His Highness the Aga Khan wins RAIC Gold Medal

His Highness the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, does not look like a man who spends time on construction sites. But when it comes to architecture, the Aga Khan knows his stuff: he’s been a careful observer and patron of projects around the world since succeeding his grandfather as Imam in 1957, at the age of 20.

Last November, the Aga Khan was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s highest honour: the RAIC Gold Medal. “In Islam, the role of an Imam is not limited to the domain of faith,” he said in his acceptance remarks. “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.”

His Highness the Aga Khan, recipient of the 2013 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal, with 2010 Gold Medal recipient George Baird (left) and RAIC President Paul Frank (right). AKDN/Farhez Rayani
His Highness the Aga Khan, recipient of the 2013 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal, with 2010 Gold Medal recipient George Baird (left) and RAIC President Paul Frank (right). AKDN/Farhez Rayani

This understanding led the young Imam to found the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of agencies whose work ranges from improving rural housing to training doctors. One branch–the Aga Khan Trust for Culture–includes a Historic Cities Programme that created Al-Azhar Park from a debris dump in Cairo, restored the Aleppo Citadel, and revitalized the gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.

The Trust for Culture also runs the triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA), a $1-million prize that recognizes architecture throughout the Muslim world, broadly dened. A painstaking selection process seeks to identify new standards of architectural excellence. At the largest scale, the prize has been given to a watershed remediation plan for the Wadi Hanifa in Riyadh. At the smallest, it has recognized an earth-and-bamboo school in Bangladesh.

The Aga Khan has particular ties to Canada, to which many Ismailis immigrated following their forced expulsion from Uganda under Idi Amin in 1972. A decade later, the Aga Khan commissioned an Ismaili Centre in Vancouver. The design by Bruno Freschi pairs a prayer hall with community spaces. Another remarkable building, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, is a secular centre for nurturing relationships and enabling quiet diplomacy. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki and Toronto’s Moriyama & Teshima Architects collaborated on the Sussex Drive edice, which garnered a Governor General’s Award in 2012.

The Aga Khan’s largest undertaking in Canada is nearing completion. A Toronto site includes an Ismaili Centre by Charles Correa, an Islamic art museum by Fumihiko Maki, and a public garden by Vladimir Djurovic. Plans are also underway to create a Global Centre for Pluralism at the former War Museum in Ottawa (a partnership with the Government of Canada), construct a park in Burnaby, and develop an Islamic garden at the Devonian Botanical Gardens near Edmonton.

While the Aga Khan’s work comes from a faith perspective, it is fundamentally inclusive. The Imamat takes responsibility for the well-being of Shia Ismaili Muslims, but also extends this care to the diverse communities around the world in which Ismailis live. The AKDN agencies are non-denominational. “Our work has always been people-driven,” the Aga Khan recently said in an address to the Parliament of Canada. “It grows out of the age-old Islamic ethic, committed to goals with universal relevance: the elimination of poverty, access to education, and social peace in a pluralistic environment. The AKDN’s fundamental objective is to improve the quality of human life.”

Those goals are clear in the Aga Khan’s projects in developing countries, but also in his work in Canada–spaces that welcome diverse communities, that uplift the human spirit, that value the craft of architecture and the skills of their makers.

At its heart, it’s a humanistic perspective that goes to the roots of what architecture everywhere can–and should–do.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com