Recalling Paradise: The Aga Khan Garden and The Diwan, Devon, Alberta
A jewel-like pavilion completes the world’s northernmost Islamic-inspired garden.
PROJECT The Aga Khan Garden and The Diwan, University of Alberta Botanic Garden, Devon, Alberta
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS (Aga Khan Garden) Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
ARCHITECTS (Diwan) AXIA Design Associates (Design Architects), Arriz + Co. (Architectural & Interior Design), and Kasian Architecture, Interior Design, and Planning (Executive Architects)
TEXT David Down
Carved out of a boggy Alberta forest outside the rural town of Devon, south of Edmonton, the Aga Khan Garden with its new pavilion, known as The Diwan, is a design revelation of exceptional grace, tranquility, spirituality and precision of execution. Masterfully balancing cultural and historical references with local topography, climate, vegetation and materials, both the garden and the building sit perfectly composed in their unexpected context. Together, they comprise the world’s northernmost Islamic-inspired garden, rooted in an ancient and distant culture, yet completely connected to their Canadian home.
Located within The University of Alberta Botanic Garden, the 4.8-hectare Aga Khan Garden was gifted to the University of Alberta in 2018 by His Highness the Aga Khan. The gift nods to Canada’s historic welcoming of Ismaili Muslims in 1972, and is part of the work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has created and restored important gardens around the world, including Aga Khan Park in Toronto. The Aga Khan himself speaks of gardens as a central element in Muslim culture—places where human creativity and divine majesty are fused, and our responsibility to nature and stewardship of the natural world are put into action.
Thomas Woltz, whose Charlottesville, Virginia firm Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) is among North America’s foremost landscape practices, recalls the design of the Aga Khan Garden as one of the most intellectually and emotionally rewarding journeys of his professional career.
The commission began with an invitation from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to submit a narrative describing NBW’s proposed design approach. Deeply involved in all his projects, His Highness the Aga Khan insists that design must grow from dialogue, and the process built around a relationship. Nine months later, NBW was summoned to Toronto, where His Highness himself posed the life-altering question: “How can 1,800 years of Islamic culture and landscape tradition be made relevant to the 21st century?”
The NBW team was then given a full year to research the project, including travelling to the great Islamic gardens of Cairo, Jaipur, Delhi, and many more. In a moment of revelation outside Jaipur, Woltz envisaged the whole continuum of garden design stretching back to traditional methods of controlling and using water, right up to current issues of flood control, food insecurity and climate extremes. The task was not just to create a pleasure garden, he realized, but to reflect a history of the stewardship of productive landscapes. This approach could connect ancient practices, teachings and poetry with 21st-century life and issues in a way that both those of the Ismaili faith and all Canadians could understand.
Looking for the first time at our Alberta landscapes, Woltz saw the petroleum industry moving vast landscapes, which subsequently required rejuvenation. The Aga Khan garden could be part of that regeneration, by cultivating and supplying seed for the now-rare Indigenous plantings required in landscape restoration. This brought a productive element to the garden—and, in the distribution of the seeds, a poetic metaphor for the radiating influence of the Ismaili Muslim faith.
For visitors, the journey through the garden begins at a low, perfectly polished and incised limestone entrance wall—a first clue to the quality of materials and fineness of detail to be found throughout. Beyond, a steel grate pathway floats above the forest understory, just as the paths through traditional Islamic gardens are raised above adjacent plantings. The pathway provides a quiet, calming forest walk that encourages a receptive state of mind while also building anticipation. The visitor is rewarded with the woodland bagh, persian for garden: an elliptical polished granite pool of perfectly still water that silently mirrors the sky, while recalling the shapes of canoes and Inuit carvings. By this time, we know we are in a landscape unlike any other.
The path then leads upward to the majestic talar, or entry porch, with its imposing Portuguese limestone columns slung with bright orange sails, recalling both nomadic tents and the permanence of ancient desert palaces. At the centre of the talar, a low cubic polished granite fountain, carved with Islamic geometries, is the symbolic source of the garden’s waterworks. From this dramatic point, the entirety of the plan is laid out before us: from the symmetrical chahar bagh, or foursquare garden, to the calla pond and bustan, or orchard, beyond.
The main space of the garden is the chahar bagh, a deeply spiritual form rooted in ancient agricultural traditions. Its quadripartite pattern of raised granite pathways represents the order of the universe, and frames beds filled with a clever combination of Indigenous plantings and annually changing plants that recall warmer climes, such as artichokes. NBW worked with the University of Alberta’s skilled team of horticulturalists to build a successful palette of locally hardy plants which subtly reference the ancient world, while tantalizing all of the senses with colour, texture and scent.
The garden design is woven throughout with contemporary details that link us to ancient traditions. The designers carefully studied geometries based on the numbers four and eight, representative of paradise, and created new interpretations. These patterns are rendered with exceptional precision in high-performance concrete balustrades and granite paving, and engraved into granite walls and steel screens. Every motif feels authentic to the Islamic garden tradition—but is in fact original to NBW.
As a final touch, His Highness insisted that the Garden must include touches of whimsy. To achieve this, the team commissioned to-scale bronzes of local fauna—frogs, lizards, and various types of fish—which particularly delight younger visitors.
The recently opened Diwan sits at the terminus of the east-west axis of the chahar bagh. Designed by Toronto architect Taymoore Balbaa of Axia Design Associates together with Arriz + Co. and Kasian Architecture, the pavilion was always envisioned as part of the completed garden. The placement of the pavilion is critical to the garden’s axial plan, and it provides a space for year-round programming to engage the broader community.
The pavilion’s design team was chosen through an international RFP process managed by the University of Alberta. Balbaa, who led the design, grew up in Egypt and the Middle East, and studied the Islamic architectural traditions of Sub-Saharan Arfrica as part of his Prix de Rome research. As a result, he brought to the project a deep understanding of Islamic architecture and the integration of its decorative arts and building craft traditions.
Balbaa found inspiration in the pavilion’s site—between the symmetrical garden and the forest beyond. In his view, this provided an opportunity to blur the boundary between the formal and the wild, between ancient notions of paradise and the untouched Alberta forest. The completed building bridges the two realms by bringing them into and through the building, creating a sense of being between—and within—both conditions at once.
In both plan and section, the building responds seemingly effortlessly to the geometric power of the garden and the implied need for symmetry, while satisfying the demands of an asymmetrical program. Balbaa says that the intent was to achieve a “balanced asymmetry.” The strong horizontality of a generously cantilevered entry façade firmly roots the building, strongly terminating the axial vista, while deferring to the garden. The pavilion sits naturally and lightly at the edge of the forest, while matching the solidity and permanence of the garden.
The cladding responds to the motifs and materiality of the garden. Above a limestone base, mashrabiya-patterned metal panels are set into a rainscreen of crisp extruded porcelain panels. Both budget and weight precluded the use of the garden’s Algonquin limestone throughout, but the resulting effect is still seamlessly complementary.
The building’s simple program—an event space for up to 220 guests, with associated service functions—is appropriately and masterfully elevated through the strategic use of good materials and elegant details. In the lobby, a custom ceramic tile “carpet” and integrated donor wall reflect traditional geometries. In the main space, which feels more outdoors than indoors, one set of windows pulls striking axial garden views into the room, while other openings frame the quiet backdrop of the forest. Overhead, a hovering black frame centres and defines the room, while hinting at traditional ceiling forms.
Bespoke touches include custom-patterned wall coverings whose motif, like that of the mashrabiya screens, recalls Alberta’s provincial flower, the wild rose. On the upper level, a roof terrace is lit at night like a golden lantern, providing additional event space with a sweeping view of the garden. The result is a building, inside and out, which feels simultaneously connected to the richness and formality of ancient design traditions, and to the contemporary preference for the simple zen of clean finishes against unspoiled nature.
It is rare in landscape architecture and architecture to find a successful fusion of the formal and informal, the natural and the ordered. Equally rare are contemporary interpretations of traditional forms which do not cross the line into kitsch. The Aga Khan Garden and the Diwan achieve the balance beautifully, with designs that are rooted in ancient heritage while feeling completely comfortable in the contemporary Canadian landscape. The result is a wonderful gift indeed—a place that embodies the Aga Khan’s goals of dissolving barriers, encouraging broader understanding, and bringing cultures together.
Architect David Down is the City of Calgary’s Chief Urban Designer.
The Aga Khan Garden | CLIENT Aga Khan Trust for Culture | LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT TEAM Thomas Woltz, Breck Gastinger, Nathan Foley, Sandra Nam Cioffi, Jen Trompetter, Alisha Savage, Siobhan Brooks, Fraser Stuart, Kari Roynesdal | ARCHITECT Dialog Design | CIVIL ISL Engineering and Land Services | FOUNTAIN CMS Collaborative Inc. | IRRIGATION Ion Irrigation Management Inc. | DESIGN ENGINEER FTL Design Engineering Studio | ENVIRONMENTAL Spencer | AREA 10 acres | BUDGET $763 K | COMPLETION 2018
The Diwan | CLIENT University of Alberta | ARCHITECT TEAM AXIA—Taymoore Balbaa, Chris Wong, Michael Good, Leisdania Reynoso, Justine Houseley. Arriz + Co.—Arriz Hassam; Jason Lue Choy. Kasian—Aziz Bootwala; Emme Kanji; Chad Kern. | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Williams Engineering, Edmonton (Chad Musselwhite, Alexey Kalinin) | STRUCTURAL RJC, Toronto (John Kooymans, Matt Deegan) | CONTRACTOR Clark Builders | BUILDING AREA 695 m2 | SITE AREA 725 m2 | PROJECT BUDGET $5.5 M | COMPLETION Sept 2022