“It is the responsibility of the architect to leave behind buildings that are assets to culture.”
Aga Khan Museum is a cultural civic facility, devoted to celebrating the Islamic art and culture; situated on a small hillock with an unfolding panoramic view of the Toronto skyline. The sacred museum attempts to evolve and reflect upon a strong dialogue between the Islamic and the outside world, it serves as a lens bridging the gap between the two worlds. The museum was situated on the site surrounding a formal garden, inspired by the Islamic idea of a char bagh. An overview of the artistic, intellectual, and scientific contributions made by the Islamic culture, the museum houses galleries, exhibition spaces, classrooms, a reference library, auditorium, and a restaurant.
The initiative of Aga Khan to revive and unfold the story of the Islamic, past, present, and future was the major concept behind the design of every element to assemble the museum. Fumihiko Maki used the notion of ‘light’ as an inspiration to design the museum; he used light as a source of enlightenment that nature and the human soul illustrate at every moment of life. The play of light was not only to define spaces but rather used as a way to express, a way to feel the spiritual essence of the space. The effect and mystery of light with the changing texture are experienced as one travels across the museum. It is first observed when one experiences the use of an angled facade to reflect the natural rays and shadows onto the terraces and reflecting pool; it creates an effect similar to a sundial. The next gesture is the use of hexagon-shaped skylights, a religious symbol of heaven; allowing rays of diffused light to enter the gallery spaces. On moving further one encounters a light-filled courtyard at the center of the museum packed by lattice screen glass walls on four sides, replicating the traditional jali pattern also referred to as the ‘mashrabiya’ pattern of Islamic culture. With the changing pattern of the Sun over the day, the lattice wall casts shadows across the smooth white interior wall, allowing the faded vision of movement within the closed interior spaces.
A minimalistic approach to design, the museum uses a smooth angular facade to house thousands of precious scripts and artifacts of the Islamic culture. The center courtyard is an approach to create an enclosed, secluded space protected from the outside world which not only creates a spiritual space for one to contemplate but is also used as a multi-purpose space for temporary installations, exhibitions, public gatherings, discussions, lectures, prayer, etc. The facade is clad in sandblasted white Brazilian granite. The museum offers a spectacular experience with naturally lit spaces. The origami dome crowning the auditorium space stands as a landmark feature to the chamfered box-like shape of the built form. An angular access staircase spirals around in hexagonal formation leading one to the second level of the auditorium, against the blue plaster wall.
The museum envisioned by Aga Khan and implemented by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki is not just a presentation of the history of the Muslim Civilisation but it is also a living celebration of the present Muslim culture. The Museum is an insight into the Muslim traditions not just to revive a sense of belongingness among the fellow Islamic population but also a gesture to explain the non-Islamic population of its cultural and ethnic importance. The museum also serves as a source of knowledge and archive for the Islamic community. The use of such a soothing palette only reflects upon the architect’s vision to create an ethereal space for one to experience. The use of such a simple gesture with the play of natural sunlight through the use of an angular facade reflects on the purity of the design. The design draws inspiration from the traditional Islamic style implemented to create a stronger connection and understanding with the concept behind the purpose of the museum. Fumihiko Maki tries to reflect Aga Khan’s beliefs, ideologies, and relationships with cultural diversity through the design of the museum.