Ambassador of Excellence

Text Trevor Boddy
Photos Gary Otte unless otherwise noted

Convergence is a two-way process–from the Canadian Ismailis, many of whom arrived here under duress, but also from us native-born Canadians who have lived and worked with them as they flourished like no other community of new immigrants, ever. The story here is of a bridging friendship and mutual respect. Over the past 40 years, there has been a strong link between the Shia Ismaili Muslims led by His Highness the Aga Khan and this country, a true convergence of pluralist values and respect for the diversity of culture. This is perhaps the most important reason for the Aga Khan’s receipt of the RAIC Gold Medal.

Canada has long been home to Muslim populations, and in some unlikely regions. A Paris-based fur-trading company imported workers from Lebanon to Northern Alberta in the late 19th century. Consequently, Edmonton’s 1938 Al-Rashid was the first purpose-built mosque in Canada–a wooden structure that found a permanent home at Fort Edmonton in 1991. Continuing this pioneering line, British Columbia came to host the second major Ismaili Centre in the West (after the Hugh Casson-designed Ismaili Centre near London’s Victoria and Albert Museum). This occurred with the opening of the Ismaili Centre in Vancouver, completed in 1985 by Arthur Erickson protégé Bruno Freschi.

In my original review of the Ismaili Centre for Section A magazine, I had questioned the settling into the site of this major public building–an almost apologetic integration into the suburb of Burnaby on the outskirts of Vancouver. I recently had the honour of returning with its architect, who reminded me that the acceptance of a large Jamatkhana (place of prayer and congregation) in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood was by no means automatic in the 1980s, even in cosmopolitan Greater Vancouver. 

Like Freschi himself, the Ismaili Centre has aged gracefully. In the forecourt, now-mature cedars form dense cylindrically clipped “columns” that extend the roof height and spatial logic of the prayer hall, forming a verdant counterfoil to its volumes. Around the perimeter are lush plantings and leafy sitting areas, a social zone for worshippers and community. They form a popular gathering hub after Friday prayers, but just as much so at the end of a sunny Tuesday afternoon. 

The prayer hall’s sumptuous detailing, especially the calligraphy-infused wall panels and window surrounds, seems just right. So does its structure: Freschi’s distillation of the spatial logic of the mosques he toured during his schematic design phase. Caught up in the Postmodern debates then raging about the uses of architectural history, the Ismaili Centre in Vancouver never got its due amongst architects when it opened, but will perhaps yet come to be appreciated as the fine chamber work it is. 

In 2014, Canada will become the only country with two Ismaili Centres after the anticipated opening of Charles Correa’s Ismaili Centre in Toronto. If the Vancouver building is a chamber work, the one in Toronto aspires to symphonic status–it is much larger, with more glamour and embellishment.

As a nominator for the Aga Khan Architecture Award and participant in its seminars and award ceremonies throughout the Islamic world over the past 25 years, I have seen this rare global network promoting architectural excellence in action. Other Canadians have also been directly involved in design work commissioned by His Highness and his agencies abroad. Vancouver-based Ismaili architect Farouk Noormohamed has worked on plans for two campuses of the Aga Khan University, crafted a ne arts centre for Mombasa, and designed or adapted Jamatkhanas for North Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. 

Noormohamed’s most signicant work to date is the large Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe, in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, home to an important and long-established Ismaili community. The Dushanbe building joins constructions in London, Vancouver, Lisbon, Dubai and soon Toronto, as major ambassadorial buildings that are showpieces for both local worshippers and the general public. Noormohamed’s design draws deeply on the architectural traditions of the region, and is a product of much study and scholarship. The Dushanbe building continues a theme common to most buildings commissioned by His Highness, which strive to make contemporary sense of the possibilities of tradition. With part of the funding for the building provided by the Canadian Ismaili community, and its Vancouver-based designer alongside an honorary Canadian as patron, the Dushanbe building is further proof of the shared architectural trajectory that led to the Gold Medal.

The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat building in Ottawa is a closing example of His Highness’s commitment to pluralism and a dialogue with Canada. Over the past 30 years, the Parliament Hill and Sussex Drive precinct has been home to a number of buildings that have failed in trying to create a Canadian architectural identity connected with local traditions. The gem-like simplicity and purity of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat’s architecture by Fumihiko Maki make it the stand-out creation in the area. Much of the building is devoted to a large hall, serene and inspiring. When compared with the Vancouver and Dushanbe buildings, it demonstrates that His Highness’s architectural tastes spring from the same vital well of pluralism. This is the most “ambassadorial” of buildings, taking the notion of dialogue and diplomacy back to their origins–the gracious meeting of minds. Whether for client or architect, there can be no higher goal than this. CA 

Trevor Boddy is co-curator of Critical Juncture, a recent global gathering of architecture critics at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He curated the Gesamtkunstwerk exhibition on the work of the Bjarke Ingels Group for Vancouver developer Westbank, on display from March 22-May 19, 2014. A companion catalogue is available. For more information, please visit