Building profile: The Aga Khan Museum

Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, opened in 2014 and designed by Maki and Associates in partnership with Moriyama & Teshima Architects, is an educational museum on the contributions of Muslim civilizations to the global community throughout history. The museum’s mission is to promote dialogue, tolerance, and mutual understanding through its exhibitions and programming, including educational sessions and artistic performances.[1] Its thousands of cultural objects and artworks are set within permanent and rotating exhibition spaces, encouraging innovative and multifaceted readings of the diversity of Islamic art.

(Lead photo: John Oyston, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

His Highness the Aga Khan is the hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community and has shown a dedication to the development of Muslim architecture and communities through the Aga Khan Development Network.[2] The museum is part of a larger complex near the Toronto Ismaili Centre, designed by Moriyama & Teshima Architects in association with Charles Correa Associates, both of which are set on park grounds designed by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. The Aga Khan’s impetus for building a museum of Islamic art in Canada included a recognition of Canada’s dedication to pluralism.[3]

View of museum from surrounding park. Photo: Katrin Zavgorodny-Freedman

The Aga Khan selected architect Fumihiko Maki to design the museum, discussing the theme of light as an inspiration point for the design.[4] The Aga Khan’s commission included an increase in the education around Islamic art in the Western world, which included a space for children’s education in the museum,[5] as well as a fusion of traditional elements with the modern, something he saw as prevalent in Maki’s previous work and his musings on traditional Japanese culture and its embrace of modernity.[6] The building is rectilinear with two above-grade stories, its four functions of exhibition spaces, auditorium, education, and a restaurant organized around a central glazed courtyard, reminiscent of a traditionally Islamic building feature as well as bringing in a bright, well-lit element to the building. The museum’s exterior design is inspired by the shapes of precious stones, angled in such ways as to allow visitors to examine the play of light on their surfaces. The intention behind the light-coloured granite cladding was to allow for the building to respond to different lighting conditions, reflecting the colours of different times of day such as high noon and sunset.[7]

The 75,000-square-metre formal gardens around the Aga Khan Museum were designed by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic. The design is loosely based on the chahar bagh, a traditional Persian and Mughal four-section garden.[8] The space in between the Museum and the Ismaili Centre features a flat, paved plaza with five square black granite reflecting pools, organized into a square design with one pool as the plaza’s central point. Ordered plantings of trees to echo the fountain placement, while floral shrubs surround the plaza, providing gentle colour to the ordered space. Around the perimeter of the two buildings and the formal garden is the Aga Khan Park, filled with Star Magnolia, River Birch, Trembling Aspen, and Weeping Cherry trees chosen for their colours and ability to thrive in a Canadian climate. Shrubs smaller plantings were chosen based on their ability to attract birds and butterflies. The design process included touring traditional Islamic gardens around the world, including the Tomb of Humayun in New Delhi and the courtyard gardens at the Alhambra in Granada.[9] Djurovic’s use of these traditional precedents is centred around their sensory elements, engaging the 5 senses and particularly those of sound and smell, in order to create a contemporary reading of gardens as seen throughout Islamic architecture.[10]

View of formal gardens in relation to the museum. Photo: Katrin Zavgorodny-Freedman

—Katrin Zavgorodny-Freedman

[1] Aga Khan Museum, “Mission,”

[2] Aga Khan Museum, “His Highness the Aga Khan,”

[3] Philip Jodidio, “Introduction,” in The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, (Munich: Prestel, 2008) 12-35, p. 17.

[4] Philip Jodidio, “Al-Nur (The Light): The Architecture of Fumihiko Maki,” in The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, (Munich: Prestel, 2008) 36-63, p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 47.

[6] Ibid, p. 52.

[7] Ibid., p. 55.

[8] Aga Khan Park, “About,”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Philip Jodidio, “A Garden in Toronto: The Design of Vladimir Djurovic,” in The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, (Munich: Prestel, 2008) 82-101, pp. 83, 94-96.

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