Through The Leadership Of The Aga Khan, An Ambitious 17-Acre Redevelopment In Suburban Toronto Will Bring Two Global Cultural Institutions To Canada Supporting Art And Culture In The Ummah, Or Muslim Diaspora.; As A Jury Member For The 2007 Aga Khan Award For Architecture, Architect And Professor Brigitte Shim Discusses The Importance Of This Unique Awards Program.

Atop a hill overlooking the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) in Toronto’s Don Mills suburb, construction is about to begin on an important cultural precinct. Funded by His Highness the Aga Khan, two significant cultural institutions will stand on the former site of a late-Modernist office building. One will help support Toronto’s 40,000 Ismaili Muslims, while the other will comprise a museum whose mission it is to improve cultural understanding of the Muslim world.

The Aga Khan had already owned the eastern portion of the site and was planning on building the Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana (community prayer hall) when the late-Modern Parkindesigned Bata International Headquarters building came up for sale in 2002. This offered the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) an opportunity to expand their site for the purposes of building a museum housing an extensive collection of Islamic art, as well as a pluralistic educational centre to study Muslim culture. While it is unfortunate that the Bata building was unable to be saved from demolition, its replacement will undoubtedly be of far greater significance to both the cultural and architectural history of Toronto. Fifty years ago, very few Muslims lived in nearby communities like Flemingdon and Thorncliffe Park. Today, these communities represent one of most significant Muslim populations in Canada. Forsaking the chance to build exemplary contemporary architecture celebrating the ethnic and cultural diversity of Toronto for the sake of preserving the Bata building would have truly been a wasted opportunity in the architectural history of the city, and indeed the country.

The 17-acre site bounded by Wynford Drive, Eglinton Avenue, the DVP and Don Mills Road will be transformed by the addition of two significant projects: the Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana designed by Mumbai-based Charles Correa Architects, and the Aga Khan Museum, designed by architect Fumihiko Maki of Maki & Associates in Tokyo. Inserted between each of these 10,000-square-metre projects will be a series of landscaped gardens designed by the Beirut-based landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic, who received a 2007 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his Samir Kassir Square project in Beirut. And overseeing construction of the site are Moriyama & Teshima Architects of Toronto, the architects of record. Collectively, the construction costs for the two buildings will exceed $200 million. The Ismaili Centre will be completed by late 2010, with the Aga Khan Museum completed approximately one year later.

Including Eastern-influenced formal gardens and over two kilometres of walking trails open to the public, Wynford Park will contain five reflecting pools, enclosed gardens and waterfalls. Visitors will be shielded from the noisy DVP and Eglinton Avenue traffic with numerous places for contemplation. Along the southern edge of the site, the development group is in the process of discussing with the City of Toronto as to how best manage the City-owned property abutting the site. In return for relocating some of the existing fencing along the property line, the AKDN will maintain the adjacent City property, as well as upgrade its plantings and grading. Both the selection of plant material and safety concerns regarding public access to the site during non-daylight hours and the winter season are currently being discussed with the City to ensure that issues of maintenance and safety are properly addressed. Even a nearly inaccessible traffic island will be upgraded and maintained so that the impact of Wynford Park’s landscape can extend as far into the community as possible.

Wynford Park crystallized the development process in 2004 through the creation of the Imara Development Group, a project management arm engaged to oversee the construction of both institutions in addition to the landscape architecture. Although the construction costs will be underwritten by the AKDN, Wynford Park will require distinct, ongoing financial commitments. Since the Ismaili Centre is a community facility, the Toronto Ismaili community will be responsible for fundraising its many ongoing activities. As the museum is a cultural enterprise, it will be seeking ongoing patronage to support its functions through the establishment of endowment funds, exhibition donations and membership revenue from the community at large–similar strategies to what most other public museums pursue in order to remain viable.

While the AKDN had developed their functional and programmatic requirements for the site, they hired Shamez Mohammed as their representative to coordinate the project, essentially a turnkey operation to be delivered over to the AKDN after its completion. Before working for the AKDN, Mohammed, a civil engineer with an MBA, had worked for Mercer Management Consulting in Toronto for several years. After the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, he took a paid sabbatical from his firm and moved to India for 14 months to establish the Mumbai operations of Focus Humanitarian Assistance, an international disaster management agency. After returning to Canada, Mohammed became a volunteer for the Aga Khan, eventually resigning from Mercer in 2004 to become the Project Coordinator for the Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, in addition to coordinating two ongoing Ottawa projects supported by the AKDN–the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat and the Global Centre for Pluralism.

The significance of building a pluralist precinct devoted to education, culture, religion and community devoted to Ismailis and the Muslim world with the intent of engaging a dialogue with the general population cannot be overstated. His Highness the Aga Khan is not only a religious leader for the 15 million Ismailis around the world, but a leader concerned with strengthening the contemporary identity of Muslim culture in the Ummah, or the Muslim diaspora. Building such an ambitious project as Wynford Park, the Aga Khan has taken a clear position regarding the study and dissemination of contemporary Muslim culture in the global sphere, and not just for the benefit of the Toronto Ismaili community. In a speech delivered at a roundtable held at the Louvre in Paris last October, the Aga Khan noted the challenges associated with manoeuvring the identity of his Toronto Aga Khan Museum within a cultural framework that is difficult to generalize in a diverse, complex and pluralistic world. When it comes to generalizing the Islamic world, these sensitive challenges become overlaid with misunderstandings associated with issues such as religious wars, terrorism and regional strife–elements that are not representative of the vast majority of Muslims. Therefore, the Aga Khan’s creation of a contemporary cultural and religious precinct in the suburbs of Toronto is incredibly challenging but also extremely vital, if both the Muslim and general Canadian populations are to learn about themselves and each other.

Before beginning the deliberation process for the 2007 Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA), our jury was asked to provide words reflecting any aspirations for this award program. In no particular order, I thought that it would be helpful to list these words: collaboration, education, excellence, sustainability, sensitivity to context, negotiations, changing the status quo, interventions, coherences, transformations, broader context, process, architectural ethnography, affective contribution, new models of urbanism, accretive urbanization, humane urban density, dialogic ummah, contemporaneity, translation and transition.

Prior to serving on the 2007 AKAA jury, I associated this award program with its admirable recognition of significant restoration projects throughout the Muslim world. I certainly did not link this award with contemporary buildings. I quickly learned that this, the tenth award cycle for the program, represents a 30-year commitment by His Highness the Aga Khan to architectural excellence and a desire to stimulate debate and reflection about the built environment. Once every three years, this award program provides a lens to view, understand and celebrate built work emerging from communities throughout the Islamic world. The projects reviewed for the 2007 award cycle leaves us with valuable lessons that can guide us toward new models of exemplary and meaningful contemporary works of architecture.

In the Western world, there is a great deal of attention paid to the look and image of buildings. Our architecture magazines reflect our speedobsessed societies mirrored through mega-projects and agitated skyscrapers. In our busy world, it is rare to take the time to reflect and better understand the powerful role building plays in shaping people’s lives and fostering community.

Rather than considering the winning entries of the 2007 AKAA as a homogeneous group, readers need to dig deeper and understand the pivotal role each project plays–in the words of the Aga Khan–“in changing the physical environment of the Islamic world enabling people of all backgrounds and faiths to live a better life.” Hopefully, the rest of the world will take notice of and learn to develop a greater understanding about the remarkable transformative work taking place many parts of the Muslim world. The following are some of the themes that I derived from my experiences as a member of the jury.

Remapping

Architecture fuses together poetic ideas, inert materials, physical site and social conditions. Architecture trades on its ability to touch and shape people’s lives in profound and meaningful ways. Around the world, no matter where it is being practiced, architecture is a complex discipline. Projects in the Islamic world have a rich architectural history and are burdened with an additional mandate to link and intertwine the past, present and future in meaningful and innovative ways. In January and June of 2007, I was honoured to be one of nine jury members invited to spend several days in Geneva, Switzerland deliberating over the ways in which built architecture impacts the Muslim world. Each jury member was required to do plenty of homework prior to arriving in Geneva, as several thick binders full of background information were sent to us beforehand. With 343 projects submitted, I became intimately aware of the enormous challenges and the hopeful opportunities of building in cities and towns like Koudougou, Beirut, Addis Ababa, Rada’, Bandar Seri Iskader, Singapore, Shibam, Nicosia and Radrapur. The Muslim world covers many continents, numerous climatic zones and specific regions of the globe. My experience on this jury has recalibrated my sense, inspiring me to remap my world.

Lateral Conversations

Most architecture award juries bring together architects to review photographic images of built work. Winning projects are selected based on the jury’s collective vision of architectural excellence. The 2007 AKAA program brought together five architects from around the world with an historian, an artist, a curator and a literary theorist to discuss, interpret and better understand the changing landscape throughout the Muslim world. During our numerous jury sessions, I was aware that architects were also painters and that curators were also poets and that everyone in the room was a teacher. We all listened and learned from the distinct voices around the table. The jury’s definition of architectural excellence was constantly being challenged, defined and redefined. The winning projects were not easily decided. They emerged from the breadth of our lateral conversations.

Deep Vertical Knowledge

No other architectural award program in the world sends independent reviewers to all parts of the globe to visit the jury’s shortlisted projects. No other architectural award program in the world brings these same reviewers to the jury to share with them their first-hand observations and insights about the physical and social context of the built work. The reviewers’ personal field experiences enable the jury to build a knowledge base for each and every project. The jury was made aware of the physical data, design and construction process, cultural contribution, construction schedule, cost, technical developments and social relevance for every shortlisted project considered. We discussed the design intent, the design process as well as the design results. We understood the varying role of the contractor, builders and craftsmen in each project, recognizing the many types of strong individuals and multi-headed client groups involved in commissioning work. We also understood the changing role of the architect and the complex nature of design teams required to realize any built project. This is fundamental to what I’ll call the vertical gathering of knowledge afforded by the AKAA program.

Building Community

How can architecture continue to play a vital role in building community throughout the Muslim world? The jury noted that many projects suffered by adopting a foreign or “borrowed” language of architecture that has matured over the last 50 years in the Muslim world, and also did not consider the communities that they served. As a counterpoint to this kind of placelessness, we need to support and celebrate ways of building community that emerge from a deep understanding of the local culture and building traditions while simultaneously addressing the layered complexities of our modern world. The discipline of architecture needs to nurture alternative models of practice that link and support committed designers to work directly with local communities to engage in projects that have the capacity to build and transform community.

Transforming the World

At no time in human history has the potential for architecture to shape our world been greater than today. The exemplary winning projects of the 2007 Aga Khan Award for Architecture demonstrate to us that the human spirit is capable of transforming the world around us. While there is much to be learned from the built form of every winning project, the most valuable lesson lies in the understanding that architects can truly engage the Muslim world even before they start to design.

Brigitte Shim was a member of the 2007 Aga Khan Award for Architecture jury. She is a principal of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects and an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture, Landscape & Design at the University of Toronto.

Source: http://www.canadianarchitect.com/issues/ISArticle.asp?story_id=159010084929&issue=03012008&PC=

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