Apr 02, 2008 04:30 AM Christopher Hume 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.
Christopher Hume writes on urban development, To reach him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.