Toronto Trio

PROJECTS The Ismaili Centre (Toronto), the Aga Khan Museum, and their Park
ARCHITECTS Charles Correa (Ismaili Centre), Maki and Associates (Aga Khan Museum), Vladimir Djurovic (The Park), Moriyama & Teshima Architects (architects of record)
TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTOS Tom Arban unless otherwise noted

While the Aga Khan’s development agencies often choose to work behind the scenes, their new Toronto projects are impossible to keep under wraps. Adjacent to the Don Valley Parkway’s Eglinton exit, two intriguing sculptural forms have been taking shape over the past four years. One, a stately glass pyramid, peaks just above its counterpart, an angular box punctuated by hexagonal skylights.

The site, located northeast of downtown in the multicultural Don Mills neighbourhood, is a singular locus of international architectural star power for the city. Indian Modernist Charles Correa designed the crystal-like building, the Ismaili Centre. Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki created its companion structure, the Aga Khan Museum. Between and around the two flows a park inspired by Islamic gardens by Beirut-based landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. Local firm Moriyama & Teshima served the role of associate architect on the complex.

The project is an initiative of the Aga Khan Development Network. Funding for the project ultimately derives from His Highness the Aga Khan and contributions from his followers, the community of some 100,000 Shia Ismaili Muslims in Canada and 15 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide.

The project was initiated almost a decade ago, when the site for the Ismaili Centre was acquired. Shortly after, the adjacent site of the 1964 Bata Building by John C. Parkin became available and the AKDN’s vision for the campus was expanded. Over a year of studies and consultation with the Bata family followed to see if the Modernist landmark could be adaptively reused. In 2007, with the consent of Sonja Bata (who commissioned the Parkin building), demolition proceeded to allow the new initiatives to reach their full design potential.

While numerous members of the architectural community are upset by the removal of the Bata building, many regrets will surely be assuaged after a visit to the trio of projects when they open this fall. Few are the institutions that have created public and semi-public spaces of this architectural calibre in Canada.

This is evident upon one’s rst steps into a park that extends to the edges of the 17-acre site. The decision to create an underground parking garage for over 600 cars–a remarkable investment for the semi-suburban site–frees the area above for a lush landscape. The park is planted with some 1,200 mature trees and 12,000 shrubs, including light-ltering honey locusts, 10-metre-high dawn redwoods, and several magnicent 50-year-old magnolias. Between the two buildings, a strongly geometric formal garden is based on a traditional charbagh, or foursquare garden. Tucked behind a cedar hedge enclosure, large granite-lined reecting pools are set within an orchard of ve-metre-tall native serviceberries, expected to attract birds.

“The park intends to offer the visitor a contemplative and sensory experience that reaches its peak in the serenity and tranquility of the formal garden,” says designer Vladimir Djurovic. “Water, in the form of reecting mirrors, is the main component of this composition. The reective qualities of these raised water mirrors somehow dematerialize the surrounding buildings and landscape, providing a tantalizing experience.”

For local Ismailis, the most frequented part of the site will be the Ismaili Centre at one end of the formal garden. The Centre houses the pyramid-topped prayer hall along with community spaces, classrooms, and the Aga Khan Council for Canada’s ofces. A grand drop-off area adjoins the curved front of the Ismaili Centre. A skylit canopy, supported by a single fair-faced concrete column and an array of glulam beams, creates a large sheltered area around the entrance–a welcome place to linger.

The idea of discovery was central to Correa, and the spatial sequence leading to the prayer hall, or Jamatkhana, is measured and deliberate. In the lobby, a relatively compressed ceiling focuses attention to the oor, tiled in gold-veined Italian and Turkish marble. Those attending prayer enter through fritted glass doors into an anteroom with a higher ceiling, where attention is directed upwards to a complex corbelled skylight. The skylight’s geometry derives from muqarnas corbels, traditionally used to transition between circular and square geometries.

A set of screens, made of delicate steel ribbons bent into curvilinear mashrabiya patterns, marks the threshold into the main space for spiritual reection. Past the screens is arguably the site’s most magnicent space–a prayer hall wrapped in a translucent faceted skylight, Correa’s contemporary interpretation of a muqarnas ceiling.

The ceiling’s fractal geometries are reminiscent of the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) crystal addition by Daniel Libeskind–and indeed the same manufacturer, Germany-based Gartner Steel, created both structures. But the Ismaili Centre has none of the ROM’s aggressiveness. Structural steel trusses are sandwiched between an outer layer of double-glazed units and a much more complexly faceted, triple-glazed inner skin. The interstitial space serves as a dynamic air buffer, adding a thick layer of insulation to the hall. The whole roof was rst assembled in Europe, where the components were manufactured, to ensure it met exacting tolerance requirements–plus or minus three millimetres across the 21-metre span.

A ne-grained ceramic frit gives the entire assembly a soft, glowing effect that shifts with changes in daylight. A single clear line of glazing marks the direction of Mecca. “Throughout the day the movement of the sun is subtly displayed, as the multi-faceted glass surfaces catch and diffuse light in a constantly changing pattern,” explains project architect Daniel Teramura of Moriyama & Teshima. “At times the light is very gentle and relatively at, at other times the light is more assertive and the shadowy presence of the roof structure is legible. In any case, the light supports and enhances the spiritual nature of the Prayer Hall. It does not dominate or overwhelm the space.”

The slight asymmetry of the roof geometry gives a uid, dynamic quality to the space. “The architecture helps in contemplation,” says project director Shamez Mohamed. “When looking at the roof, you can lose yourself in its complexity. It’s an opportunity to let your mind go a little.”

If Charles Correa’s Ismaili Centre unfolds with the fascination of a jewel box, Fumihiko Maki’s Aga Khan Museum possesses the precise order of a bento box. Like a awless lacquer nish, the polished appearance of materials was key. “His Highness is particularly interested in the nish materials,” notes the architect. In a 2006 letter to Maki, the Aga Khan wrote: “The goal would be to capture the day’s and night’s sources of light to create a sense of iridescence, reectivity, and a glow on the building’s elevations and to use various manifestations of that light to emphasize subtle colours…the nishing material of the façades will have to be carefully selected and perhaps even specically developed.”

To achieve the desired effect, Maki angled the exterior walls at top and bottom to capture and reect light in myriad ways throughout the year. Slight reveals between the angled sections accentuate the canted wall geometry, while a notched corner detail with separate stone inserts gives the building a sharp appearance. “The form of the bu
ilding is chiselled and angulated to create a unique prole that creates shade and shadow,” says Maki. In lieu of white marble–the failure of the Bank of Montreal’s marble façade panels was still fresh in the minds of Torontonians–Maki sourced an unusually bright white Brazilian granite.

Inside, the Museum is arrayed with a tidy logic around a glassed-in central courtyard. The galleries wrap around the south and east, an auditorium occupies the west side, and classrooms and services take up the remaining quadrant. The courtyard’s 13-metre-tall double-glass walls are etched with mashrabiya patterns–distinct on the inner and outer panes, but interlocking when juxtaposed. This technique results in complex, shifting patterns of light and shadow within the encircling hallway. On a sunny day, these patterns are effectively the rst piece of art seen by visitors.

The main galleries are shielded from courtyard light to protect artwork. For hardier artifacts, a line of windows brings in natural light. Honeycomb apertures along the top of the space–the hexagonal jut-outs visible from the highway–can be blacked out or partially opened. Says Maki, “To create a soft glow, the skylights were perforated in a geometric hexagonal pattern that may imply a sense of a modern Islamic vocabulary.”

At any point in time, the main-oor galleries will exhibit some 300 of the Museum’s 1,000-piece collection of Islamic art. Vaults below store the remainder of the collection. The upper-floor gallery is designed for temporary exhibitions, including contemporary and international displays to be curated with partners such as the Louvre and the Hermitage.

The name “Aga Khan Museum” is slightly deceptive, in that the institution’s ambitions extend to music, dance and even food. “Where most museums end with exhibition and educational programs centred on the visual arts, we begin with programs that provide visitors with a fuller view of the arts and culture of the Muslim world. I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they discover just how much the arts of Islam are part of our shared global cultural heritage,” says Museum Director Henry Kim. Easily the swankiest space in the Museum is its performance hall, a 350-seat venue swathed with teak. The durable tropical wood was used for the sculptural canopy over the stage, acoustic wall panels, and even the oors. A soaring domed roof, reminiscent of Arabic bazaars, contains lighting and other technical equipment.

The hope is that these cultural programs, testifying to the centrality of the universal values of knowledge and beauty within Islamic art, will help bridge the perceived divide between Islamic and Judeo-Christian perspectives. “The Museum’s focus on the arts of Islam will make it a unique institution in North America, contributing to a better understanding of Islamic civilizations–and especially of the plurality within Islam and of Islam’s relationship to other traditions,” said His Highness the Aga Khan at the project’s foundation ceremony. “In a world in which some speak of a growing clash of civilizations, we believe the Museum will help address what is not so much a clash of civilizations as it is a clash of ignorances.”

From an architectural perspective, the building is already illuminating what is possible in the present. The two buildings and landscape show an exceptional level of detailing: from handcrafted items such as the intricate mosaic tiling of the Museum’s courtyard, to precision-manufactured assemblies such as the Ismaili Centre’s glass roof. Even in the outdoor spaces, a high degree of accuracy was maintained: the wide, shallow reecting pools are perfectly level to avoid dry spots appearing on the hottest days. All these details testify to a culture of craftsmanship, as well as to innumerable discussions, mock-ups, and site visits between client, architects and manufacturers.

“It’s been a labour of love for many of us,” says project director Shamez Mohamed. For many that participated, it’s a rarity to work for a client with the resources of the Aga Khan and his dedication to such a high level of architectural execution. “The commitment to quality originates from the client,” says Maki. “The unmitigated and uncompromised support to achieve a high-quality project was consistent for both the Aga Khan Museum and Delegation Building.”

Canadians–and especially Canadian architects–should consider themselves lucky to have the resulting projects in our midst. CA