To mark the Aga Khan's 78th birthday, here's a look at his museum in Toronto

The Aga Khan Museum Toronto is designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki while the Ismaili Centre is designed by Indian architect Charles Correa. Both buildings are connected by the reflective gardens of Lebanese architect Vladimir Djurovic.

Inspired by Islamic traditions, the Aga Khan Museum Toronto fuses art and architecture in a landmark with collections spanning 10 centuries of history.

Along the Don Valley Parkway, a major highway 15 minutes north of Toronto, two uniquely angular buildings evoke much curiosity. These are the newly-opened Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre of Toronto. They are dedicated to presenting an overview of the artistic, intellectual and scientific contribution that Muslim civilisations have made to world heritage, as well as a catalyst of education, learning, understanding and tolerance. 

At its heart, the project showcases the plurality within Islam and its relationship with other traditions. There is perhaps no better gift for the Aga Khan, who just celebrated his 78th birthday, than for him to see the fulfilment of his long-held dream of a museum committed to offering insight and perspective into Islamic civilisations and the cultural threads that weave through history. 

The Harvard graduate in Islamic history has long been a vocal proponent of pluralism and a champion of development for 50 years through the Aga Khan Development Network across 30 countries, addressing complex issues including the provision of healthcare, education, cultural and economic revitalisation, and advancement of civil society.

“My definition of architecture goes beyond a concern for buildings designed by architects; I see architecture as embracing practically all aspects of our entire built environment,” he said after receiving the Gold Medal by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada last November for his work as a dedicated patron of architecture; for instance, the triennial US$1mil Aga Khan Award for Architecture is now the world’s largest architectural award.

Accordingly, a trio of global architects was chosen to undertake the landmark project, which culminated in a recent grand opening by Canadian PM Stephen Harper.

Revered Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, a Pritzker Prize winner, was tasked in interpreting the Aga Khan’s vision. Celebrated Indian architect Charles Correa designed the Ismaili Centre, where both buildings are unified by Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic’s gardens on a site spanning 6.8ha (17 acres). Parking for 600 vehicles is underground, ensuring an uninterrupted poetic play of architecture across the space.

The museum is clad in vividly white Brazilian granite, selected for both its colour and ability to withstand the harsh Canadian winters. The building responds to the constantly changing seasons by directing and diffusing light into the building subtly. It is positioned 45 degrees to the solar north to ensure that all exterior surfaces receive natural light over the course of the day. The angular façade walls enhance the play of light across the surface.

“The goal would be to capture the day’s and night’s sources of light to create a sense of iridescence, reflectivity, and a glow on the building’s elevations and to use various manifestations of that light to emphasise subtle colours” – this was the Aga Khan’s “poetic yet detailed brief” explains Gary Kamemoto, director of Maki and Associates.

“We interpreted and executed the brief in a way where visitors could immediately recognise it from the outside and experience it in various shapes and forms inside. We hope they will return to discover how the building in its form and spaces behave with light over a single course of time and season.”

The upper part of the building casts a shadow over the base, with cut-outs above acting like sundials, Kamemoto adds.

“It creates a stark contrast between light and dark with deep shadows in recesses which become flooded with pure light over the day. People tend to enjoy buildings when the sun is out. But Toronto can also be very snowy with many days overcast. As such, this white building will respond to the different quality of light. We hope we have designed a building that looks beautiful and has poetry through all seasons.”

Inside, a beautiful glass encased courtyard is the heart of the museum. With flooring featuring an intricate tri-colour mosaic of construction grade Namibian lapis, French limestone and white Brazilian granite, the courtyard’s open roof filters natural light through 13m-tall double-glass walls etched with mashrabiya patterns.

The galleries flow out neatly from the courtyard, shielded from light to protect the precious artwork. At any time, these galleries will exhibit some 300 of the museum’s 1,000-piece collection of Islamic art. One gallery is devoted to temporary exhibitions that will be curated alongside international museum partners such as the Louvre and the Hermitage.

The exterior spaces connecting both museum and the Ismaili Centre are designed to capture the essence of traditional Islamic gardens with a contemporary outlook. Djurovic designed a minimalist composition of reflecting pools and some 1,200 mature trees, with structured, low lying concrete divisions that act as benches for contemplation or quiet conversations ideal for this meditative space.

The park flows out effortlessly with its geometric grids based on a traditional charbagh or foursquare garden. The combination of flat sheets of water reflecting the sky and trees or a snowy white landscape creates an ethereal feeling. As with every other aspect of this project, the details convey a richer meaning – in the gardens, Djurovic has also created a rose garden where the scents and origins of the varieties are carefully selected to express geographic dispersion across the world of the Ismaili community today.

Across these gardens, the Ismaili Centre is the sixth among a global network of such centres in Vancouver, London, Lisbon, Dubai and Dushanbe.

The Toronto centre’s most notable feature is the stunning prayer hall composed of elegant, structural steel trusses of various depths and dimensions, which are covered by a double layer of glass that required precise fabrication and assembly. The glass rises in the shape of an inverted cone and pieced together to form a translucent fractal skin. This is Correa’s contemporary interpretation of muqarnas ceiling, where muqarnas corbels are traditionally used to transition between square and circular geometries.

Encircling the hall is a delicate maplewood screen with repeating calligraphic script of the name of God. Beneath the sky, or stars during evening prayers, spirits soar heavenward effortlessly among the faithful who gather in this intangibly divine space.

¦ This article was originally published in Life Inspired, out every second and fourth Sunday of the month, and distributed exclusively with The Sunday Star to selected areas in the Klang Valley.

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