International Idealist

Text George Baird
Photos Gary Otte unless otherwise noted

The selection of His Highness the Aga Khan as recipient of the RAIC’s highest honour–its Gold Medal–marks the rst time in more than 30 years that a non-architect has been chosen. According to the citation, the award recognizes the extraordinary achievements of His Highness in the exemplary use of architecture “as an instrument to further peaceful and sustainable community development around the world.” In recognizing His Highness, the RAIC took note of his remarkable accomplishments in various aspects of the field of architecture as part of his broader social and economic development work through the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). This includes the specialized cultural programming undertaken through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the restoration of many heritage sites throughout the Muslim world by the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. 

Some years back, Peter Rowe, the former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), invited me to join a committee tasked with preparing a prospectus for a new school of architecture at the Aga Khan University, an initiative of the AKDN. Since I had worked under Rowe’s deanship when I was a member of the GSD and held him in high regard, I happily accepted. In doing so, I found myself among a number of distinguished fellow architectural academics from around the world. As part of the work of the committee, we travelled not only to the administrative headquarters of the Trust for Culture in Geneva, but also to the sites of numerous projects of the Trust for Culture and the AKDN in Pakistan and in East Africa. It was due to the activities of Dean Rowe’s committee that I rst began to appreciate the astonishing breadth and depth of the various organizations that make up the Aga Khan Development Network. 

I would start to describe some of them by referring rst to the Aga Khan University in Karachi, which the committee visited. It is one of the most important tertiary academic institutions in Pakistan–most especially the medical college that forms part of it. Today, the Aga Khan University has 11 campuses spread across eight countries and three continents. At the time of our committee’s workings, the AKDN was exploring the possibility of establishing an entire new campus for the University, which would include a number of new academic programs, including, perhaps, a new school of architecture. On our trip to East Africa (a possible location for the proposed new school of architecture) we stayed in two hotels of the AKDN-owned Serena chain, one in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and the other in Nairobi, Kenya. The Serena chain is indeed a business enterprise, but it also serves as an employment training and economic development organization, with all its prots reinvested in further development. In Stone Town, an ancient trading town, a number of important historical buildings–one of which houses the Serena Hotel itself–have been restored by the AKDN. In Nairobi, we were taken on a tour of development efforts being implemented by the AKDN in Kibera, one of the world’s largest informal settlements, housing over a million people. The AKDN’s work in Kibera included constructing a new grid of public facilities, such as communal showers and toilets, throughout the territory of the settlement. Our tour guide in Kibera was a proud Kenyan nurse who had been trained in one of the Development Network’s programs.

Following the conclusion of the work of that committee, I also came to be aware of the extension of the architectural patronage of His Highness in Canada itself, with the commissioning of an Ismaili Centre in Vancouver (opened in 1985); the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa (opened in 2008); and a major cultural complex in Toronto including an Aga Khan Museum, Ismaili Centre, and a landscaped park, currently under development. In addition, His Highness is leading the rehabilitation of the former Canadian War Museum at 330 Sussex Drive in the nation’s capital to house the newly established Global Centre for Pluralism. Two of these remarkable projects, the Delegation and the Aga Khan Museum, are designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki of Japan, and the Ismaili Centre by the UIA Gold Medallist Charles Correa of India. All three of these projects have the Toronto rm of Moriyama & Teshima as Architect of Record.

When Alex Rankin, our much beloved and recently deceased Chancellor of the RAIC College of Fellows, called to ask what I thought of the idea of nominating His Highness for the Gold Medal, I responded with enthusiasm. He asked if I would be willing to serve as the lead nominator, and I leapt at the chance. The nomination was made; the RAIC accepted it, and His Highness graciously indicated that he would be happy to accept the Medal.

His Highness became the 49th Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan. He founded and is Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, whose agencies work to improve the welfare and prospects of people in the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa, without regard to faith, origin or gender. The underlying ethic of the AKDN is compassion for the vulnerable in society. 

His Highness has had a long connection to Canada–not least on account of his successful appeal to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau to agree to admit some 10,000 Ismaili immigrants to Canada en bloc when they were facing expulsion from Uganda during the regime of Idi Amin. At the groundbreaking for the new Ismaili Centre in Toronto, Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented His Highness with honorary Canadian citizenship, and in doing so, remarked that he hoped that His Highness would henceforth “always feel at home in Canada.” To which His Highness replied that he had already “always felt at home in Canada.” Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that he also accepted an invitation from John Ralston Saul to deliver a La Fontaine-Baldwin Lecture in Toronto, and in doing so observed that “the world we seek is not a world where difference is erased, but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of cooperation and coherence in our world, and to build together a better life for all.” 

The RAIC’s recognition focuses in particular on the creation of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977. It is given every three years to projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, urban and regional design, conservation and landscape architecture. The Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a signicant presence. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented an exhibition of 11 projects from around the world that emphasized social program and environmental performance, no fewer than three Aga Khan Architecture Award winners were included. In an earlier text published in Canadian Architect, I have stated my view that the Aga Khan Award ranks with the Pritzker Prize and the Mies van der Rohe Prize as one of the most prestigious architectural awards extant in the world today.

Almost as notable is the Trust for Culture’s Historic Cities Programme, which has led to the urban regeneration and restoration of such varied sites as the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria, a historic garden in Kabul, Mughal monuments in Delhi, and the Darb al-Ahmar district in Cairo, which includes the award-winning new Al-Azhar Park. 

It is hard to imagine another such diverse or exemplary range of initiatives in “using architecture as an instrument to further peaceful and sustainable community development around the world” as those of the varied Aga Kha
n organizations. I am proud to have been the lead nominator of the Aga Khan as a recipient of the RAIC Gold Medal, and hope that the ongoing work of the various arms of the AKDN serve as inspiration to the highest values of the architectural profession in Canada and beyond. CA 

George Baird is Emeritus Professor of Architecture and former Dean at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, and founding principal of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects. He was the 2010 recipient of the RAIC Gold Medal, and the 2012 recipient of the Topaz Medallion, awarded jointly by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.