Asian Heritage Month: Tradition and Modernity in Ontario’s Ismaili Centre

Posted by Nilgoun Bahar & filed under Art & Design, Diversity, Identity.

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The growing Ismaili community in Canada has brought with it some unique characteristics of Islamic architecture, enhancing the country’s already multicultural scene. Although this multi-ethnic group of some 75,000 people forms a minor part of Canada’s population, it has established its value in the country by producing individuals who have achieved a high profile and high ranking in Canadian public spheres and institutions. This presence became significantly visible after the construction of Ontario’s Ismaili Centre as a religious landmark, designed by the internationally-renowned Indian architect Charles Correa and his associates.

Ismaili Centre's Exterior View. [source: Inhabitat]

Ismaili Centre’s Exterior View. [Source:]

Despite what’s initially expected from Islamic architecture (abundant symbolic geometry, elaborate hand-painted mosaic tiles, and layers over layers of mural decorations), Toronto’s Ismaili Centre renovates its style by including a variety of modern materials with a determination to engage with Canada’s pluralism and multicultural context. This religious landmark reflects the ethos of Islamic religion while showing the Ismaili community’s integration and assimilation into their new culture.

[credit: inhabitat]

Ismaili Centre of Toronto [Source:]

The distinctive fusion of traditional elements in a contemporary Canadian context renders Ismaili Centre as the modern physical manifestation of the Islamic message, that of unity and oneness with the divine intelligence.

The landmark explores ancient Islamic architecture’s basic elements in combination to modernism’s belief in the exclusion of unnecessary ornaments, colors, and excessive patterns. The substance of Islamic architecture is always the same due to the permanence of the philosophy and cosmic values underlying it. What do change, as seen in this construction, are the ways and means with which people internalise and put into operation that philosophy and those values to their environment

Credit: Inhabitat

Toronto’s Ismaili Centre, the Muqarnas ceiling. [Source:]

Fatima Masumeh Shrine, Qom, Iran. [Credit: Calligraphy Islamic]

Fatima Masumeh Shrine’s Muqarnas ceiling, Qom, Iran. [Source: Calligraphy Islamic]

A brief comparison between the Muqarnas (an Arabic word deriving from Qurnas, or ‘decorated ceiling’) ceilings of the building and Fatima Masumah Shrine’s ceiling in Iran sheds light on this matter: Muqarnas‘ rich geometry and symmetric design is evident in both monuments, however, the crisp white patterns and the absence of mesmerizing decorated surfaces on Ismaili Centre’s ceiling reflects the influence of modernism.

The Ismaili Centre, Muqarnas ceiling. [Source:]

The Ismaili Centre, plain white Muqarnas ceiling. [Source:]

Sheikh Zayed Mosque's Muqarnas ceiling, United Arab Emirates. [source: Calligraphy Islamic]

Sheikh Zayed Mosque’s Muqarnas ceiling, United Arab Emirates. [Source: Calligraphy Islamic]

Abstract patterns of Ismaili Centre. [source:]

Abstract patterns of Ismaili Centre. [Source:]

In Islamic architecture, observable beauty is understood in relation to each period’s concepts on the God, or the divine beauty. As a result, the visual manifestation of the beautiful in Ismaili Centre implies a spiritual resonance through a modernist perception of beauty, which values simplicity.

Another notable comparison is between the abstract forms of mathematical patterns and eight-sided stars. Exhibiting symmetrical shapes for rhythm and order, the patterns used in Ismaili Centre are less complicated and more in harmony with the environment without the fascinating complexity of older Islamic monuments.

Morrocan Islamic geometry

Morrocan Islamic geometry [Source: Flickr]

For more information about the basic concepts of Islamic art and aesthetics, read History of Arabic Aesthetic Thought, al-Andalus and the Arabic Classical Aesthetic by José Miguel Puerta Vílchez and Studies in Medieval Aesthetics by Edgar de Bruyne. In addition to various aesthetics discussion developed by philosophers and scientists, these books provide you with principle dialects of God’s creation and the human condition from Islam’s point of view.

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