A Brilliant Architect and a Visionary Imam Combine to Build First Iconic Ismaili Landmark in North America Twenty Four Years Ago
In a personal message to Mr. Bruno Freschi dated 20th October, 1985, His Highness the Aga Khan wrote:
“With my deep and sincere gratitude for conceiving, designing and buiding a Jamatkhana and Centre which represent our respect for our past, our belief of today, and our hope for the future.The Ismaili Jamath worldwide, and I, are proud of your remarkable achievement.”
In a personal message to Mr. Bruno Freschi dated 19th November, 1985, Prince Amyn Aga Khan, the younger brother of His Highness the Aga Khan, wrote:
“I would like you to know that it was a pleasure to work with you. You should be proud of your building. It shows imagination, sensitivity, care and respect. I am delighted with it and I believe the entire Canadian Ismaili community congratulates you. I certainly do.”
“The challenge has been unusual and I feel that it is one which has been successfully met by the prominent Vancouver architect, Mr. Bruno Freschi. Mr Freschi is, in a way, symbolic of the strengths that come from the very diversity of the Canadian way of life. Born a Canadian citizen, he comes from an Italian Catholic background. He has the professional quality and personal sensitivity to create in highly typified cross cultural situations, having already designed Sikh Gurudwara before this beautiful Ismaili Jamatkhana.”
(Excerpt of speech made by the Aga Khan at the ground breaking ceremony, 26th July 1982. Note: The Burnaby Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre was a Silver Jubilee Project)
In this conversation (Monday, March 16, 2009), often interspersed with candid remarks and interesting personal recollections, Mr. Freschi talks about: the iconic Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana in Burnaby which he designed; the constant engagement and interest that the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismailis, His Highness the Aga Khan, showed throughout the design and construction processes of this Jamatkhana; the Imam’s role, patronage and worldwide influence in the field of architecture; and the care and pride with which the Ismaili community has preserved and maintained the dignity of the Burnaby Jamatkhana since its opening in 1985. Mr. Freschi also describes the Expo 86 project that he worked on simultaneously while finishing the Ismaili Centre. Though both projects were a success, the code words that were used for the two projects were “Sanity” and “Insanity”. He also offers some words of wisdom to students who may wish to pursue the field that he has been so passionately in love with for several decades. Please read the full interview below. The interview includes several photographs and images from Mr. Freschi’s personal archives and we are indebted to him for giving them to us for publication.
Editor’s note: A gallery of additional photographs of the Ismaili Centre has now been published, providing detailed captions. See links at bottom of this page. For those with low speed access, please use the thumbnail gallery.
Simerg: This is a rare opportunity for us and a treat to be with you – an architect of the highest standing and reputation, someone whom His Highness the Aga Khan placed his trust to design a truly majestic centre and Jamatkhana for the Ismaili community in Canada; and your contributions have been recognized in the most dignified manner – you were invested with the Order of Canada in 1988. The citation reads:
His pinnacle so far has been as Chief Architect and Planner for Expo 86, where his concept became the master plan for the design of all facilities, the movement systems and the exhibition module. He has stimulated visual thinking with his energy, enthusiasm and creative flair in a diversity of structures and has been an inspiration to a new generation of architects.
Many many congratulations. We have a lot to talk about today. Let me begin on a lighter but a fairly relevant theme – food. You seem to have unique perspectives and tastes. What do you think of Vij’s – the food, the ambience and the design. Does design really matter?
Freschi: Thank you. It is wonderful to be here in this marvellous restaurant.
Vij’s is one of the best in Vancouver! I enjoy the Indo-Canadian fusion cuisine and the understated elegance of the place.
Yes, the design effects everything especially the patrons appreciation and perception of the place, the event and the food….“the restaurant is essential, but otherwise irrelevant, as the food is everything”.
Simerg: When we first met in January 2005 – and you might recall this – it was just inside the entrance of the Grand Hall of the National Building Museum in Washington DC, awaiting the arrival of His Highness the Aga Khan to receive the Vincent Scully Award. As we introduced each other, I immediately recognized your importance and you were surprised. I think every Canadian Ismaili should know who Bruno Freschi is, don’t you?
Freschi: I was surprised, and very pleased that I should be that well known. I must add, I was humbled as well. The Jamatkhana is very well known and that pleases me. The appreciation by the Community of the Jamatkhana for whom it was designed is one of the highest honours for me, the architect.
Simerg: What were your thoughts that evening as the Aga Khan received the Award?
Freschi: The Aga Khan was most deserving of the Award and I was happy to have been part of the process in getting this award for him.
As you may know his support for architecture, indigenous, modern and social on a global scale has been inspiring to my profession all over the world. The Award Ceremony was a great event, and a new direction for the Vincent Scully Prize. This honour reflected both the pluralism and the cultural aesthetics of the Aga Khan, a new modernism.
Simerg: Did you get to meet with him that evening?
Freschi: Yes, he was most generous and lauded my work, in the creation of the Jamatkhana. He said it was one of his most favoured buildings.
Simerg: You had met him in Chicago a few years earlier? Was that project related?
Freschi: I attended a conference of the UIA (International Union of Architects) and AIA (American Institute of Architects) at which he gave a major speech. One humorous incident occurred. As I was late in my arrival at the conference hall, my cab driver took me through a basement service entry to avoid the usual security and congestion at the plaza level.
On arriving, I was just ahead of an entourage of limousines. I accidentally arrived simultaneously with His Highness. We were both equally surprised and the Aga Khan’s photographer, Gary Otte, captured the serendipitous moment. Gary had photographed all my work in Vancouver. Many of the photographs in my personal collection that I am sharing with you were taken by Gary Otte .
Simerg: The Scully Award Ceremony was attended by some well known architects, including Mr. Maki who designed the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building in Ottawa. Have you seen the Delegation building? Did you meet with Mr. Maki during the Scully Award ceremony?
Freschi: I have not seen the Delegation Building in Ottawa. I look forward to seeing it soon.
His Highness did introduce me to Mr. Maki and it was here that he again thanked me and said that our Jamatkhana was indeed one of his favourite buildings. He encouraged Mr Maki to visit the building. I have invited Maki to come and visit the Jamatkhana.
Simerg: The Jamatkhana will be twenty five years old soon. Have you visited it recently?
Freschi: The Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana, first in North America, is one of the most important works in my career. I visit it frequently. I have continued to be involved in the current upgrading and repairs on its 25th anniversary.
I would like to note that the community has been extraordinary in the care and maintenance of the centre. I see this as an expression of love for the place and its iconic presence in the hearts and minds of the community.
Simerg: While the Jamatkhana was being designed and constructed, were you entirely dedicated to it or did you have other projects that you were engaged in?
Freschi: During the period from 1980 to 1985, I was involved with other projects too, however one stands out as it was virtually simultaneous.
I had won the Commission to be the Chief Architect and Planner for EXPO 86, a World Exposition in Vancouver to open in 1986. I completed both the Jamatkhana and EXPO 86 during the same time. Both were very important and very complex projects involving many people.
However they were very different projects. We had code names for the projects and these reflected the differences: Sanity and Insanity.
Sanity was the Jamatkhana, a very challenging project and a rather beautiful design process. It was complex, yet a sane, compassionate search for a beautiful icon for a community in search for a home.
In contrast EXPO 86 was Insanity, a chaotic unpredictable and rather messy process, a planning and design search for a global play ground, a World’s Exposition.
The sanity-insanity metaphors helped me bridge these two challenging architectural realities.
Both I think, were a success.
Simerg: Is there anything special that you feel about the Ismaili Jamatkhana that you designed?
Freschi: The Jamatkhana is a very special and uniquely spiritual building. It is one of the most significant and important buildings in my career.
Spiritual architecture is a unique design challenge because the architecture must be simultaneously, an iconic, symbolic form, complete and unequivocal yet it must transform and become ephemeral. Indeed the building is an aesthetic statement which symbolically represents a greater belief, “one goes in to go out.” The spirituality of the place is embodied in going beyond place, to go out.
Let me explain. Like a theatre, the building is a pre-event to the fantasy of a play or movie. When the lights go out, the curtain goes up, the building is ephemeral, it vanishes and a new event, the play becomes reality. A theatrical metaphor is useful, however spirituality is a more subtle and complex. The architecture seeks to wed cultural, symbolic and religious aspects to a modern building environment.
Simerg: What are the key characteristics of this Jamatkhana’s design…that bring about this profound and complete sense and feeling…of “one goes in to go out?”
Freschi: The design of the Jamatkhana incorporates a powerful relentless set of elements:
GEOMETRY governs the entire site, the building. It is symbolized in the octagon, the mythical “squaring of the circle.”
THE OCTAGON is Omni-directional. All axial relationships are equal providing an open and non- hierarchical circulation. “The centre is everywhere, and everyone is in the centre.”
MATERIALITY, the exposure of earth materials, concrete, sandstone and marble gives a material presence and permanence, symbols of a timeless “foundation” for this community.
CALLIGRAPHY is incorporated throughout the building. The spiritual voice is reflected in the graphic designs on tile work, the glass windows, carpets, and wood screens. Whilst very abstract, the calligraphy is both traditional and spiritually evocative.
The Jamatkhana is a synthesis of the elements of; geometry, materiality, calligraphy; and the principles of; symbolism, universal equality of place, iconic foundation of community.
Simerg: And you as an architect…play that role, to have to fuse these elements…
Freschi: Architecture is the unity of these elements and principles expressed in the building structural narrative, a pattern of octagonal and domed structures giving the sense of unity and universality.
An example of “going out” That ephemeral quality of spiritual space can best be seen in the calligraphy on the glazing of the “lanterns” or windows inside the Jamatkhana. The glass is one inch thick providing acoustic insulation. The graphics are fired on both surfaces of the glass. Seen at an angle the calligraphic images are dual and ambiguous, they visually vibrate to the contemplative viewer. This is “signalectic” architecture, the threshold of the ephemeral sanctuary of spiritual space.
Simerg: How closely were you engaged with His Highness during the design stages and what kind of leadership did he provide?
Freschi: His Highness was directly involved in all aspects of the project. All the substantive meetings were held directly with him and he did indeed give profound aesthetic leadership.
He was both an excellent design critic and intellectually generous in the pursuit of our design ideas.
The design process by its very nature is evolutionary and iterative. It is seeking answers to unstated problems. There must be a bond and a trust between the client, and the architect. I believe we earned that trust through a strong collaborative attitude shared by the community, His Highness, and the design team.
The concept did evolve through iterations, many meetings and presentations with His Highness and the community Board. We all worked in collaborative atmosphere of trust. The process was very fertile and resulted in a very appropriate icon for the community and for Vancouver.
Freschi: Opening day was a very beautiful day. His Highness did express a fond appreciation for all the work by all involved in bring this new and beautiful foundation for a new community in Canada.
Furthermore, I was very honoured and humbled, and am pleased to share with you, the written comments made by His Highness and his brother, Prince Amyn, in my own copy of the special souvenir edition to mark the Jamatkhana’s opening. It is a wonderful publication.
Simerg: Did Prime Minister Mulroney have a word with you?
Freschi: He extended a very sincere congratulation to me and my team for achieving “a beautiful expression of Canadian pluralism.”
I believe the ultimate purpose of the Jamatkhana is giving iconic foundation to the Ismaili Community in Canada. Both His Highness’s and the Prime Minister’s comments reflected this very Canadian idea.
Simerg: Are you following the Aga Khan’s other projects around the world such as the restoration of historic buildings? What about the Al Azhar Park?
Freschi: I have not seen Al Azhar Park, however the concept and plan are a great concept in the recovery of wasted land and the generation of a timeless asset for Cairo.
Simerg: What projects are you working on at the moment?
Freschi: I am currently establishing a new consulting practice in Vancouver centering on pre-design policy and programming. In addition, I am co-founding an Innovation Foundation to be housed at the University of British Columbia and dedicated to identifying Innovators, their ideas and to implement these in Vancouver.
Simerg: You spent time in Washington DC. How do you feel, architecturally, when you are in that city?
Freschi: DC is a unique American city. It has preserved a sense of urban scale and provided an heroic democratic geometry, the MALL, a magnificent open green commons that can hold millions. The city is now maturing into a real living urbanism including housing and neighbourhoods, yet providing a functioning global capital. I love the scale of streets, the traffic circles, and the parkways. The general architecture is perhaps too historicist for my taste.
Simerg: What are some of your other favourite cities?
Freschi: Vancouver (of course), New York, Isfahan, Rome, Kyoto, and Venice
Simerg: What guidance would you give to a prospective student in the field of architecture.
Freschi: Architecture is a passion. The field is always changing and represents a great challenge to any student. Unlike any other discipline arch, it is an exploration of the self and artistic expression and social purpose. The study of architecture requires dedication, passion, curiosity, cultural awareness, compassion for others, and a lifelong love of study.
Simerg: What are some of the schools of architecture you might recommend?
Freschi: Cooper Union, New York City; Architectural Association, London School of Architecture & Planning, State University of New York at Buffalo (my school )
Simerg: One last question: If you look into the future what might you wish?
Freschi: I would love to get involved with the new park proposed in Burnaby by His Highness. Its proximity to the Jamatkhana should create a complementary development, perhaps a Trans-cultural knowledge environment.
Simerg: Thank you very much for a truly engaging and inspiring evening.
This interview has received coverage in the Ottawa Citizen. Please see:
Architect Bruno Freschi and the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby – Designing Ottawa – Maria Cook.