Report prepared and compiled by Abdulmalik Merchant
His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims, who is the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) became the 30th recipient of Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s coveted Gold Medal. The Ismaili Imam joined an elite list of outstanding architects and individuals who have contributed to Canadian architecture including the world-renowned British born landscape architect Peter Cardew, now based in Vancouver, who received the medal in 2012, Moshe Safdie, builder of the National Art Gallery of Canada, as well as the Right Honourable Vincent Massey, who was the 61st Governor General of Canada from 1952 until 1959 and the second recipient of the medal in 1968. RAIC’s first medal was presented in 1967 to Mayor Jean Drapeau who served two terms as Mayor of Montreal.
The official ceremony granting the 2013 RAIC Gold Medal took place at the pleasant surroundings of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building on Sussex Drive, part of the National Capital Region’s ceremonial route. The choice of the location of the ceremony reinforced the nomination of His Highness the Aga Khan for the award, paying homage to his extraordinary achievements using architecture as an instrument to further peaceful and sustainable community around the world. The building itself along with His Highness the Aga Khan’s other iconic public and spiritual spaces are a significant contribution to Canadian architecture, which the Gold Medal recognizes.
The event, attended by around 200 invited guests, commenced exactly at 5:50pm in the Main Hall of the Delegation Building with the entrance of some of the executives members of RAIC as well as Princess Zahra Aga Khan and Her Excellency Adrienne Clarkson. The invited guests stood up respectfully as His Highness the Aga Khan accompanied by the President of RAIC entered the hall.
The ceremony itself lasted approximately 45 minutes. First, a welcome message was delivered by Jim McKee, the Executive Director of RAIC, who introduced the Award itself and the 2013 recipient, His Highness. An informative seven minute video was shown highlighting the Aga Khan’s architectural projects through the years and around the world which serve both the Ismaili community and the Aga Khan Development Network’s activities as well as some projects that have won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture during the past forty years.
The citation for the award was delivered by George Baird, one of Canada’s most celebrated architects and architect educators who was the recipient of the RAIC Gold Medal in 2010. Author of works such as Alvar Aalto (1969), The Space of Appearance (1995) and Public Space (2011), in his citation Baird noted “the astonishing breadth and depth of various organizations that make up the Aga Khan Development Network” and described numerous projects around the world which had offered him a sound grasp of the work of the Ismaili Imam – from the Serena Hotels and the Stone Town in East Africa to the Aga Khan Program at Harvard University.
He stated that he responded with great enthusiasm about nominating His Highness for the Gold Medal. When he was approached by the RAIC to read the citation, he said that he “leapt at the chance”.
“In recognizing His Highness we cite his remarkable accomplishments in various aspects in the field of architecture as part of his broader social and economic development work, particularly the specialized cultural programming undertaken through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture….” — excerpt from ceremony programme
“The selection of His Highness the Aga Khan as recipient of RAICS’s highest honour – its Gold Medal – marks the first time in more than 30 years that a non-architect has been chosen and recognizes the Aga Khan’s extraordinary achievements…” — excerpt from ceremony programme
Following the presentation ceremony, a reception was held at the Delegation Building’s library and display area.
EXCERPTS FROM HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN’S REMARKS MADE UPON ACCEPTING THE 2013 GOLD MEDAL FROM THE ROYAL ARCHITECTURAL INSTITUTE OF CANADA
I. CANADIAN CITIZEN
“You may know that I recently became a citizen of Canada – at the gracious invitation of the Canadian government. That honour made me feel even more closely a part of the Canadian family – even as this honour today makes me feel more closely a member of Canada’s architectural family.”
II. THE ROLE OF THE IMAM
“In Islam, the role of an Imam is not limited to the domain of faith. It also includes a deep engagement in the world, in all of the wide and complex issues that affect our quality of life. Among those issues, not many have more impact than architecture and the buildings in which we spend, at all ages, so many days and nights of our lives.”
III. CANADIAN PROJECTS AND THEIR ARCHITECTS
(a) Background – “an ugly experience of ethnic cleansing”
“What I would like to describe in particular this evening, however, is my experience with Canadian architecture. The story goes back to 1972, when the then President of Uganda, Marshall Idi Amin, expelled all the Asians from Uganda no matter what their faith, their citizenship, or position in society. Many thousands left Uganda in a matter of days; most took nothing more with them than their brains and the languages they spoke. Most members of my community, the Ismailis, came to Canada, while a minority who had retained their British citizenship at Ugandan independence went to the United Kingdom. It was one of the ugliest experiences of ethnic cleansing in those times.
“The leaders of the Ismaili communities in the UK and Canada consulted with one another and with me as to how to respond to this forced migration. There was unanimity that wherever we would settle we would never become a demotivated, marginalized minority and that we would, instead, demonstrate the will and the capacity to rebuild our future. We therefore decided to build new spaces for the gathering of our communities, and for the practice of their faith, in the countries that were welcoming us.”
(b) Bruno Freschi and the Burnaby Ismaili Centre
“We decided to build….in our own, varied architectural languages….adapting them to the requirements of younger generations, and applying them as well, to the open spaces around our new buildings.
“In taking this approach, we were comforted to know that Canada welcomed a pluralistic approach to questions of cultural continuity. We knew, for example, that Bruno Freschi, who designed the Ismaili Centre in Vancouver, had earlier designed a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship. He reflected Canada’s practice of drawing strength from cultural diversity, as well as from universal inspirations such as faith and family, and the celebration of great events and great people. This combined embrace of both the particular and the universal has made Canada one of the most respected pluralist societies in today’s heavily fractured world.”
(c) Charles Correa and the new Toronto Ismaili Centre
“We continue to build in Canada. Soon a second Ismaili Centre, now nearing completion in Toronto, will join the first one in Vancouver, making Canada the only country in the foreseeable future with two Ismaili Centres, one in the West and another in the East. For this work, we retained another great architect, Charles Correa, who was born into a Christian family that originally lived in Goa. He, too, has designed for many faiths, including Hindu and Christian.”
(d) Fumihiko Maki and the Aga Khan Museum
“The story is similar for another new Toronto building, The Aga Khan Museum. It has been designed by a remarkable international partnership with one of the great Japanese professionals, Fumihiko Maki, and a major Canadian firm, Moriyama and Teshima.”
IV. ISLAM: SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
“In all this work we continue, of course, to honor our Islamic architectural inheritance. That inheritance has been shaped by many forces – climate, accessible building materials, available technologies and others. But I believe that the Islamic faith has played a particular role in the development of Islamic architectural expression. For our faith constantly reminds us to observe and be thankful for the beauty of the world and the universe around us, and our responsibility and obligation, as good stewards of God’s creation, to leave the world in a better condition than we found it.”
V. OUR SPACES SHAPE OUR LIVES
“Is it not true that the quality of our lives is fundamentally shaped by the spaces in which we live, spaces that provide physical security, and spaces where we seek spiritual enrichment? They are spaces where we work, and where we pause from work; where we expand our minds and restore our health, places where we congregate and where we meditate; and they are places where we are born, as well as places of final rest.
“Some are spaces we may only visit briefly – but where we learn how others live – from the extremes of abject poverty, for example, to the extremes of great wealth.”
VI. ARCHITECTURE OF PLURALISM
“The language of architecture speaks in different idioms, but it also provides powerful connections, resonating in landscapes both urban and rural, global and local, monumental and humble, secular and spiritual. An “Architecture of Pluralism” is one that will encourage all of us to listen to one another and to learn from one another, with a deep sense of humility and a realization that diversity itself is a gift of the Divine.”
VII. THE WORK OF RAIC AND RECOGNITION WITH A GOLD MEDAL
“The future will present us with ever-evolving architectural challenges – urbanization, water management, air pollution, protection from manmade and natural hazards and the efficient use of limited resources. Men and women of recognized talent worldwide must be mobilized to meet these challenges – as the RAIC has done so impressively, including your efforts to attract “Broadly Experienced Foreign Architects” – the B-E-F-A programme. Not only have you been able to streamline the licensing here of internationally trained architects, but you have also reaffirmed a global ethic of openness and cooperation.
“The work that you do at the RAIC is more than simply mattering. You are shaping forces that influence the essence of human life. And this is the fundamental reason that I am so deeply honoured by your recognizing me today.”
Date posted: Monday, December 2, 2013.
Note: All speech excerpts of His Highness the Aga Khan are from the website of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Copyright © His Highness the Aga Khan.
Photos and all other copyright material published on this website may not be reproduced without the written permission from the original copyright holders.
Simerg acknowledges and appreciates the following organizations for making speeches and photos available for this piece. Please visit their respective websites for complete speeches, photos as well as videos and more details:
1. Theismaili.org – the official website of the Ismaili community, please click on www.theismaili.org;
2. The Aga Khan Development Network, please click on www.akdn.org; and
3. The Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, please click on www.raic.org.
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