No Mean City: The World of Architecture, As Seen From Toronto

May 28

The Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

2010 / Categories: Uncategorized

Central garden, with Ismaili Centre in background

In Don Mills, today (May 28) will mark the groundbreaking on two buildings of exceptional importance for Toronto: a religious and community centre for Ismaili Muslims and a new museum of Islamic art. They’re being driven by the Aga Khan, the Ismaili spiritual leader and one of the world’s great architecture patrons (this book gives background). He’s in town today for the ceremony.

You may not have heard much about it before today, because the Aga Khan’s agencies are volunteer-driven and seemingly too modest to do much PR. Too bad, because this project is something special: essentially, a religious community is giving Toronto a major art museum and a new park, all designed to very high standards. (Globe news story; Lisa Rochon; Star news story.)

The centre and museum are large – about 100,000 square feet each – and the designs show creative, contemporary architecture that’s inflected with Islamic symbolism.

The project also features remarkably sensitive planning and landscaping, far better than anything nearby. Here is an overview:

Overview: Ismaili Centre, at left; museum at right

The Ismaili Centre – there are five others in the world, including one in Burnaby, B.C. – is being designed by the Indian architect Charles Correa. It’s  meant to serve Ismaili communities in eastern Canada and northeastern U.S. It will include a jamaatkhana, or prayer hall, topped with a grand, two-layered glass dome. In renderings I saw a while back, it looked spectacular. Here is the centre:

The Ismaili Centre, seen from the garden

The adjoining museum by  Japanese Pritzker Prize winner Fumihiko Maki is a bigger prize for Toronto. Maki also designed a building that represents Ismaili institutions in Ottawa, with Moriyama and Teshima, who are also working on the Toronto project.

Here is the museum:

Museum exterior

It will be run by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which decided to place it here when another site in central London (!) fell through. Maki’s design includes another dome, a central courtyard, and limestone-clad walls that cantilever outward on all four sides. The museum will have permanent exhibits of Islamic art and artifacts from the Aga Khan’s collection, plus galleries for visiting exhibitions and an auditorium.

Why is the centre going here, specifically? Many Canadian Ismailis have roots in the nearby Thorncliffe Park area, and it’s convenient for travellers, right next to the Don Valley Parkway. An article in an official Ismaili publication spells out the reasoning. More generally, Canada is important to Ismailis: the community here is large and well-established, and the Aga Khan sees Canadian pluralism as a model for other societies.

Still, this is an odd site for a museum, right on a highway, and it’s big, at 17 acres. So the Aga Khan’s agencies deserve much credit for how well they’re treating it. Under a plan by Sasaki Associates, it’ll essentially be a park – two formal gardens and an array of walking trails and botanical gardens, all publicly accessible. The parking is all buried underground, which is miraculous on a suburban site like this.

For the central garden, the Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic is working with the idea of the chahar bagh or four-part garden.

For the side near the highway, the designers figure that walls, strategically planted trees and hedgerows, and the sound of water features should blunt the sound of traffic.

The formal garden

The only downside of this project is what it replaces: half of the site was home to the Bata Shoe company headquarters, desinged by the important Canadian modernist firm John B. Parkin and Associates. The Bata building was a modernist landmark in the city and (though it was basically a knockoff of a Gordon Bunshaft) it deserved some consideration. However, the new complex is going to be $200-million worth of very fine architecture and landscape. Especially in this context – just off the Don Valley Parkway, on a street where high-quality modern office buildings are being replaced by poorly designed condos and townhouses – the caliber of the design is remarkable.

Of course, it’s impossible to judge buildings that don’t exist yet. And this complex has been a very long time, nearly 15 years, in the making. But construction is now underway, and since the people driving this project have the highest of motives and no hesitation about paying for excellence, I’m betting it will be impressive. To His Highness the Aga Khan: welcome to Toronto.

6 comments on The Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

  1. The Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum | Alex Bozikovic « Ismailimail
    on May 29, 2010
    at 11:01 am 

    [...] More: The Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum « nomeancity. [...]

  2. al haider
    on Jun 3, 2010
    at 10:03 am 

    I wish hope and pray that the world community of peace loving people will see this gift to Canada will serve as a beacon of hope in this Universe I have never been as proud and humble as I am now by witnessing a magnificient chapter unfold in the history of Ismailis in my life time I thank the Creator as he smiles and bestows his choicest blessings upon the small community as it moves in time with grace and dignity under the guidance of the Imam of time.

    on Sep 6, 2010
    at 2:48 pm 

    This magnificent Architect and great gift to to CANADA AND ALL THE COMMUNITIES of the world will be a remarkable learning and communion for the whole world….. This structure I believe will be the eighth wonder of the world .. I am sure this building will bring together all the communities and people of the world together…… No words can describe the significance of this huge project..

  4. lutfiya
    on Mar 29, 2011
    at 7:44 am 

    Please send how to contact with the Aga Khan Toronto Museum . Thanks alot

  5. Aga Khan Museum to open in Toronto, 2013 | Object Oriented
    on Sep 13, 2011
    at 9:33 am 

    [...] No Mean City. This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Alexander Brey. Bookmark the [...]

  6. Arusa
    on Nov 19, 2012
    at 11:51 pm 

    It’s wonderful to see such admiration for the works of the Aga Khan, especially on a project so intriguing and enlightening! I love what you have written here and it made me really happy to read it :)
    Thanks, and keep up the appreciation for all that is worth it! :)

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