Ismaili Jamtkhana and Center Houston, Simerg

Reflections on the Design of the Ismaili Center Houston


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.


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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Ismaili Center Houston Featured Image

Video, Report and Photos: A Preview of the 7th Ismaili Center in the World to Be Built in Houston

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

Presentation by Farshid Moussavi on the Ismaili Centre Houston, November 15, 2021

Prepared and compiled by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, SimergBarakah, 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

Ismaili Centre Houston Simerg
At left, aerial view of the empty site of the Ismaili Center Houston, and at right an aerial view of the Ismaili Center and its gardens as it will look when it is completed in three years time. The center’s site is in the heart of the City of Houston across from Buffalo Bayou Park to the left. IMAGE: IMARA HOUSTON INC. / IPL via The Ismaili.

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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Ismaili Centres around the world Simerg
Top row (from left): Ismaili Centre London (Opened April 24, 1985), Ismaili Centre Vancouver (August 23, 1985), and Ismaili Centre Lisbon (July 11, 1998); Centre row: Ismaili Centre Dubai (March 26, 2008), Ismaili Centre Dushanbe (October 12, 2009), and Ismaili Centre Toronto (September 12, 2014); Bottom row: The 7th Ismaili Centre Houston (future date). Collage: Malik Merchant/Simerg.


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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Ismaili Jamtkhana and Center Houston, Simerg
The Ismaili Center Houston will serve as both a Jamatkhana for the Ismaili community to come together for prayers, spiritual search, and contemplation; as well as an ambassadorial cultural center. IMAGE: IMARA HOUSTON INC. / IPL via The Ismaili.

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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Ismaili Center Centre Houston Simerg
The forecourt garden with its reflecting pool at the entrance of the building creates a contemplative atmosphere. The new Center will feature beautiful spaces, intricate geometry, and highly crafted work. IMAGE: IMARA HOUSTON INC. / IPL via The Ismaili.

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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Ismaili Center Houston
Central atrium and staircase at the Ismaili Center Houston. Each atrium is designed in such a way as to fill the heart of the building with natural light. IMAGE: IMARA HOUSTON INC. / IPL via The Ismaili.

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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Ismaili Center Centre Houston Simerg Imara
From wherever one enters the site, visitors will be welcomed by garden spaces. The Center’s landscaped gardens will provide a sense of serenity and peace, offering a respite from its urban surroundings. IMAGE: IMARA HOUSTON INC. / IPL via The Ismaili.

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.


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Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Please also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah and Simergphotos.