“I asked him (His Highness) how he kept his focus and energy. He replied that he surrounded himself with people who were very good at what they do and also many dedicated volunteers. He said he was inspired every day by their efforts and devotion to excellence.” Maria Cook speaking to Simerg (see full interview below).
Maria Cook has researched and written extensively about the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamate Building on Sussex Drive which was opened by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Saturday, December 6th, 2008 in the presence of His Highness the Aga Khan and members of his family. On the day of the opening, the Ottawa Citizen carried a special three page article by Ms. Cook which was published under the title An Essay In Glass. Following the piece in the paper, Simerg(Malik Merchant) met with Maria Cook for an interview for the blog http://ismailimail.wordpress.com. In it she talks about the Delegation building and its stature in Ottawa, her meeting with the His Highness Aga Khan at the opening ceremony, and also recollects and shares some of her moments as a journalist. Shortly after the interview, Malik Merchant created this blog, www.simerg.com, in March 2009 with the theme “Insights from Around the World.”
Simerg : Hello Ms. Cook, Ismaili Mail is honoured to interview you, and we thank you for giving us this opportunity.
First, we are thrilled that the Ottawa Citizen dedicated three full pages in its weekend edition for the opening of the Ismaili Imamate Delegation Building in Ottawa. How did you convince the editors that they should publish your essay? Were they responsive?
MC: The editors understood that this was not just about a new building. The opening of the building signals the establishment of an ongoing presence of the Aga Khan and his agencies. The choice of the Aga Khan to establish a permanent presence in Ottawa is very important for the city. It was an opportunity to acknowledge His Highness and to give some insight into the nature of the Imamat for the readership.
Simerg : How important is this building for Ottawa’s landscape? Does it set new standards of architecture for the city?
MC: The building completely respects and captures the intent of Sussex Drive and the ceremonial route which already has buildings representing France, Great Britain and Japan, as well as the residences of the Prime Minister and the Governor General. This is a very fine and appropriate building to join such distinguished company. It is perhaps the first building in Ottawa by an architect of international stature, from outside of Canada.
Simerg : Everyone we have heard from was awed by the depth and the detail in your article which was titled “An Essay on Glass”. Your essay dwelt on every aspect and phase of the building – from conceptualization to completion – so vividly and intimately that it seemed you were a planner, an engineer, an architect, and also on the construction team. You seem to love architecture – is this the area you have specialized in?
MC: You’re right. I was intrigued by both the architecture of the building and the ideas that it embodies. I began to follow its development as soon as I became aware of plans to build it. I thought it would be interesting for the general public to understand the role of the many people — from His Highness to the workers — in making the building. I visited the building several times during construction to write the story .
Simerg : Surely, to be able to write such an informative article you must have researched a great deal on the building and the people who you interviewed must have cooperated with you a great deal. What were the challenges you faced in developing the essay. Also, all those who were involved, what did they say to you about the building and their role in its completion? Were they proud or was it just another case of constructing a brick and mortar?
MC: Writing the article involved speaking to everyone from individual workmen to the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Everyone that I spoke to was proud to be involved and challenged by the need for very high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship in the construction.
Simerg : After researching the building so extensively, surely Ms Cook you attended the opening of the Building….or did you not?
MC: Yes, I had the honour of attending the opening of the building and meeting His Highness.
Simerg : What were your thoughts on the opening day when you got there? Had anyone of the guests you met read your article that appeared on the same day. What was their reaction? How did they feel about the building?
MC: It was obviously a particular pleasure for representatives of the contracting and building trades to see their work given recognition and prominence in a newspaper. Other people that I met from the community suggested that reading the article had helped them to understand what they were seeing and the experience of the building.
Simerg : Did you speak to His Highness and members of his family? Did the Aga Khan refer to your article? He must be the happiest person on that day?
MC: Yes, His Highness was clearly pleased with the building and enjoying himself. I had the honour to meet with him and briefly with his son, Prince Rahim. To my surprise, the Aga Khan had read the article and was most gracious and complimentary in his acknowledgement.
Simerg : What else did he say that you recall?
MC: He spoke about many other interesting projects being undertaken by the AKDN in Africa and Central Asia.
I asked him how he kept his focus and energy. He replied that he surrounded himself with people who were very good at what they do and also many dedicated volunteers. He said he was inspired every day by their efforts and devotion to excellence.
Simerg What about the Prime Minister and other dignitaries you met.
MC: I chatted with Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and Carleton University president Roseann Runte. It was a particular pleasure to meet Mr. Maki who had come from Japan as well as Gary Kamemoto, who led the project for Mr. Maki’s office. Representatives of their Canadian associates, Moriyama & Teshima Architects were there too. It was an oportunity for them to witness the delight the visitors experienced in the building.
Simerg : It seems that in time to come, members of the Public will be invited to visit the Building? What advice do you have for them when they are attending the Open House? What specific features should they not miss, because sometimes one can overlook things
MC: The building clearly manifests itself and its ideas in the light-filled atrium and the garden courtyard. Visitors should take the opportunity of walking on the upper-level bridges that overlook both spaces.
Simerg : What is or are your favourite part(s) of the building?
MC: I appreciate its quietness, elegance and simplicity, as well the qualities of light, transparency and, translucency.
Simerg : The Citizen reported on the opening of the delegation building but did not quote extensively from the Aga Khan’s speech? Did you have a chance to reflect on his speech?
MC: His Highness provided an understanding of why the Ismaili community is in Canada and the historical events that led a significant number of Ismaili people to come here. This helped the audience to understand why he had established the Delegation building in Ottawa and why he is building a museum and cultural centre in Toronto. He obviously knew that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government was in trouble at the time and referred in a subtle way to the challenges faced by “those who bear responsibilities of national leadership.” He also talked about the inspiration of rock crystal for the building and said it provided an appropriate symbol for the mystery of Allah.
Simerg : What other projects of the AKDN have you written about or visited?
MC: I had the great good fortune to visit and write about the Al Azhar Park in Cairo, where I saw how the Aga Khan Development Network approaches such projects as an opportunity for sustainable economic development. I also attended the architecture awards ceremony in Kuala Lumpur. The awards are another way that the Aga Khan encourages design excellence in the Muslim world.
Simerg : Tell me something about your career in journalism and your advice to someone who aspires to venture into journalism.
MC: Prior to the Ottawa Citizen, I worked for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Sun.
You need a passion for research and writing and an ability to work to deadlines and under pressure. Now, there is a requirement for versatility in all platforms. As a craft, the constant is the research and writing, not the subject areas.
Simerg : What are some of your memorable and challenging experiences as a journalist?
MC: Oh dear. When I worked for the Toronto Sun I was fresh out of school. I had to ride a whale at Marineland in Niagara Falls.
A recent challenge was to describe the construction of a highway bridge. This required me to immerse myself in the world of engineering. Also, writing about trainee surgeons brought me into operating rooms where I watched the surprisingly messy art of surgery. I’d never seen someone’s insides before. All for the cause of journalism, you understand.
Simerg : Any dangerous assignments?
MC: I haven’t been sent to a war zone but sometimes a seemingly normal assignment can have undertones of danger. Once, when I attended a stockholders meeting, I was pushed and had my notebook grabbed by one of the organizers of the meeting.
For that matter, trying to cross a road in Cairo can be dangerous!
Simerg: Thank you Ms. Cook for sharing so many interesting perspectives with us and our readers.
About Maria Cook
Maria Cook was born in Toronto. Trained as a journalist at Ryerson, she is a staff writer at the Ottawa Citizen and previously worked at the Winnipeg Free Press and the Toronto Sun. For the past eight years she has focussed on writing about architecture, urbanism and design. Maria has received several journalism awards, among them a National Newspaper Award for architecture writing, the first annual Royal Architectural Institute of Canada President’s Award in Architectural Journalism, and the Canadians for Health Research medal for excellence in health research journalism.
Maria Cook’s blog: www.designingottawa.com