A $300 million cultural and religious complex has opened in Toronto, designed by leading modern architects and showcasing one of the world’s top collections of Islamic art.
The Aga Khan Museum, housed in a structure designed by Pritzker Prize–winner Fumihiko Maki of Japan, shares a 17-acre site with Toronto’s Ismaili Center, which has a prayer hall crowned by a crystalline glass dome drawn up by Indian architect Charles Correa. It is the first museum devoted to Islamic art to open in North America.
Beirut-based landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic has created a formal Islamic garden between the two cream-colored stone-clad structures with reflecting pools and rows of flowering serviceberry trees. A “vision of paradise” is what Djurovic has said he aims for the minimalist garden to provide.
The museum’s location amidst suburban sprawl, a 20-minute drive northeast of central Toronto, is surprising and was not originally intended. The Aga Khan initially wished to locate the museum in London, but British authorities scuttled that plan in 2002. So instead of standing opposite the Houses of Parliament along the Thames River, it opened on September 18 encircled by beige-hued office and apartment blocks on the outskirts of Canada’s largest city.
The Aga Khan, the 77-year-old spiritual leader of the world’s some 16 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, is a billionaire who embodies the ideal of a modern, liberal Islam, and he directs the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network, which funds a variety of philanthropic projects throughout the developing world. His Turkish-Persian title means “lord and commander,” and he has also been a leading advocate of a new Islamic architecture, urban planning, and landscape design.
The museum contains over 1,000 artworks and artifacts dating back over 13 centuries and from throughout the Islamic world. It includes ceramics, metalwork, carpets, textiles, calligraphy, musical instruments, mosaics, paintings, and drawings. Highlights from the trove have been on traveling display in the past few years at the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, as well as museums in Madrid, Berlin, Istanbul, and Kuala Lumpur.
The core of the collection was assembled by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, uncle of the current Aga Khan and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On the museum’s ground floor is a room with red carved wood cabinets showcasing an array of Islamic ceramics that partially replicates a Persian-themed chamber in the Chateau de Bellerive in Geneva where Prince Sadruddin lived until his death in 2003.
The museum’s director, Henry Kim, said that the museum aims to emphasize the interconnection of Islam with other cultures throughout the religion’s history. In December, it will present an exhibition devoted to the shipwreck of an Arab dhow found off Indonesia’s Belitung Island. The vessel was carrying a rich cargo of goods from China, and the discovery of the wreckage in 1998 provides vivid evidence of intellectual and cultural exchange between Islam’s adherents and those of other religions.
Along with displaying ancient artifacts, the museum is committed to staging exhibitions of contemporary art. These will initially be organized on a country-by-country basis and the inaugural show of current work features six Pakistani artists whose work treats the theme of the garden.