In Search of Empathetic Architecture

Text Bruno Freschi

The uniqueness of this encounter was its absolute unexpectedness, my total surprise, and the slowly unfolding client aspirations for this rather auspicious building.

I had received a call from someone asking to have a very short meeting of introduction. A small group appeared to explain their purpose, which was a search for an architect to create a Jamatkhana, or Ismaili Muslim place of worship. There was no time to prepare any presentation of my work, which would have been normal under the circumstances. Clearly, this committee did not want to be subjected to a traditional marketing pitch.

Yes, was my response, I was very interested and understood the nature of the building. As well, we spoke of my travels, intellectual curiosity, and exposure to Islamic architecture. I explained my appreciation for transcultural sacred space and the architecture of community.

Eventually, I was invited to meet with His Highness the Aga Khan, and thus began a series of open conversations about cultural knowledge, community, and of course, architecture.

In the Aga Khan I discovered a deep understanding of architecture. He had a profound grasp of the potential of architecture to ground a community and give it identity, to embody its spiritual aspirations. We explored contemporary architecture, sacred space, civil society and the power of place for a new immigrant community in a country that celebrated universal pluralism: Canada.

To me, these inspired and exciting discussions established an intuition of the soul of the project. The discussions continued throughout the conceptual evolution of the Ismaili Centre in Vancouver. Vision, program and design all evolved simultaneously in a patient and creative search. The Aga Khan’s intellectual openness set a tone that enabled a high degree of experimentation and critical analysis as the design team explored the project’s architectural (and philosophical) directions with many people.

An intellectual foundation emerged around the concept of “empathic architecture”–an understanding that ultimately, architecture inspires the human endeavours of spirit and community through creating places that enable openness to the other. The Jamatkhana was to be a sacred place, a living foundation, and a site of encounter for a newly settled people. The Centre also included secular spaces, reflecting the inextricable bond between the spiritual and the material worlds. 

As a design team, we sought to create a place of prayer and contemplation. The physical presence of the building synthesizes the elements of structure, geometry, calligraphy, materiality and light. A narrative is revealed in the sequence of moving through the garden, entering the foyer, and nally, proceeding to the prayer hall. The light is gradual, allowing you to discover the place slowly.

In the prayer hall, the architectural narrative is absolute and complete, thus freeing one to go beyond the physical place and seek the spiritual. This is the paradox of sacred architecture: the complete realization of a material presence in order to transcend it. It is in this sense that the architecture expresses a belief that “one goes in to go out.” The search for the sacred transcends the architectural narrative.

Empathic architecture is essentially about creating a real place for personal and civic encounter, a place of welcome and opening to the other. Just as sacred space seeks to free a person to transcend the physical and move towards a spiritual encounter, so too the Ismaili Centre seeks to act as an iconic place for the civic encounter. It is a place of understanding and synthesis of cultures: East and West, young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim. The architecture, like the Aga Khan himself, speaks to and celebrates this openness.

Again, “one goes in to go out.” CA

Bruno Freschi was the lead architect for the Ismaili Centre in Vancouver, completed in 1985, and was chief architect for Expo ’86 in Vancouver. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1987.