Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan Upon Receiving the Gold Medal by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, RAIC
Ottawa, 27 November 2013
President Frank and leaders of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada,
Ladies & Gentlemen
Monsieur le Président, je voudrais vous remercier pour l’honneur que votre institut me fait aujourd’hui. Je remercie Monsieur Baird de m’avoir nommé pour recevoir ce prix si prestigieux et de ces paroles élogieuses.
Je suis profondément flatté de recevoir votre médaille d‘or, tout d’abord à cause des personnalités qui me la remettent – mais aussi par l’esprit d’excellence que votre Institut représente. C’est aussi un grand honneur si l‘on considère la qualité des récipiendaires depuis sa création en 1907; je suis fier d’en faire partie a présent. Je suis d’autant plus heureux qu’il s’agisse d’une récompense canadienne – car comme vous le savez, mes sentiments d’amitié à l’égard du Canada perdurent depuis longtemps.
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. Thank you.
I have often been asked what has caused my interest in architecture. I think it is right to begin by clarifying that my definition of architecture goes beyond a concern for buildings designed by architects. I see architecture as embracing practically all aspects – all aspects – of our entire built environment.
Let me also explain that 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.
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.
People everywhere, independent of their particular background or educational level, almost instinctively understand the importance of place, and how the spaces of our lives are shaped and reshaped – for better or for worse. I thought about this universal capacity for comprehension again, these past weeks, as the world reacted to photographs of the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines.
This universal sensitivity to changes in the built environment also helps explain the profound impact of architecture on the way we think about our lives. Few other forces, in my view, have such transformational potential.
I am pleased that you could see a brief video about some of our architectural projects through the years and around the world – both new projects and historic restorations, some of them serving our own community and our Network activities, some done in partnership with other public and private institutions, and some that have been selected for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for over nearly four decades.
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.
But we also agreed on one more thing. These new buildings, which we decided to call Ismaili Centres, had to reflect our aspirations for the future, rather than the tragedy of our recent past. We saw them as structures where we could receive other communities and institutions in a dignified manner, and where we could demystify our faith – which was sometimes badly misunderstood. They would be symbols of new hope, replacing past pain.
It was against this background that we built the two first Ismaili Centres in the industrialized world, the first in London in 1985 – and the second in Vancouver. In both cities, we built on the best sites we could find, and we engaged some of the most respected architects to join us.
As we proceeded, in England, and here in Canada, we were also aware of the risk that our cultural continuity might be eroded over time. The Ismailis were a global people, after all, with roots in many parts of the diverse Islamic world. We decided to build, therefore, in our own, varied architectural languages, often making a synthesis of them, 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.
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.
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.
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.
The garden is, in this context, a particularly important space in Islamic cultures, the Moghul garden in urban environments, or the Bustan in rural environments. Bringing such beautiful spaces to Canada is one of our intended contributions to Canadian landscape. An example is the new park in Toronto which will surround the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre, as well as new projects in Edmonton and Burnaby, and our endeavour to link area development to our rebuilding of Ottawa’s War Museum for the Global Centre for Pluralism.
The future will present us with ever-evolving architectural challenges – urbanization, water management, air pollution, protection from man-made 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. Let me conclude by emphasizing again the potential of Architecture to communicate across the boundaries that may otherwise divide us. Architecture provides us with ways to express that, which is distinctive in our own experiences, even as it responds to what is universally human. And this, above all, it seems to me, is why “Architecture Matters” – to use the phrase with which your organization is so strongly identified.
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.
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.
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