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Aga Khan Museum

Geometric patterns and serviceberry trees light up the gardens of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto

Writer

John Burns

Photographer

Titus Chan

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‘Someone once told me that Toronto was designed to be viewed as a blur from a passing car,’ says Vladimir Djurovic. ‘It was done so without attention to detail, and with cheap materials.’Djurovic, a Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect, is recalling the view from his wing mirror while driving along the Don Valley Parkway en route to the site of the city’s new Aga Khan Museum.Opened in September 2014, the Aga Khan Museum is the first of its kind in North America. Founded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture – an agency created by His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Nizari Ismaili Muslims – the museum displays more than 1,000 objects of Islamic art that span three continents and 10 centuries.

His Highness wanted these buildings to be like two jewels

‘His Highness wanted these buildings to be like two jewels,’ Djurovic says, regarding the two handsome monoliths posed along the expressway as it reaches the city’s Don Mills neighbourhood. One, a canted box of white stone, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, forms the museum; the other, a crystalline dome atop a limestone saucer was designed by Indian modernist Charles Correa as an Ismaili cultural centre and jama’at khana, or prayer hall. Djurovic landscaped the 10,000-hectare parkland that surrounds both buildings.

‘All three entities – the museum, park and centre – connect the past to the present,’ says Filiz Çakır Phillip, associate curator of the museum. ‘They really embody the notions of art, spirit and nature, and you can see traditional Islamic design translated into a 21st-century context.’

That’s no accident: the Aga Khan is a well-known patron of architecture and oversees the Aga Khan Award for Architecture – an international prize awarded to buildings that address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have significant presence.

When seen from the Don Valley Parkway, the museum glimmers on a bright day. The white Brazilian granite that wraps its exterior walls is polished to a lustre, tapering outwards at ground and roof level to catch the movements of the sun. These folded white surfaces house the museum’s exhibition spaces, auditorium, restaurant and shop, which are arranged around a double-height central courtyard. With glazed walls at all four of its sides, the courtyard allows light to flood the building and is etched with a pattern referencing mashrabiyeh screens.

‘When you visit, you see how important light is. Just stepping passed the front doors introduces you to beautiful patterns of filtered light,’ says Phillip, who describes the courtyard as a giant sundial, allowing light to travel across the walls of the atrium as the sun changes its location throughout the day. ‘Light is a concept that every culture can relate to and find meaning for. It’s a kind of uniting force, and I think that conveys what the museum is all about.’

Between researching potential exhibitions, leading tours of current shows and consulting with paper conservators, Phillip enjoys the respite of the site’s garden. ‘In the summer and spring, I go to the park and sit on one of the benches or stroll through the paths,’ she says. ‘It’s inspiring and stimulates creative thinking. It connects me to the past, because the formal garden, like the museum itself, refers to traditional Islamic architecture.’

Uniting the two buildings, Djurovic’s formal garden forms the heart of the campus and comprises five large, reflective pools set among a field of soft gravel and an orchard of serviceberry trees. Russian sage offsets both the black of the marble pools and the white of the gravel, while the trees’ shade falls over the granite benches where Phillip likes to take her breaks.

Djurovic enjoys the aural pleasures of walking through the garden, too. ‘The five water mirrors reflect the trees, the museum, the prayer hall and the sky above that’s ever changing. It looks different at every time of the day.’

The formal grounds follow a geometric form inspired by the Persian-style charbagh – four-part gardens that Djurovic was invited to visit during his research. ‘When I won the competition, His Highness told me, “Congratulations. I’m committed to making the park as you have designed it. However, I would like you to visit these gardens first.”’ The Aga Khan handed Djurovic a list of some of the world’s finest Islamic gardens – Humayun’s Tomb, Isfahan and Alhambra, to name a few. ‘He made me go everywhere. You name it, I’ve been.’

Upon his return, Djurovic completely changed his original design, purifying and paring it down to just three simple elements – the pools, orchard and gravel. ‘These places were captivating,’ he says, ‘but if you looked at the design, they had nothing – just a few elements that, when put together, create a magical effect. That was the main revelation. I knew then that the Aga Khan did not want me to design a trendy garden. He was looking for a garden for generations to come.’

Surrounding the formal garden is a larger, wilder park planted with maple, birch and poplar trees. Djurovic sheepishly describes the park in its current standing as being in ‘phase one’; he is in tentative talks with the Aga Khan to expand its offerings to the community, potentially via a botanical garden featuring native Canadian flora.

‘There are a lot of different layers,’ Djurovic says of the Aga Khan Museum’s garden. ‘If it’s left alone, it will grow into a rich natural landscape that will keep changing from season to season, and year to year. To Toronto, it offers another outdoor place, but this one, I think, is more contemplative and, perhaps, more spiritual.’

This article appears in Brownbook’s November/December 2015 issue.

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