On a parcel of land shaped like double almonds, where once stood the world headquarters of the Bata Shoe empire, one of the world’s wealthiest men appeared, a scoot up from downtown Toronto.
The other shoe had indubitably dropped—in this case, North America’s first purpose-built museum dedicated to Islamic art, made possible by the benefactor-of-the-hour, and set against a backdrop of a time when the schisms between the West and the Islamic world have rarely been more keen.
“Words fail me,” began His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan, and hereditary leader (for 51 years) of the Ismaili flock, here the other day to officiate the opening of the 113,000 square-foot building that bears his name. “And that’s not often the case,” he added, giving light to the fact that all monarchs, de facto and otherwise, are in the business of verbal embroidery.
Born in Geneva, raised in Nairobi, and matriculated at Harvard, the 77-year-old magnate—known for his thoroughbreds, his Downton Abbey-style piles, and his extreme philanthropy—had arrived, beaming like a kid dropped off for the day at FAO Schwarz. Met at the door by Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, the Aga Khan’s gait betrayed a small stammer, his legs—the very ones which had helped him compete in downhill skiing (representing a Shah-era Iran) at the 1964 Olympics—showing the accruing of age.
“It has a chiseled profile,” is how the body of the new museum—which opens to the public September 18—was described to me by Luis Monreal, general manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Housing some thousand-plus artifacts, meant to flaunt the cultural and scientific contributions of Muslim civilization, the building comes courtesy of Japan’s Fumihiko Maki, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect. It looks like a futuristic chaise longue, and is almost Grecian in its blinding-white color. (Actually, it’s Brazilian granite, designed to leverage the 45-degree solar north positioning of the building, maximizing the daily natural light.)
And, in fact, the project—which has been nearly two decades in the making, and involved an estimated $300 million—is a three-act production. Across from the Aga Khan Museum is a structure concocted by Indian architect, Charles Correa, its raison d’être as an Ismaili Centre—a spiritual and cultural home for the community, locally. Intermediating between the two buildings, in a way that evokes such gardens as the Alhambra’s in Granada, Spain, is a formal park with tarmac-like walkways and reflecting basins, designed by Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic.
If that seems a cultural potpourri, that would be the point. The complex, in its way, reflects the status of the Aga Khan himself as a “crossover” figure in the politically tense relations between Islam and the West. For some, that crossover was best exemplified when the Aga Khan’s father, Prince Aly Khan, was insouciantly name-dropped on an episode by one of the characters on TV’s Mad Men. A first-rank boulevardier in the 1960s tableau, his wives included one Rita Hayworth.
Today, with the opening of this space, the outreach seemed more urgent than jet set. Though thorny acronyms like “ISIS” or flashpoints like “Gaza” were never mentioned during the many formal remarks, they didn’t have to be. The Aga Khan’s new enterprise speaks for itself. It was, indeed, the Aga Khan’s brother, Prince Amyn—a major supporter behind the Canadian project—who more openly nodded at ongoing global conflicts. Describing the museum as a conduit for understanding Islam, he remarked, “A knowledge gap continues to exist and perhaps even grow…a vacuum within which myths and stereotypes can so easily fester, fed by the amplification of extreme minority voices.”
“Symbols,” he went on, “become confused with emblems. Images of demagoguery or despotism, of intolerance and conflict, come to dominate in such an environment with global repercussions.”
And, so, though on one hand, the idea of a building such as this comes straight out of the Gilded Class Handbook—think: Peggy Guggenheim, who surrendered her collection to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice, or J. Paul Getty, whose villa of treasures sit now on the Pacific Palisades, in L.A.—this gleaming new building sallies past mere vanity, coming from a man often called a “one-man state,” though one without political terrain.
With a flock of followers who are ethnically diverse, and cast across the globe, and the force behind a vast network of humanitarian projects in about 30 countries, his is the face of modernity, inclusion, a hashtag-happy Islam.
Oh, the art. “They’ve been at it long before the Qatari royals came along,” an insider volunteered to me during an earlier press preview, pointing out that the Aga Khan’s family had been collecting some time before the Al-Thanis, of Qatar, began stockpiling pieces, Islamic and otherwise. (That country’s 30-year-old princess, Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, may not be a household name, but she tops the “Most Powerful” on globe art lists these days. Perusing the pieces on view here, which run the range from Mughal miniatures to Egyptian fountains, and include portraits, textiles, books, tiles, and musical instruments, one could only begin to scratch the surface.
Besides the permanent collection—of which the Aga Khan has pointed to an astrolabe, an ancient navigational tool, as one of his favorites—there will be mounted exhibitions, such as an inaugural one encapsulating contemporary art in Pakistan. All this, and there’s a lavish reading room in the building, as well as a tasteful theater.
Why Toronto? It’s a question that arises. Though Paris and London were also considered for the project, North America’s fourth-largest metropolis became a contender pretty early, mainly because of the sizeable scale of Ismailis in Canada at large (an estimated 10,000), and also, ostensibly, because of the longtime friendship between the Aga Khan and the country.
Not for nothing was he made an “honorary Canadian” by the nation, back in 2010. It’s a small club, that one: a club with only five living members, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama.
Unlike most museums, as Monreal reiterated more than once, this one “did not start from a collection; it started from an idea.”