osorio. “We would grow a native forest on the land surrounding the Temple site. ”
The idea took root, and a team coalesced around the project.
Hernan Zapata, affectionately referred to within the community as “Don Hernan”, recently joined the initiative. A traditional farmer from the neighboring village of Mingo, he has worked the land his entire life.
Today, his is one of the remaining traditional farms in the region, and many of the species which are found on his land have all but disappeared in surrounding areas. His land provides a glimpse into the rich ecological diversity that had characterized Norte del Cauca only decades ago.
“The truth is that Norte del Cauca was once an immense forest,” explains Don Hernan. “But all of that has been destroyed. Now none of it exists.”
“One thing I want with this project,” he explains, “is that new generations should know what once existed. This native forest that we are going to grow should be a school, should be a place of learning.”
The project has captured the imagination of many others in the region as well. Throughout neighboring villages, individuals have begun to donate seeds and plants that can be grown on the land around the Temple site and in a greenhouse that has been built for the project by local volunteers.
Contributions have included indigenous species, such as the rare “Burilico” tree, which is near extinction in the region.
For Gilberto Valencia, a local factory worker and member of the project team, this initiative has connected him to his family history in Norte del Cauca.
“I’ve always been very motivated to know more about the land and about farming because, while I am not a farmer, I come from a long line of farmers. My father and his father always had a farm that they cultivated for the subsistence of the family, and for the sale of goods to others.”
The project inspired Mr. Valencia, who is married and a father, to begin studying environmental engineering.
“When I began working on the land surrounding the House of Worship, I felt at that moment, that the thing that we were going to build was going to change the natural environment,” he said. “This is a chance to change the destiny of the region.”
Mr. Valencia now works on the project alongside his ten year old son, Jason, the project team’s newest and youngest member.
In recent months, Jason has found himself immersed in the project, helping to transplant seeds and saplings to the temple site and working alongside his father to cultivate and protect the surrounding land.
“I have learned about trees I never knew existed,” says Jason, speaking about his experience. “I love working with my father on this project because, together, we’re going to revive many of the plants that have been lost.”
For Alex Hernan Alvarez, a resident of Agua Azul and member of the project team, what is happening in the village has profound implications for the children.
“Here, in Norte del Cauca, we don’t have land or spaces like this, open for everyone. I have three children, and it is very gratifying for me to think that I will leave something for them,” says Mr. Alvarez.
“Knowing that a verdant forest and magnificent House of Worship will bloom for future generations inspires in me a profound sense of dedication.”
Speaking of one of the indigenous trees of the region – the ‘Saman’ tree – Mr. Alvarez states, “The Saman is a traditional tree, beautiful and large. When my children go to the land to pray, they will have a place to sit, under that tree. This motivates me every day. This brings me joy.”
While the House of Worship is not yet built, in many important ways, it is already carrying out its purpose, inspiring the inhabitants of the region to connect with the sacred and reach for greater heights of service to their communities.
“The idea of the Temple, what it represents,” says Ms. Osorio, “is in itself cultivating in all of us – children, youth and adults – an appreciation for the importance of a life centered around worship of God and service to humanity.”