The new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is an oasis of calm and reflection

The new complex, an oasis of calm in the city, is the gift of the country's Ismaili community.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, houses more than 1,000 items. Gary Otte / Aga Khan Museum
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Between wooded ravines north-east of downtown Toronto in Canada, a cone jutting upwards from beige limestone shares a seven-hectare site with a massive rectangle in elegant white granite that resembles an open box. Both structures form a bridge between the tradition and culture of the Islamic world and the present and future of Canada.

The Aga Khan Museum, the 4,370-square-metre chiselled white form, opened to the public on Thursday. Clad in Brazilian granite, it houses the collection of the Aga Khan, the imam of the Ismaili community, in a structure designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Across an ensemble of pools and trees stands the Ismaili Centre, a mosque and other community offices designed by Charles Correa, the dean of Indian architects, who collaborated with Le Corbusier decades ago on the modernist buildings of Chandigarh in India.

In the soft September light, the structures are luminous. In the evening, the buildings are reflected in wide pools, part of gardens designed by the Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic.

Booming, sprawling Toronto, where tower blocks under construction jostle for space, lacked a contemplative cultural site. Now it has one in the new garden campus.

It also lacked much in the way of art from Islamic lands. Now it has 1,000 works – from Mughal paintings to ceramics, from rugs to Persian manuscripts, some of which travelled to Dubai for an exhibition in March. An ambitious acquisition effort promises even more to come.

The architectural ensemble, a US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) project realised without any state funding, is a gift from Canada’s Ismaili community, which numbers about 100,000, more than half of whom live in the Toronto area.

Ismaili ties to Canada were strengthened in 1972, when the North American country absorbed many families expelled from Uganda by the then-president Idi Amin. The Aga Khan has called Canada a global model for diversity.

Inside the quiet wood-lined Ismaili Centre, Correa says that the building’s design should reflect that experience. “These are Muslims who came from Uganda,” he notes. “They bring with them certain luggage, but their children are Canadian. Whatever you do, you have to speak of that luggage, but in the voice of Canada. That is what architecture is about. Those are the aspirations that it has to give shape to.”

When asked “Why Toronto?”, the museum’s director, Henry Kim, a numismatist hired away from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, has a simple response: “Why not?”

Warm feelings make for welcoming museums, or that’s the hope for the site where construction began in 2010 alongside a major motorway that hums nearby. Spacious galleries – the open-box motif is no coincidence – will introduce Canadians to art and traditions that few know of first-hand, such as 16th-century Persian drawings that have all the precision of their Italian renaissance counterparts.

“This site and these institutions will highlight elements of Islam that are largely left out of today’s narrative – pluralism, art, music, architecture, gardens, the exploration of the human self and an innate desire to connect with others, to learn as well as to grow,” says Luis Monreal, the general manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. “Turn on the news and, wherever you are in the world, it’s not good news about the way Muslims are represented. They’re misunderstood and they’re stereotyped. Our purpose is to educate and inform, and to address this clash of ignorance.”

Contemporary art is also part of the museum’s mission. Some works have been commissioned and some were being created as the buildings received their finishing touches. Not all those works will be by Muslims, Kim stresses, standing between the buildings by Maki and Correa.

Hanging from the ceiling in the museum's wide atrium, where light filtered through mashrabiya patterns on the glass walls, is a carpet decorated with 1.2 million gold and silver pins, all of which were placed by hand. Your Way Begins on the Other Side is the work of Aisha Khalid from Lahore in Pakistan.

“The background is a garden, which symbolises heaven,” she says. “It was very meditative, the process of making it.”

Outside, beside the reflecting pools, Imran Qureshi – Khalid’s husband – is throwing green and yellow paint into floral patterns on dark-granite stones. He looks up from splashing down his patterns of flowers. “I’m painting a garden in a garden,” he says. “It’s so peaceful here and yet these gestures, these splashes, are so violent. It reminds you that there’s no peace.”

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