On Architecture

His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan (IV) is the 49th Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, a denomination within Shia Islam. As he conceives it, his role as an Imam extends beyond providing spiritual leadership: he is also deeply engaged with improving the material world. To this end, he founded the Aga Khan Development Network, which has grown to become one of the largest private development agencies in the world. Architecture, as His Highness discusses in the remarks below, is a force with tremendous potential to foster spiritual enjoyment and to improve the lives of those most in need. 

Defining Architecture

I think it is right to begin by clarifying that my denition of architecture goes beyond a concern for buildings designed by architects. I see architecture as embracing practically all aspects of our entire built environment.

People everywhere–independent of their particular background or educational level–almost instinctively understand the importance of place, and how the spaces of our lives are shaped and reshaped–for better or for worse. This universal sensitivity to changes in the built environment also helps explain the profound impact of architecture on the way we think about our lives. Few other forces, in my view, have such transformational potential. 

Travels as a Young Imam

Between 1957 and 1967, I travelled extensively, meeting with various communities in different parts of the world. I came into contact with visible forms of poverty that I had not known before. The rst indicator of a community’s poverty, what you see, is the physical context in which they live. My interest in architecture was driven at that time by the question of what to do to improve the quality of life of the ultra-poor. 

Whereas in the consumer societies of the West you can build and then pull things down, in these ultra-poor societies you cannot afford to do that. What you have to do is to modify buildings or adjust them; therefore the exibility of the plan that you put in place has to be conceived with a different view of time than it would be in other parts of the world.

Being on Site

I inherited projects that my grandfather had started, or that the communities had started. There were schools that were under construction, there was the Aga Khan Platinum Jubilee Hospital in Nairobi, and there were various other projects as well.

I watched and I asked questions, because the Imamat was responsible for much of this building and the community would identify needs and put forward requests for a school or a medical centre. I obviously went to see what was actually happening. You learn about poverty by going to see the way people live and by talking to the ultra-poor. You do not learn it from books.

Landscape and Land-Use Planning

Landscape design really came to me rst as an interest in the appropriate use of land. It came rst from the notion of land planning. It affected the size of a site that you negotiated with a government for a school or a housing estate. The ability to move out of buildings and the ability to move in a pleasant environment was seen very early on as a necessity in our housing estates. Then there was the question of taking that land and adapting it to the use of sick people who were ambulant for the rst time or to children who were playing outdoors. 

First Architectural Projects in Canada

The story goes back to 1972, when the then President of Uganda, Marshall Idi Amin, expelled all the Asians from Uganda. Most members of my community, the Ismailis, came to Canada, while a minority who had retained their British citizenship at Ugandan independence went to the United Kingdom. 

The leaders of the Ismaili communities in the UK and Canada consulted with one another and with me as to how to respond to this forced migration. There was unanimity that wherever we would settle, we would never become a demotivated marginalized minority and that we would, instead, demonstrate the will and the capacity to rebuild our future. We therefore decided to build new spaces for the gathering of our communities, and for the practice of our faith, in the countries that were welcoming us. 

These new buildings, which we decided to call Ismaili Centres, had to reflect our aspirations for the future, rather than the tragedy of our recent past. We saw them as structures where we could receive other communities and institutions in a dignied manner, and where we could demystify our faith–which was sometimes badly misunderstood. They would be symbols of new hope, replacing past pain. 

It was against this background that we built the two rst Ismaili Centres in the industrialized world, the rst in London in 1985–and the second in Vancouver. In both cities, we built on the best sites we could nd, and we engaged some of the most respected architects to join us.

On Cultural Diversity

Bruno Freschi, who designed the Ismaili Centre in Vancouver, had earlier designed a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship. He reected Canada’s practice of drawing strength from cultural diversity, as well as from universal inspirations such as faith and family, and the celebration of great events and great people. This combined embrace of both the particular and the universal has made Canada one of the most respected pluralist societies in today’s heavily fractured world.

We continue to build in Canada. Soon a second Ismaili Centre, now nearing completion in Toronto, will join the rst one in Vancouver, making Canada the only country in the foreseeable future with two Ismaili Centres, one in the west and another in the east. For this work, we retained another great architect, Charles Correa, who was born into a Christian family that originally lived in Goa. He, too, has designed for many faiths, including Hindu and Christian. 

Islamicizing Modernity 

One of the issues in the Islamic world is the relationship between an ability to create and what we see of that creation. Nature is one of the evidences for a Muslim of God’s creation. I am personally very sensitive to that. That is why, for example, in the Delegation building I gave Professor Maki the idea of rock crystal. Rock crystal is an extraordinary natural phenomenon. It plays with light, and in our world that is very important; it has a quasi-mystical component because, depending on the angle under which it is viewed, you see it differently. It has many facets both literally and guratively that are fascinating.

We did a survey to try to understand what the younger generations in Canada were thinking. They were talking about aspirations for the future; they were talking about integrating themselves with the environment in which they live, which is an environment of quality modern buildings. They were looking for modernity, but they were also looking for empathy with Islamic traditions. We have that empathy. 

Maki seemed to be the one to whom you could give a mandate and say, I am trying to bridge a number of different forces by building this modern building, and one of them is to take some of the value systems of the past, put them into this building, but not make it so esoteric that it overburdens you. It has to be inspirational and subtle. 

Launching the Global Centre for Pluralism

My interest in launching the Global Centre for Pluralism reected my sense that there was yet no institution dedicated to the question of diversity in our world, and that Canada’s national experience made it a natural home for this venture. 

In my own role as Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims over the past half-century, I have come to appreciate the importance of pluralism in ever-expanding ways. The Ismaili community, after all, is itself a global family, spanning many geographies, cultures, languages and ethnicities–and sharing it
s life with people of many faiths. In addition, much of my work over this time has dealt with highly diverse societies in the developing world, often suffering from poverty, violence and despair. In such circumstances, a commitment to pluralism comes as no accident. For pluralism, in essence, is a deliberate set of choices that a society must make if it is to avoid costly conict and harness the power of its diversity in solving human problems.

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.

In just three years, Canada will mark its 150th anniversary, and the whole world will be ready to celebrate with you. Sharing Canada’s robust pluralistic history is a core mission of our Global Centre, and 2017 will be a major opportunity for doing so, operating from its headquarters in the former War Museum on Sussex Drive. Perhaps 2017 and the celebrations can be a catalyst with our neighbours to improve the entire riverfront area around that building.

I happily recall the establishment of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat here in 2008 and the Prime Minister’s description that day of our collaborative efforts to make Canada “the headquarters of the global effort to foster peace, prosperity and equality through pluralism.”

Islamic Spaces, Spiritual Spaces

I believe that the Islamic faith has played a particular role in the development of Islamic architectural expression. If you think of the history of landscape architecture and you relate that to references to heaven in the Koran, you nd very strong statements about the value of the environment, the response to the senses, to scent, to noise, music or water.

In a number of spaces in the Islamic world, which are not religious buildings, there is a heightened sense of spirituality. You do not treat these spaces as theological spaces, you treat them as spaces that aim to give you a sense of spiritual happiness or spiritual enjoyment. Many faiths have such forces that manifest themselves. You can enter a non-Muslim space that has a strong spiritual meaning and you will recognize it.

The Aga Khan Award

Very early on there was consensus that the Aga Khan Award could not be just for “architectured” buildings, it had to be an award for quality buildings no matter what the process of their creation. We were looking at bringing those processes on board and enhancing them, rather than saying there is a divide between the professionally trained architect and the builder who comes out of a traditional society, who is a fantastic artist, but who may not have all the technical niceties of the modern architect. 

I think that the Award must evolve. Institutions that do not evolve tend to get marginalized. We do not want to be seen as an institution that draws its inspiration only from the past. The inspiration is part of society, it is part of design. Our interest is to generate new inspirations for modern architecture, and I think that is happening.

Imam and Patron of Architecture

The role of the Ismaili Imam is a spiritual one; his authority is that of religious interpretation. It is not a political role. I do not govern any land. At the same time, Islam believes fundamentally that the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Faith does not remove Muslims–or their Imams–from daily practical matters in family life, in business, in community affairs.

Faith, rather, is a force that should deepen our concern for our worldly habitat, for embracing its challenges, and for improving the quality of human life.

In Islam, the role of an Imam is not limited to the domain of faith. It also includes a deep engagement in the world, in all of the wide and complex issues that affect our quality of life. Among those issues, not many have more impact than architecture and the buildings in which we spend, at all ages, so many days and nights of our lives. CA 

With excerpts from the address of His Highness the Aga Khan to both Houses of the Parliament of Canada in the House of Commons Chamber (Ottawa, February 27, 2014); remarks by His Highness the Aga Khan at the presentation of the Gold Medal by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (Ottawa, November 27, 2013); the LaFontaine Baldwin Lecture by His Highness the Aga Khan (Toronto, October 15, 2010); an interview with His Highness the Aga Khan by Philip Jodidio, (London, March 6, 2007) published in Under the Eaves of Architecture (Prestel, 2007); and remarks by His Highness the Aga Khan on the occasion of the signing of the funding agreement for the Global Centre for Pluralism (Ottawa, October 25, 2006).