The architecture of empathic pluralism: His Highness the Aga Khan, an inspired vision of architecture


“The Aga Khan’s inspired vision of architecture as “The Earthly Paradise” is both a conceptual paradigm and an obligation. It invokes a sustainable, transcultural language of architecture that contributes to making this world a better place…My first encounter with his passionate mission was as architect for the Burnaby Jamatkhana and Centre. This was, at first, a search for something about which we had little experience…A compassionate journey with His Highness, the Ismaili community leadership, and my design team, established a trusting bond and sharing of philosophy and visions.” — Bruno Freschi, Architect, Ismaili Jamatkhana, Burnaby

Aga Khan speaking at Foundation Ceremony The Ismaili 14b Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreHis Highness the Aga Khan speaking on July 26, 1982 at the foundation laying ceremony of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby, Canada. Photo: The Ismaili.

Our lives are shaped and evolved by the spaces and places in which we live, work and play. This is a fundamental truth. We live in an ever-changing transformation of our existence within architecture. Is it not also true that the essential mission of architecture is the obligation to create an earthly paradise which inspires our daily lives and ennobles the lives of others? His Highness the Aga Khan, through his global architectural advocacy and sponsorship of numerous enduring projects, has reminded us to be thankful for the beauty of the universe around us. He emphasizes our responsibility to be good stewards of the earth and to make the world a better and more beautiful place. Is this not the ultimate vision of stewardship?

Al Azhar Park CairoAl-Azhar Park, Cairo, was transformed from a 25-feet deep derelict dump into a park masterminded by the vision of the Aga Khan. Photo: Aga Khan Trust For Culture.

Architecture is both a unique and a universal language that resonates through and across the diversity of disciplines, places, idioms, cultures and events. Employing metaphors and illusions, architecture provides a bridge for connecting and understanding across our differences. The earthly paradise evokes empathy, the currency with which we navigate the encounters, even collisions, of personal and cultural differences as we strive to achieve community.

We are reminded that architecture is the handmaiden to beauty. While the objective of architecture is beauty of form, the engagement with beauty inspires the understanding of beauty beyond form. Architecture purposes beauty of form to evoke and inspire beauty beyond form, beauty as a foundation for sharing and bridging differences.

The earthly paradise represents our highest aspirations. However, as Ian McHarg reminds us, “We are the bullies of the earth: strong, foul, course, greedy, careless, indifferent to others, laying waste as we proceed, leaving wounds, welts, lesions, suppurations on the earth body, increasingly engulfed by our own ordure and, finally, abysmally ignorant of the ways the world works, crowing our superiority over all life.”

We are obligated to reappraise our dominant vision of nature as alien. Our inability to limit growth has led to the irreparable exploitation of our finite resources. The challenges of man-made and natural catastrophes, limited resources, and ineffectual institutions of governance have prevailed. We do, indeed, seek an integrated biome, a balanced environment — human equation. Some thoughtful leaders envision creating a beautiful and wholistic world, an earthly paradise. The Aga Khan stands out as a visionary.

Aga Khan and Bruno Freschi Foundation Ceremony Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana VancouverBruno Freschi,  the Honourable Henry Bell-Irving, Lieutenant-Governor General of British Columbia, and His Highness the Aga Khan at the ground breaking ceremony of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby, Canada. Photo: Bruno Freschi archives.

The architecture of empathic pluralism is a compassionate husbandry of our earth, physical and spiritual, social and cultural, through and beyond beauty. This is the Aga Khan’s inspirational message in his profound commitment to creating community and place. My first encounter with his passionate mission was as architect for the Burnaby Jamatkhana and Centre. This was, at first, a search for something about which we had little experience, only our intuition and trust in the profound and timeless traditions of Islamic architecture. A compassionate journey with His Highness, the Ismaili community leadership, and my design team, established a trusting bond and sharing of philosophy and visions. The Burnaby Jamatkhana, the product of this search, reflects our best interpretation of an earthly paradise. The journey was a patient, creative search with the Ismaili community, exploring architecture for an established culture in a new community.

As architect, I was the “alien.” When I asked about my alien/other status, His Highness explained his views of architecture as a universal language with an overarching empathic mission. My work and experience in other transcultural projects demonstrated my understanding of this significant aspect of architecture.

In all his architectural undertakings, His Highness has honoured both the Islamic architectural traditions and evolutions of that heritage within diverse cultures. Islamic architecture embraces adaptation, change, and transformation. It reminds us to see and feel the beauty of the world as we know it, visible and invisible. His Highness, through his architectural advocacy, invokes each of us to act as good stewards of our time and place, leaving the world in a better condition.

The Ismailis 01 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreA winter view of the Burnaby Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana. Photo: The Ismaili.

Immediately upon invitation into this commission, I understood the uniqueness of the proposed building and, more importantly, the complexity of the design process. There was no predefined program or process. An atmosphere of mutual trust emerged, fostering a shared intellectual search and common understanding of the desires of the community. This became an iterative process in which the discourse of architecture, form, aesthetics, and beauty were central. We devoted time to researching and exploring the traditions and understanding the philosophy. This process resulted in a program and architectural vision evocative of the complexity, spirituality, and social purposes of the Jamatkhana, the new home for the Ismaili community in Canada.

Shortly before my involvement, the Ismaili community was new to Canada and Vancouver. They carried with them deep traditions and a difficult emigration. They received a profound welcome to Canada, a proudly plural and diverse culture, by the then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This was a new beginning and the Ismaili community needed a timeless, iconic symbol, a beautiful place to celebrate their culture and its integration into Canada. Recognizing and articulating the community aspirations was central in creating a new Jamatkhana.

Mohib Ebrahim 05 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreCourtyard looking toward the front entry portal at night time: Photo: Mohib Ebrahim. Copyright.

The Jamatkhana is a very special building, a unique place for spiritual and secular gathering and mutual celebration of Ismaili daily life events and prayer. It is a place of convergence, timeless foundation of community. The building is a synthesis of community functions. This synthesis is a reflection of their rich tradition, which does not separate the social from the spiritual. Secular architecture is material and physical place, supportive of physical events and functions. Spiritual architecture is simultaneously physical and iconic, symbolic form, a complete and unequivocal space and place. Yet, it must sustain a transformative experience in which the materiality of place becomes ephemeral. The building is an aesthetic event, a beautiful form representing a greater belief, a beauty beyond form. The Jamatkhana is a synthesis of these architectures. While being an earthly paradise, it purposes beauty in form to evoke beauty beyond form, to support spiritual transformation: “one goes into a place to go out of that place”.

The Ismailis 07 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreA view of octagonal cupolas on the roof. Photo: The Ismaili.

The outward beauty of form will evoke the inner spiritual referent. The obligation of the Jamatkhana, a place, is the signification and reference to an ephemeral other. The deeper and more empathic the experience, the greater the focus and intensity of the spirituality.

The Islamic architectural tradition is embodied in physical form employing the narratives of geometry, structure, surface, calligraphy, illusion and ambiguity. The architectural narrative is woven into the whole fabric of the building and is slowly revealed in the kinesthetic experience of moving through the ordered spaces while contemplating the visual symbolic ambiguities. This architectural tradition has established the privilege of formal beauty as the pre-event to the contemplative beauty beyond physical beauty. Herein lies the spiritual experience.

The design of the Jamatkhana is an interpretation of this philosophy for the Ismaili community. I chose to express the elements of Islamic architectural form through the idiom of an architectural narrative. That is, the building is a story. The building is revealed through a story-line, progressing chapter by chapter as one moves through the spaces and revisits these places. The narrative becomes richer as one becomes more curious and contemplative over time. Many members of the community have continued to celebrate the mystery in the spatial narrative for more than thirty years.

The Ismaili 13 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreInterior, prayer hall, geometric pattern in wood relief completing the domes. Photo: The Ismaili.

Ismaili Centre Burnaby 03Interior, prayer hall, stepped wall relief with Marmorina and marble tiles. Photo: The Ismaili/Gary Otte.

The Ismailis 02 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreInterior, prayer hall, window niches with patterned glass. Photo: The Ismaili/Gary Otte.

The Ismailis 10 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreInterior, prayer hall. Light from window illuminates the geometric patterned carpet. Photo: The Ismaili/Gary Otte.

The relentless pursuit of geometry provides a clarity and order which guides the understanding and experience of the entire site and the building form. This is synthesized and symbolized in the octagon, the mythical geometric squaring of the circle. The circle is the symbol of unity of the universe. The octagon is first revealed in the courtyard paving and also in the overall forms of the building. The entry portico is the deconstructed partial octagonal dome. The structural plan geometry, the octagonal domes, the order of rooms, and the calligraphy are introduced slowly throughout the building, and only fully completed in the Prayer Hall. The underlying geometry as expressed in the octagonal forms and domes, surfaces, calligraphic patterns, screens and glazing, are the elements of the narrative experience, the story of this building. The octagon is omnidirectional; all axial relationships are equal. There is no front or back, no left or right. One experiences the sense of being on axis from all directions. The octagon is nonhierarchical. The centre is everywhere, and everyone is in the centre all the time. The octagonal geometry and the narrative it evokes is a symbolic expression of the desire for empathic spatial experience, an expression of inclusion and equality projected throughout the Jamatkhana.

Bruno Freschi 03c Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreWindow niches with patterned glass, framed by concrete and sandstone. Photo: The Ismaili.

The materiality of the building, the celebration of the earthly materials of concrete, sandstone, wood and glass, evokes a physical presence, a permanence, a symbol of timelessness. The expression of timelessness is the foundation of community identity.

Calligraphy is the spiritual voice visible on surfaces, screens, lanterns/windows, carpets, and cast tiles on walls. While literal, the calligraphy is abstracted graphically into eloquent and nuanced surfaces of the defining walls. The calligraphy was abstracted to a degree of virtual illegibility. This ambiguousness was intentional and directed by the Aga Khan. It is this ambiguity which arouses curiosity to seek beauty beyond form, beyond the literal. He said, “all should indeed struggle to attempt to read the words, as this is in the spirit of the quest.” Calligraphy is an historical signifier in the narrative experience. Abstraction and ambiguity of the calligraphy creates the pause to seek and see, to enable spiritual transcendence.

The architecture of the Jamatkhana is a unique physical and spiritual harmony, a narrative, a story of elements in beautiful form. Together these elements evoke an experience of peace and order, of contemplation and prayer, of hope and humility, in the spirit of cultural exchange. While spirituality is more complex and nuanced than the architecture, it is both deeply personal and inspires empathic connection with others, both within and beyond place.

Interior, loggia looking toward the garden courtyardInterior, loggia looking toward the garden courtyard. Photo: The Ismaili/Gary Otte.

The Ismailis 14 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreClose-up, front entry portal at dusk. Photo: The Ismaili.

Mohib Ebrahim 01 Burnaby Ismaili jamatkhana and CentreA view under full moon of the sunken gardens and courtyard of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre, Burnaby, Canada. Photo: Mohib Ebrahim. Copyright.

The Aga Khan’s inspired vision of architecture as “The Earthly Paradise” is both a conceptual paradigm and an obligation. It invokes a sustainable, transcultural language of architecture that contributes to making this world a better place. To whatever degree we may have succeeded in creating the Jamatkhana, it is a reflection of the deep affection for architecture and the rich philosophy of empathic pluralism expressed by the Aga Khan.

Whilst our evolving world will continue to be challenging, the deep commitment of the Aga Khan has been an inspiration. He is the good steward, employing his profound understanding of cultural traditions, of architecture, and of our natural world. We, in turn, have been gifted with a prescient guide on this path inspired by beauty.

Date posted: Friday, July 21, 2017.

Copyright: Bruno Freschi/Simerg. 2017.


Architect Bruno FreschiBorn in Trail, British Columbia, Bruno Freschi (OC, FRAIC AIA RCA) is one of North America’s most honored architects. A Fellow of the Royal  Architectural Institute of Canada and a member of the American Institute of Architects, he was given the Order of Canada (O.C.) in 1985, the highest individual honour awarded by Canada. He was also the recipient of the 125th anniversary of Canadian Confederation Commemorative Medal for significant contributions to architecture and education. Mr. Freschi was the chief architect and master planner of the 1986 World Exposition in Vancouver, as well as the architect of the Vancouver Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre, which was completed in 1985 for His Highness the Aga Khan. 

Bruno Freschi graduated with honours in architecture from University of British Columbia and was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Governor General’s Medal and the prestigious Pilkington Fellowship for the best architectural thesis in Canada. He continued his post-graduate studies at the Architectural Association in London, England, including extensive research in architecture and urbanism in Europe, the Middle East, India and China. Since then he  has practiced in England, Italy, Switzerland and the USA. He also held the position of the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the State University of New York until 2002. During his tenure, the school became a leading design and interdisciplinary architecture and planning school and doubled in size. He currently consults in architecture focusing on pre‐design, conceptual development, and planning, in addition to design consultation. Mr. Freschi is also a visiting distinguished Professor at Kyonggi University in South Korea.


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