Ismaili Jamtkhana and Center Houston, Simerg

Reflections on the Design of the Ismaili Center Houston

By KARIM H. KARIM

The Ismaili Center Houston (ICH) promises to be an architecturally innovative building. It draws inspiration from several design traditions and will likely generate discussion and debate about present-day Muslim architecture. The confluence of Muslim and non-Muslim motifs in the Center very much reflects the centuries-long Ismaili openness to diverse cultures (e.g. see my article Ismailis: A Pluralist Search for Universal Truth). It is fascinating how the building’s architect, Farshid Moussavi, has intermingled features from the Zoroastrian Sassanid, Christian Byzantine, Muslim Isfahani and secular Western societies in a contemporary Ismaili American edifice.

However, some vital considerations seem to be missing from the building that aspires to stand as “a symbol of dialogue” in responding to its “geographies and contexts.”

  • An architectural conversation with the first peoples of Texas would have been far-sighted, especially at a time when indigeneity is of rising importance in North American contexts. For example, the challenge of dealing with Houston’s heat and humidity could have turned to the history of the local Akokisa people who built airy beehive-shaped structures to cope with the climate.

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The prominent "chorkhona" skylight in the Ismaili Centre Dushanbe. The chorkhana is the main defining symbol of the traditional structure of the Pamiri House
The prominent “chorkhona” skylight in the Ismaili Centre Dushanbe. The chorkhona is the defining symbol of the traditional structure of the Pamiri House, whose design principles reflect pre-Islamic philosophical symbols of the Central Asian region. Photo: Karim H. Karim.
  • A vital principle of architectural practice is attention to the cultural heritage of the proposed building’s daily 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 South Asian architecture appears to have been downplayed in ICH. On the other hand, conscious efforts were made to reflect Pamiri design in Dushanbe’s Ismaili Centre. The databases of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan Program in Architecture are rich with information about Muslim architecture in India and Pakistan. Given that the cupola is celebrated in ICH’s design, a nod to the innovative and distinctive chattri in the Indo-Muslim style of Gujarat would have been particularly apropos.
  • The American Ismaili Jamat’s dominantly South Asian provenance holds other potential that could have been explored through ICH’s architecture. Among the possible partners for dialogue in local and global contexts for Muslims in the USA are diverse Indian American associations. They have strong presence in the American political establishment and are also key players on the transnational scene, including the ties of some with India’s ruling Hindu nationalists. A truly path-breaking pluralist dialogue in the United States holds far-reaching potential for transforming the two diasporic communities’ engagement with each other and charting steps that address the concerns of India’s Muslims with integrity. The AKDN’s calibrated engagement with Afghanistan’s Taliban government is instructive in this regard. One can only imagine the profound diplomatic symbolism of an Islamic architectural pluralism that incorporates design from ancient Indian civilization, as ICH’s architect has creatively done with pre-Islamic Persepolis of her native Iran.

Date posted: November 26, 2021.

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Karim H. Karim
Karim H. Karim

About the author:  Karim H. Karim is Chancellor’s Professor and Director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam where he held an International Ismaili Studies Conference. He previously served as Co-Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) and Director of Carleton’s School of Journalism & Communication. Dr. Karim has held visiting scholarly appointments at Harvard University, Aga Khan University/Simon Fraser University, and the IIS. He has also been an advisor for the AKU and the Central Asian University and has served as a member of the AKDN’s Higher Education Forum. Professor Karim is an award-winning author, whose globally-cited writings include publications on culture, architectural design and pluralism as well as on Ismaili communitiesinstitutions, and leadership. He and his wife have established The Karim and Rosemin Karim Prize that recognizes research excellence in understudied areas of Ismaili Studies.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Design of the Ismaili Center Houston

  1. Prof. Karim is certainly living up his calling as an intellectual with his thought provoking commentary. Given the emphasis on pluralism, the lack of meaningful engagement with the sat panth tradition within Ismailism is indeed a puzzle. Even if one was to argue this was/is a transient phase in the centuries-long re-orientation of Khoja sub-community, there is no denying that it is a critically important (from a historical perspective) multi-layered phase that we ought to be preserving, exploring and engaging with. It is a phase jam-packed with personalities whose quiet acts helped keep the the light burning even in the bleakest of times.

    As for Taz Rajwani’s comment that the purpose of the center is not political, the number of press releases and newspaper articles would argue otherwise. In its broadest sense, politics refers to how different groups with a society (or individuals with individual societies) position themselves viz a viz others, anchor themselves, express their identities and ethical positions, etc. In fact, most high profile buildings are statements of one form or another, of which “political” is first and foremost. When Hazar Imam opened the Darkhana in Canada, the message to the society at large was rooted in this.

    Here is an illustrative quote from the foundation laying ceremony:

    “This will be a place of congregation, of order, of peace, of prayer, of hope, of humility, and of brotherhood. From it should come forth those thoughts, those sentiments, those attitudes, which bind men together and which unite. It has been conceived and will exist in a mood of friendship, courtesy, and harmony.

    “While the building will be an important focus in the social and religious life of the local Ismaili Community in Burnaby, it is my hope, a very deep hope, that it will become a symbol of a growing understanding in the West of the real meaning of Islam.”

    I would suggest that we can certain question and discuss which ideals, which messages and what symbolisms any one high profile Ismaili center is meant to project but not so much that it is not an meant to to just this.

    In fact a little appreciated fact is that sometimes even the overall design of high profile reflects the ongoing currents and tensions playing out at that moment in time. At the foundation ceremony of the Darkhana Jamatkhana in Burnaby, the words used by Mawlana Hazar Imam are:

    “A great deal of work and thought has gone into planning and design of the building that will rise on this site. The underlying objective has been to develop a religious and social facility for the local Ismaili community, which while blending harmoniously and discreetly with the surrounding environment and making full use of materials indigenous to the area, will still reflect an Islamic mood and add yet another dimension to the varied architecture of the Lower Mainland.”

    I draw your attention to the word “discreetly”. This architectural gem is sunken, sounded by a hedge of trees and essentially hidden from view. Now contrast that with the Toronto Ismaili Centre, which sits proudly on a hilltop and shines brightly for all to see. Was this deliberate? That too would be a political expression.

    Returning to Prof Karim’s commentary, is the nod to indigeneity in keeping with the messages and symbolism that the Houston building is meant to project both locally and globally? What are those messages? What is the place of the sat panth tradition within contemporary Ismaili mosaic? These are important questions to ponder. They define who we are as a community. They establish our identity. In this time and age, social media has enabled a grand bazaar where each individual can forge their their own community or overlapping communities unencumbered by geography or culture or social status. In this grand bazaar, articulating clearly who we are and what we as a community stands not , not in some abstract sense but in a way that resonates very practically and personally with individuals, is essential. Are we up to the challenge?

  2. Excellent observations. It’s disappointing that with majority Ismailis ( both global, national and local) of Indo- Muslim backgrounds , the architecture pays little tribute to that – the trend has been to emphasise middle and central Asian sensibilities. However, I have no objections to the fact that there isn’t a nod to indigenous native Indian elements just because it’s a hot issue now – I’m not denying historical fact of the original inhabitants but the purpose of the center is not political and architecturally it can be difficult to incorporate so many different style elements in one complex.

    • Thanks Taz. I am glad that you also see the culture of South Asian Ismailis being sidelined. My brief discussion in the article about indigenous peoples was not framed as a political matter but one of cultural and ethical integrity, which the AKDN tends to underline in its overall outlook.

  3. A thoughtful muse! Hope there is an engagement of different perspectives emanating from Professor Karim’s viewpoint.

    Thank you.

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