Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun

Aga Khan, the hereditary leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims pictured during an interview in Toronto, Nov. 23, 2008.

The Aga Khan, the Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader who ended an eight-day Canadian tour in Vancouver less than two weeks ago, is back in Ottawa today to open a new architectural landmark on Sussex Drive.

The $50-million building is to be the permanent home of the Ismaili Imamat delegation – in effect, an embassy for representatives of his 15 million followers who are scattered in 25 or 30 countries around the globe.

It’s the first such Ismaili delegation anywhere, though another is planned for Portugal, and the Aga Khan says more will be eventually built in other places.

Canada got the first one, he said in an interview during his earlier visit, because it has long been a strong partner of Ismailis.

“We wanted to start having a significant presence in the capital, with all our institutions established in the capital and being able to do two things.

“One is to be able to serve Canada, insofar as we can,” he said. “Secondly, it’s to create even greater relationships between Canada and what we are doing in various parts of the world.”

This relationship initially focused on helping needy Ismailis, but has expanded to encompass people of widely differing cultures and faiths.

It began in the early 1970s under former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who personally worked with the Aga Khan to pave the way for Ismaili immigrants who were being driven from their homes in newly independent parts of eastern Africa. This was highly successful, as the new immigrants quickly found financial success and integrated into the life of their new country. Thus it quickly evolved into Canada supporting many of the good works undertaken in the developing world by agencies of the $500-million-a-year Aga Khan Development Network. Various AKDN agencies, including the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, will be housed in the new delegation building.

It was designed by the renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, with Moriyama & Teshima of Toronto. Though it’s not a public building, it will be unfenced and inviting – a rarity on the street that is home to Canada’s prime minister and has come to be lined with virtual fortresses, such as the Saudi Arabian embassy next door.

The Aga Khan has long been a champion of thoughtful architecture, and he asked that the design take its inspiration from the qualities of a rock crystal. The result is a simple rectilinear structure resting on a granite podium and featuring an asymmetric, crystalline dome, a huge interior atrium to host public events, and an outdoor courtyard. The exterior is white neoparies, a modern material that changes colour with the changes in natural light.

The building occupies about a third of the one-hectare site. The rest will be publicly accessible landscaped grounds.

It is one of four Aga Khan building projects under way in Canada.

Also in Ottawa is the Global Centre for Pluralism, being built in the former Canadian War Museum. It’s to be an international centre for research, education and exchange about the values, practices and policies that underpin pluralist societies. Two other buildings are planned as part of a $200-million complex in Toronto. An Ismaili community centre and place of worship will share a seven-hectare site with a new Aga Khan Museum dedicated to acquiring, preserving and displaying artifacts from various periods and places relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islam.


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