Toronto’s Aga Khan Park: Inspired by Islamic gardens around the world
When he came to design the 6.8-hectare Aga Khan Park in Toronto, the Lebanon-based landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic took his cues from age-old Islamic gardens around the world, creating a space that is designed to both captivate and act as a catalyst for change, Selina Denman writes
Before coming up with his design for the Aga Khan Park in Toronto, Canada, the Lebanon-based landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic visited traditional Islamic gardens around the world – from Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi to Alhambra’s courtyard garden in Granada, Spain. His aim was not to mimic these historic examples, but instead to capture “more what you feel and smell and hear”, he explains.
“I was scared in the beginning. The place has no character, no spirit, no soul. There was nothing here to respond to. But it’s going to transform the area; it will be a catalyst for change,” Djurovic said of the Aga Khan Park in an interview with the Toronto Star. “It is an introverted garden, an adaptation of the Islamic garden that belongs to this time. I needed it to capture you and slow you down.”
Of Montenegrin descent, Djurovic, the founder of Vladimir Djurovic Landscape Architecture, was born in Lebanon in 1967. He completed his undergraduate degree in horticulture at Reading University in the United Kingdom, before going on to obtain a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia in the Unites States. He worked in the US for several years before moving back to Lebanon and establishing his own, eponymous practice in 1995. In the region, his projects include the Mandarin Oriental in Beirut’s Solidere district, the Beirut Terraces, also in Solidere, and a host of private properties.
The 6.8-hectare Aga Khan Park was officially opened at the end of May by the Ontario province premier Kathleen Wynne and the spiritual leader of the Ismaelis, Aga Khan, and is the site of the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaeli Centre.
For the park and gardens, Djurovic wanted to create a space that was both “ephemeral and eternal”, a space that would evolve with the changing of light or passing of seasons, but would at the same time exist as a permanent legacy for the city.
To this effect, he placed the emphasis firmly on sensory experiences – sounds, aromas and colours. The design is based on a traditional chahar bagh, or four-part garden, and a natural geometry was created through the systematic planting of serviceberry trees, a landscape tree and shrub from the Rosaceae family that is native to the northern hemisphere. In the formal gardens, Djurovic used Russian sage, periwinkle and thyme, as well as redwood and honey locust trees, creating a tranquil destination for contemplation, as well as a versatile space for public and private events.
Beyond the gardens, which are encircled by cedar hedges, the park is home to rose glow barberry, Chinese wisteria, forsythia bushes and a wide range of tree species, including river birch, freeman maple, star magnolia, trembling aspen, silver maple, poplar, spruce and weeping cherry.
Trees and shrubs were chosen for their varied colours and forms, as well as their ability to survive Canada’s harsh climate. Their ability to attract birds and butterflies was also key.
There is a total of 2,300 square metres of “green performance space”, interspersed with 1,600 metres of paved walkways. And at the heart of the garden are five reflecting pools carved from black granite that mirror the sky and reflect the striking architecture of the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaeli Centre.
The park offers a constant interplay between motion – of the water, light, leaves, water and petals – and the solidity of these beautifully built forms.
Designed by Japanese architects Maki and Associates, the Aga Khan Museum features an exterior made from Brazilian granite, glass and aluminium, and interiors consisting of concrete, steel, aluminium, Italian limestone, patterned glass, stone mosaic floors, polished black granite and Indonesian teak. A gross floor area of 10,500 square metres is divided between exhibition galleries, an auditorium and storage space. A highlight of the structure is an open-air courtyard surrounded by 13-metre-high double-glass walls etched with a mashrabiya pattern.
The floor is crafted from a tri-colour mosaic featuring lapis granite from Namibia, limestone from France and the same white Brazilian granite found on the building’s exterior.
The museum’s permanent collection features over 1,000 artefacts, including rare manuscripts, paintings, ceramics, glass and scientific instruments that chart Muslim civilisation from the eighth century to the present day. From tomorrow, the museum will also play host to a visiting exhibition from Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation. Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation will feature a range of photographs, installations, sculptures and paintings by 12 artists from the Middle East and North Africa, and will be officially unveiled by Barjeel’s founder, Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.
The 8,300-square-metre Ismaeli Centre, meanwhile, features a prayer hall, social areas, a library, classrooms, an atrium lounge and an activity room, and is designed to “stimulate the intellect, encourage dialogue and celebrate cultural diversity”.
The Aga Khan Park is the ninth park project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), the cultural arm of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a private, international, non-denominational development organisation that works to improve living conditions and opportunities for people in the developing world and beyond.
Founded by the Aga Khan, the AKDN is active in more than 30 countries and employs some 80,000 people, making it one of the largest private development agencies in the world. The organisation’s focus on parks comes from the strong belief that these public spaces, when properly maintained, can improve quality of life in urban areas, act as economic generators and bring about positive social change.
Among these nine projects are completely new developments, as with this latest initiative in Toronto, or the restoration of existing projects, as in the case of the Babur’s Garden and Timur Shah Mausoleum in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The 16th-century site, which is where the first Mughal emperor is buried, was revamped, but in a way that ensured its historic character was maintained. The garden itself, which stretches down to the Kabul River, was replanted with stunning mulberry trees.
The AKTC was also involved in the redevelopment of Al Azhar Park in Cairo, a 31-hectare expanse that attracts millions of visitors each year, and the Humayun’s Tomb Gardens and Batashewala Mughal Garden Complex in Delhi.
Back in Canada, there are two other major park projects in the pipeline for the country, with a new park planned for Burberry and an Islamic Garden scheduled for the Devonian Botanic Garden in Edmonton.
• The Aga Khan Park is open all year. Opening hours are dawn to 10pm from April 1 to October 31, and dawn to dusk from November 1 to March 31. For more information, visit www.agakhanpark.org
Updated: July 23, 2015 04:00 AM