What made the project especially rewarding was the close alignment between the client and the architect’s aspirations. What made it very challenging was my knowledge of the high standards that His Highness has set for architecture for many many years — Architect Farshid Moussavi, text transcription from video shown below
Prepared and compiled by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, Simerg, Barakah, and Simergphotos)
After many years of anticipation, designs of the forthcoming Ismaili Center in Houston were presented on Monday, November 15, 2021 by design architect Farshid Moussavi at a special event hosted in Houston, TX, and streamed live around the world on Ismaili TV.
The caption for the brief video shown above on Youtube notes that a full event video will be made available on Ismaili TV. We sincerely hope that the full video is also made available on the Ismaili’s Youtube video channel.
The following text is adapted from the press release issued by His Highness the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for the USA. (Read original press release HERE).
Ismaili Center to be Houston’s Newest Cultural Asset
Note: All images may be clicked on for enlargements
The design for the Ismaili Center to be built in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou watershed was presented to the public on November 15, 2021 at a gathering of government and civic officials, community representatives and leaders from civil society organizations. Situated on Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard, the Ismaili Center is commissioned by Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).
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Dedicated to advancing pluralism, public understanding and civic outreach, the Center in Houston joins its counterparts established in London, (UK), Lisbon (Portugal), Dubai (UAE), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Vancouver and Toronto (both in Canada). Each of these buildings — designed by architects of international standing and multi-cultural sensitivity — is reflective of their own geographies and contexts. As ambassadorial buildings around the world, they are symbolic of the Ismaili community’s presence, pluralistic outlook and ethos of volunteering. The Ismaili Center Houston, with its openness of both purpose and structure, will seek to express these values. Speaking in Sugar Land, Texas in 2002, Mawlana Hazar Imam observed that “since all that we see and do resonates on the faith, the aesthetics of the environments we build and the quality of the interactions that take place within them reverberate on our spiritual lives.”
The Ismaili Center Houston will be a venue for educational, cultural and social events, to encourage understanding and facilitate the sharing of perspectives across peoples of diverse backgrounds, faiths and traditions. It will aim to build bridges through intellectual exchange by hosting concerts, recitals, plays, performances, exhibitions, conferences, seminars, conversations, book launches and community gatherings. The building will also provide space for quiet contemplation and for prayer, as well as serve as the administrative headquarters of the Ismaili community in the USA.
In presenting the design, Iranian born Farshid Moussavi, an internationally acclaimed architect, who also designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, observed: “What made this project especially rewarding was the close alignment between the aspirations of the client and architect. What made it especially challenging was my awareness of the rigorous standards that His Highness the Aga Khan has established for architecture! We have tried to work with Islamic design philosophy, and celebrate its singularity and unique qualities as well as the features it has in common with Western design, so that the building, both through its fabric and through the way it is used, would act as a symbol of dialogue.”
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The building is designed with a compact footprint, leaving large portions of the site to be used as gardens. Given the frequently hot and humid climate of Houston and the prominence of the site in the city, it is designed with a tripartite form with each of its volumes hosting a soaring eivan (veranda) to enable social and cultural gatherings to occur outdoors throughout the year. The eivans are supported by forty-nine slender columns reminiscent of those used in Persepolis and seventeenth century palaces in Isfahan, Persia. In being open on all sides and visible from all approaches to the site, the eivans will make the Ismaili Center open and inviting in every direction. At night, they will transform it to a beacon of light along Montrose Boulevard and Allen Parkway.
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The Center’s design, contemporary in its expression, is reflective of a historically rooted, rich architectural heritage. It combines contemporary architectural technology — its light steel structure — with traditional Persian forms and ornament, including ceramic mosaics and screens drawn from Islamicate traditions around the world. Its design for sustainability includes assuring enhanced energy performance and longevity and durability of materials, by encasing exposed steel with concrete for a 100-year lifecycle, and using stone for the building’s exterior walls.
Conceived as a tapestry in stone, the exterior walls will transition from solid areas to porous screens that will provide shade and privacy, and from flat surfaces to deep alcoves to permit shady repose fronting the gardens. The building exterior will therefore be defined by simplicity of form, openness, and an abstract decorative character.
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The building interior will include three atriums that will act as common, non-exclusive flexible spaces between rooms dedicated to specific events. Each is located adjacent to an eivan to bring in natural light and views of the sky to the heart of the building. The central atrium’s stepped structure clad in ceramic screens, celebrates the heritage of the cupola dating back to 3000 BCE, dominant in both the architecture of the Sasanian period in Persia and the Christian buildings of the Byzantine empire. The west and east atriums will give access to a theater, a large hall and learning spaces.
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The Center’s landscaped gardens will provide a sense of serenity and peace, offering a respite from its urban surroundings. The gardens will include tree canopies, fountains, shaded footpaths, flowerbeds, lawns and walkways. These will be spaces of solace, providing for the rejuvenation of the mind and the spirit.
In his remarks, Houston Mayor Turner reflected, “The Center will elevate, yet again, Houston on the world map as a global city where people of all backgrounds can come together. This notion of learning about and accepting differences amongst peoples and communities, what we call pluralism, is central to the Aga Khan’s vision for the survival of an increasingly interconnected world. The Ismaili Muslim community in Houston and the United States continues to actualize the values that these Centers aim to promote – friendship, service, and mutual understanding.”
Speaking at the ceremony, President Al-Karim Alidina of the Ismaili Council for the USA acknowledged the role of the various teams: “This project, would not be possible without the dedicated efforts of Farshid Moussavi Architecture, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, AKT II – Structural Engineer and DLR Group the architect and engineers of record. We also look forward to working with the construction manager McCarthy Builders and the numerous local contractors who will build and craft this building over the next three years.”
The Ismaili Center Houston will offer a new dimension to the cultural life of the city and a place of gathering for the Ismaili community where visitors will be welcome.
Date posted: November 19, 2021.
- Website of the architect Farshid Moussavi
- The Ismaili: Ismaili Center Houston designed to embody a spirit of openness and dialogue
- Houston Chronicle (subscription required) Exclusive: America’s first Ismaili Center will be architectural jewel for Houston
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The Ismaili Center Houston promises to be an architecturally innovative building. It draws inspiration from several traditions and will likely generate discussion and debate about contemporary Muslim architecture. The confluence of Muslim and non-Muslim design in the Center very much reflects the centuries-long Ismaili openness to other cultures (e.g. see my article at https://www.academia.edu/44099779/Ismailis_A_Pluralist_Search_for_Universal_Truth). It is fascinating how the building’s architect, Farshid Moussavi, has blended together features from the Zoroastrian Sassanid, Christian Byzantine, Muslim Isfahani and secular Western societies in a contemporary Ismaili American edifice.
However, two important considerations appear to be missing in the structure. A vital principle of architectural pluralism is respect for the heritage of the building’s actual users. The vast majority of Houston’s Jamat are families that have either arrived directly from India and Pakistan or from the South Asian Ismaili diaspora in Africa. But the long tradition of South Asian Muslim architecture appears to have been downplayed in Houston’s Ismaili Center. On the other hand, successful efforts were made to reflect Pamiri design in Dushanbe’s Ismaili Centre. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been actively engaged in the preservation of historical Muslim architecture in India and Pakistan. It would have been intriguing to see the Center’s architect bring in motifs from such design traditions. What would have been particularly path breaking is a creative endeavour to incorporate ancient Indian elements from 3000 BCE as Moussavi did from ancient Persepolis of the same period in her native Iran.
The other absence is the apparent lack of the design traditions of local indigenous peoples in the otherwise multicultural Houston Ismaili Center. Akokisa people lived in the area, building airy beehive-shaped structures to cope with the warm climate. In a time when indigeneity is increasingly becoming central to North American discourses, an architectural conversation with the first peoples of Texas would have been far-sighted.
Why is the Houston building and other such buildings around the world called the Ismaili Center and not the Ismaili Jamatkhana?
I viewed the opening ceremony plaques of all the Ismaili Centre buildings around the world, and with the exception of the building in Vancouver, (opened in 1985) where the opening ceremony plaque as well as the main entrance reads “Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre,” all the other opening ceremony plaques simply read “Ismaili Centre” without referencing Jamatkhana. Even the London building, the first one to be built and opened, says “Ismaili Centre.” I will try and get an answer to your question if I can — I do not personally have a plausible explanation. However, the Jamatkhana is a central component in each of the buildings.
I note that a major Islamic building in the USA in Washington D.C. which incorporates a mosque as well as classrooms and library is referred to as the “Islamic Center of Washington”. The same is the case with another major mosque project in New York which is called “New York City Muslim Center.”