The Aga Khan Museum is glistening confidently, almost defiantly, beneath overcast skies when monocle visits. Opened in September on the outskirts of Toronto, it is North America’s first repository of artworks and artefacts from the Muslim world. The Aga Khan, the France-based spiritual leader of an estimated 15 million Ismaili Muslims, conceived the project 20 years ago. “The objective is to educate the world not through the formal language of textbooks but through the language of objects, which have emotional impact on both young and old,” says Luis Monreal, general manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Recent acts of violence supposedly carried out in the name of Islam, ranging from suicide bombings to the beheading of journalists and aid workers amid the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, have deeply impacted the Muslim world. The timing could not be better for a new soft-power demonstration of how to present the faith in a peaceful way. “While we are first and foremost an art museum,” says museum director Henry Kim, “we hope that we will contribute to a better understanding of the peoples of Islam in all of their religious, ethnic, linguistic and social diversity.”
After initially searching in vain for a location in London, the organisation eventually decided that Toronto’s success as a multicultural and tolerant city would make it a perfect venue. In 2004 the Aga Khan recruited 86-year-old Japanese architect and Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki’s firm to design the building. “The vision statement was to build a museum that is a celebration of light,” says Gary Kamemoto, director of Maki and Associates.
Maki’s understated modernist aesthetic fits the project mandate flawlessly but applying his Japanese minimalism in a Canadian context required the help of locally based Moriyama & Teshima Architects. “Initially they wanted to use marble for the exteriors to bounce the light,” says Po Ma, lead architect on the project. “But the material wouldn’t withstand Canadian winters so we helped them source an incredibly rare white granite from Brazil.”
Other challenges included the site’s 6.8-hectare irregular shape and uneven height (it lies on a 7-metre incline). The neighbourhood itself is a 20-minute drive from downtown and populated by uninspiring office blocks. “Our immediate reaction when we saw the site 10 years ago was that we needed to take a more proactive master-planning role,” says Kamemoto. “Even before we designed the museum we needed to create our own context.”
The solution has been modelled after the Shah Mosque and its adjacent grounds in Isfahan, Iran. The ca$300m (€212m) Toronto interpretation is a 100-metre-wide char-bagh (a formal four-part garden) flanked on one side by the Ismaili Centre of Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum on the other. “The buildings are subordinate to the formal garden that embodies the identity of the place,” says Kamemoto. On entering the tranquil compound visitors leave behind the rumbling traffic of the nearby Don Valley parkway and step into an environment calibrated to relax the spirit.
The publicly accessible civic garden is the creation of Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic and has neat rows of serviceberry trees and five reflective pools. “I hope it will be a place of contemplation for the busy people of Toronto and beyond,” says Kim. Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi has adorned the paving of the garden’s grounds with a floral pattern and the Ismaili Centre, designed by Indian architect Charles Correa, has a distinctive glass pyramidal for the roof above its prayer hall.
Sticking close to instructions regarding the best use of light, Kamemoto designed a motif for the museum’s interior courtyard and its 13-metre-tall double-glazed windows. When sunlight cuts through the pattern, beautiful intricate star shapes are thrown onto surrounding walls. This geometric technique – steeped in Islamic tradition – is called mashrabiya. The lattice motif is expressed in numerous forms and materials throughout the building, from its glass etchings to zinc screens and the lift shaft. A close examination of the courtyard floor reveals that Namibian lapis stone, French pink limestone and the Brazilian white granite tiles also repeat the mashrabiya. “If you are a frequent visitor or if you begin to question and look carefully, these details begin to unfold,” says Kamemoto.
A discreet door in the main hall opens into a lobby space, which in turn leads to the auditorium where performances are held to present multifaceted aspects of Islamic culture. Here Maki’s Japanese touch is most apparent: the staircase spiralling from the lobby to the upstairs gallery, along with the 20-metre high ceiling of the 350-seat auditorium, showcases triangular origami-style folds.
Over 10,500 sq m of exhibition space is accessible from the airy hallways. Herein lies the museum’s raison d’être – using art to educate the public about Islamic culture. Artefacts spanning three continents and over 10 centuries are displayed. “How many artists from the Muslim world can anyone name?” says Kim. “These artists are not anonymous; our ambition is to make Muslim civilisations better known.” However, the museum eschews the term “Muslim art”. “We don’t think of western art as ‘Christian’ art,” says Monreal. “In fact, there is a great diversity of geographies, styles and traditions from Muslim civilisations and a lot of the art is not religious.” A quick glance across the galleryreveals 14th-century navigational apparatus from Spain and Turkish ceramic dishes from the late 1500s sharing space. Temporary exhibitions by contemporary and historic artists are hosted on the second floor.
Visitors can see the Ismaili Centre’s Mecca-facing prayer hall – situated across the garden – in the windows above the Aga Khan Museum’s exit. “It’s the only view of the outside world from within the building,” says Kamemoto. “We created this corridor directly across the garden to pay reverence to it.” The reference is subtle and non-obtrusive. This is characteristic of how the organisation has chosen to engage non-believers: with gentleness, not coercion.
In a time when the public perception of Islam is often heavily influenced by conflict images in the news, the Aga Khan Museum has lofty ambitions to correct stereotypes – and, Monreal believes, offers some solutions, too. As he puts it, “When you look at the diversity of Islamic civilisations, you see a lesson of how the plurality of cultures can live harmoniously together.”