Item(s) for April, 2008

Apr 8,2008

April 8th, 2008 | By Jon Boone

Afghanistan businesses are moving cash reserves overseas after learning that the government claimed it was owed more than $285,000 in back taxes from the Aga Khan’s luxury hotel development in Kabul.

A fortnight after eight guests and staff were killed by a terrorist attack at the city’s most upmarket hotel on January 14, the ministry of finance took the money from the dollar account of the Serena hotel without warning.

After two years in operation, the Serena, an elegant five-star hotel set up by the Aga Khan in the hope that it would spur other international investors, has yet to make healthy profits.

The ministry of finance said it was within Afghan law to settle tax disputes by freezing or “making transfers” from private accounts. But Christopher Newbery, the hotel’s general manager, said the sudden withdrawal of funds could not have come at a worse time. The hotel’s revenue had dried up after a team of suicide bombers detonated themselves in front of the compound in central Kabul and it needed cash to repair the damage.

“We were absolutely furious because having been attacked on January 14, on January 29 we had a second attack when the government took our money at just the moment we needed it most.”

The case has highlighted the risks of starting businesses in a country where entrepreneurs say government interference and “nuisance taxes” are as big a problem as declining security and a decrepit national electricity supply.

Three companies, which declined to be named, told the Financial Times that they were taking cash out of the country to protect their businesses.

The Serena is one of two businesses that the Aga Khan Development Network has invested in as part of a private sector-led development programme. Frantic lobbying of Hamid Karzai, the president, by the ambassador to the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, led to the money being temporarily repaid.

The ministry of finance says it expects the money to be paid to the government in three tranches. But the Serena’s tax consultants say the amount owed, which related to tax accrued by the Indian construction company that built the hotel, is more like $50,000 (?25,000, 32,000).

At a meeting on December 31 they paid that sum as a goodwill gesture and were told by Sharifullah Ibrahimi, the deputy minister of finance, that the dispute would only be settled after a full audit by the country’s large taxpayer’s office.

“It was as if the meeting had never taken place,” Mr Newbery said. “Not only did they simply help themselves to money, they claimed that we had never paid the $50,000. That’s what they do to people who actually pay their taxes – they take whatever they can get.”

Cases such as these are, the Afghan business community says, damaging the country’s efforts to build its economy, so Afghanistan can pay its own way when the foreign cash that pays for almost everything the government does dries up.

But the private sector is so limited – and so reliant on money spent by international consultants, diplomats and aid workers – that a French restaurant in Kabul catering to the culinary needs of the city’s expats is one of the country’s 100 biggest taxpayers.

Taxes, along with crime and persistent power outages, are leading some businesses to stop projects or relocate some or all of their businesses to Dubai. Saad Mohseni, chief executive of Moby Media, which runs television and radio stations, says he recently had videotapes of imported Indian television programmes impounded at Kabul airport because a government agency believed they should be paying on the content.

“The government says it is dealing with these so-called nuisance taxes but it’s ridiculous that after seven years we are still facing these problems,” he said. “Why can’t the whole lot just be declared null and void?”

He says his frustration with Afghan government “incompetence” is so great that the company has set up a business division in Dubai.

One leading international logistics company came close to pulling out of Afghanistan last year after it discovered it had been paying taxes to the ministry of communications – technically illegal because only the ministry of finance is allowed to raise revenue.

Some efforts to improve the tax system have made the situation worse. Draft laws prepared in English by foreign consultants have been mistranslated into Dari, the official language of government. The garbled version is then treated as the law. A western official, who declined to be named but has worked closely on tax reform issues, said the “cheques had been made out to the ministry of post, which doesn’t exist, so God knows who actually got the money”.

Source: ANC News

Apr 2,2008

Apr 02, 2008 04:30 AM

Urban Affairs Columnist
Perhaps the Aga Khan knows something we don’t. Why else would the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims have chosen a 7-hectare site near Don Mills and Eglinton to build his $200 million community centre/cultural campus?

Most Torontonians would have dismissed that location without a second thought; after all Wynford Dr., where the old Bata and Shell corporate sites were located, is more a drive-by corner than a destination.

But once the transformation is complete, sometime around 2011, it will be a full-fledged international destination, a place for all.

The three-part project consists of a museum and a community/religious centre surrounded by gardens. Though work won’t begin until later this year, drawings show a complex of rare beauty that, even more amazing, is rendered in the language of contemporary architecture. Unlike most such religious/culture centres that have appeared recently in these parts, this one looks to the future, not the past.

The designer of the museum, intended to house the Aga Khan’s exquisite collection of Islamic art and artifacts, is none other than acclaimed Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. The Pritzker Prize winner has conceived a state-of-the-art facility clad in white stone and set off by a dome—like metal structure on the roof. Inside, there will be a 350-seat theatre as well as all the usual features – library, café, restaurant and storage.

It sits north of the centre by Charles Correa, another celebrated architect, in this case from Mumbai. A modernist known for his sensitivity to local conditions, Correa has contributed a low-slung building also highlighted by a multi-faceted dome rendered in glass. The centre will contain the meeting rooms and various spaces. The jamatkhana, or prayer room, is the sacred part of the complex; it will be a simple, unadorned area lit by the dome above. Clad in limestone, this large rambling structure reads like a geological feature, part of the landscape; it’s the largest element on site.

In between and all around will be a series of gardens, ponds, fountains and rows of trees that can be expected to erase all signs of suburbia. Designed by Vladimir Djurovic of Lebanon, this green space takes its inspiration from the traditional Islamic idea of the garden as a place of quiet contemplation and enclosed beauty. It must also serve to block out the nearby parkway and off-ramp, the major arterials and the whole apparatus of a postwar car-based city.

Interestingly, the Aga Khan, who signs off on all plans, was strongly in favour of the gardens – and underground parking for 750 cars. His Highness was concerned about what kind of image the centre will send to the population at large. He wanted non-Ismailis to feel as welcome as possible, and also to be confronted with the sheer beauty of the complex.

Given the number of surface lots in Toronto, one might think we love them, but thankfully the Aga Khan doesn’t. Though his demand will raise the cost of the project, that’s a price he’s willing to pay.

For this, and everything else, we should be eternally grateful. It is revealing that the Aga Khan and his foundation treat this city with more respect than most developers who work here. Not only did Toronto win the museum over London, England, the plan will empower three important architects to help transform Toronto.

The Aga Khan is also hard at work in Ottawa, converting the old War Museum of Sussex Dr. into the Global Centre for Pluralism. There’s another Ismaili centre, also designed by Maki, under construction in the embassy district.

Too often the subtext of the diversity debate focuses on what Canada can do for immigrants. This time, it’s about how much they can do for Canada – and Toronto.


Apr 1,2008

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.


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.