Viewpoint (June 01, 2010)

In my editorial viewpoint in the October 2005 issue of Canadian Architect, I debated whether the Bata Building, a Modernist building on a prime development site in Toronto’s Don Mills should be preserved or replaced by a complex comprised of a museum, religious centre and park–a project developed by an architecturally literate organization with a mandate to disseminate “democracy and pluralism in an interdependent world.” It was believed by many that to forego an opportunity to build a globally connected cultural facility to save a Late Modern building would have compromised Toronto’s ability to evolve as a pluralistic city and to promote diversity through progressive architecture and public spaces.

Nearly five years later, with the demolition of the Bata Building having taken place, the very same international organization held a ceremony at the end of May to officially lay the cornerstone of its ambitious building project on the controversial site. Through the initiative of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims and Founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), the construction of the Ismaili Centre, the Aga Khan Museum for Islamic Art and Culture, and a publicly accessible park is now officially underway. Designed by Charles Correa, the Centre will be the latest addition to a network of Ismaili Centres worldwide. The Aga Khan Museum will be designed by Fumihiko Maki, the architect also responsible for the recently completed Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa. The two Toronto projects will be set within a landscaped park designed by Lebanese-based landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic; Moriyama & Teshima Architects are the Toronto-based joint venture partners for the project.

The AKDN’s decision to purchase two adjacent parcels of land in Don Mills was made for several reasons, the primary one being that the new buildings and park will be located near the densest Muslim population in Canada. Open to the public, the development aims to connect members of a specific cultural and religious community while enriching the overall cultural capital of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

It has taken over a decade to begin construction on the 6.8-hectare suburban site, but during the same period, leaders in the GTA have begun to realize the region’s potential to lead in disseminating global culture through high-quality architecture located outside of the downtown core–an awareness that will undoubtedly serve to improve the long-term cultural sustainability of the suburbs.

It is encouraging to note that the AKDN redevelopment is one of several projects recently completed or under construction in the GTA and in other Canadian metropolitan regions whose mandate has been, at least in part, to tap into the cosmopolitan diversity of Canada with a range of buildings that address religious, ethnic and cultural specificities while celebrating or at least accommodating the needs of our country’s broadly defined populations. With these kinds of projects–particularly those extending beyond buildings of worship–we are witnessing an emerging form of architecture that is embedded with pluralism as its guiding principle.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail during his visit to Toronto, the Aga Khan spoke of his desire to see Canada promote its own brand of pluralism on the international stage because “societies are not pluralist by accident. They’re pluralist by the will of the government, of the people, of civil society,” and it is this desire which has become a fundamental component of the Canadian identity. “Immigrants to this country know that. They recognize it, they see it, they sense it…when my community came here, they weren’t only immigrants–they were encouraged to keep their social structures, their economic structures, their relationships among families. In how many other countries do you know that this is happening? So there’s a massive accumulated quantity of knowledge and experience here.”

Regardless of our individual ethnic or religious affiliations, Canadian society must leverage its diverse accumulated cultural capital to develop a sophisticated pluralistic society that is equally sophisticated with respect to creating buildings of architectural importance.

Ian Chodikoff