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The temple came with a set of complex requirements, including that it should not resemble the architecture of any other major faith building and that it should welcome members of all faiths, an important Baha’i doctrine.

A global award for architecture has gone to a temple in Chile that was the project of a lifetime for its Canadian architect.

The RAIC International Prize was awarded on Friday night in Toronto to Hariri Pontarini Architects for the Baha’i Temple of South America in Santiago. Siamak Hariri, a partner in the Toronto-based firm, accepted the prize.

“This project was all about the highest aspirations,” he said in an interview on Friday night. “Too often in architecture we’re good at solving small problems. But when architecture gets a chance to say something big, that is special.”

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The RAIC International Prize has been awarded twice before. The previous award, in 2017, went to the Japanese firm Tezuka Architects for its Fuji Kindergarten. Hariri Pontarini are the first Canadian winners.

The Santiago temple, completed in 2017, was a 15-year passion project for Mr. Hariri, a founding partner. He won a design competition in 2003 for the building, which is one of eight global headquarters for the Baha’i faith. The temple came with a set of complex requirements, including that it should not resemble the architecture of any other major faith building and that it should welcome members of all faiths, an important Baha’i doctrine.

The Santiago temple, completed in 2017, was a 15-year passion project for Mr. Hariri, a founding partner.

DoubleSpace Photography

Mr. Hariri, with project architect Doron Meinhard and others, designed a round building whose walls are made of nine overlapping leaves – each of them constructed of thin marble and hand-cast glass. The technical and logistical challenges were “enormous,” Mr. Hariri said.

But the temple was hailed as successful by members of the Baha’i community and now by the RAIC award jury. In a report, the jury (made up of Canadian and foreign architects) called it “timeless and inspiring, a building that uses a language of space and light, form and materials” to create “a shared spiritual and emotional experience.”

That catches the main idea of the RAIC International Prize, which, with its $100,000 purse, is one of the world’s richest design awards.

The award was founded by Vancouver-born architect Raymond Moriyama along with the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 2013. It recognizes one specific building, not a body of work, as is more common. And rather than focus on aesthetic criteria, the prize goes to a work that is “transformative within its societal context.”

In interviews on Friday, all three of the finalists expressed sympathy with that goal. “I’m very glad it’s not just a beauty contest,” finalist Toshiko Mori said. “Architecture does have the power to change society.”

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Ms. Mori’s New York-based firm was nominated for a cultural centre called Thread in the Senegalese town of Sinthian.

Iwan Baan/Handout

Ms. Mori’s New York-based firm was nominated for a cultural centre called Thread in the Senegalese town of Sinthian. The building brings together people from “a region that is very remote, but very rich in diversity,” Ms. Mori said.

A complex shroud-like roof, made of local thatch, provides shade for a large group, and also is designed to harvest a large quantity of rainwater – a valuable commodity in this dry region. Thread was constructed almost entirely by local labour, using earth bricks and thatch gathered locally. This provides a model for local construction activity, while also creating an exceptionally large and beautiful gathering space.

The other finalist was the studio Barclay & Crousse, from Lima, for their Edificio E at the University of Piura in Piura, Peru. That building is a cluster of 11 colourful university buildings that create shade and cross breezes in the hot, dry equatorial desert.

Intended specifically to welcome low-income rural students into the university community, the complex combines academic and residence spaces. The jury said that, in this way, the building creates “a culture of formal and informal learning that gathers all students, irrespective of their social and economic origins, in an environment that is open, accessible, supportive and inclusive.”

Partners Sandra Barclay and Jean-Pierre Crousse expressed gratitude for the prize and its social aspirations. “In a forest, each tree is less important than the whole,” Barclay said. "Here, the spaces are less important than the spaces between them, spaces where people can gather.”

The other finalist was the studio Barclay & Crousse, from Lima, for their Edificio E at the University of Piura in Piura, Peru.

The prize founders’ goal was to share Canadian values with an international audience.

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That has happened now. And Mr. Hariri is an apt winner: He speaks often about the power of architecture to change people’s lives, not simply to solve problems. “Great architecture is about the public domain,” he said. “It can only come when there is a collective effort, and there are collective aspirations.”

In the Baha’i, he found a community ready to aim high; the argument of the RAIC prize is that our society should do the same.

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