Common Ground – The Ismaili Centres as Enablers for Holistic Engagement

“The Holy Quran commands humankind to shape our earthly environment, as good stewards of the Divine Creation…We hope that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture will always point towards an architecture of optimism and harmony, a powerful force in elevating the quality of human life.” – Speech by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2016.

Across history, the public space has physically and symbolically consolidated the presence of civilizations and societies throughout the world. 

Unique to the architectural traditions of Muslim Cultures, however, has been the masterful, and at times playful, balance of this aesthetic expression with functional utility. In doing so, this creates a lasting impact for the communities who live and work amongst these public spaces.

And of course this is not a compromise between practicality and creative ambition – it is a rich fusion between the two. By doing so, the ‘Public Space’ does not only act as a representation of a community’s heritage and values, but it in fact becomes the focal point around which the social and cultural life of a community can revolve.

The Ismaili Centres act in the same way, both as ambassadorial or cultural symbols, but also as spaces with the capacity to facilitate all aspects of the daily life of the Ismaili community.

Traditionally, the space established for congregational prayer has been referred to by many Muslim Communities as masjid ( a term derived from the Arabic sajada, meaning to bow or prostrate).

Derived from the Arabic Jama‘a (Community) and the Persian khana (House), the Jamatkhana similarly serves as a place for congregational and personal prayer, whilst also providing capacity and facility for the various cultural, social and educational needs of the community.

It is with this intention of facilitating inclusive and active social engagement that a variety of architectural features, inspired by the traditions of Muslim Civilizations, can be seen across all of the six Ismaili Centres.

The alcove, for instance – a small pocket of space placed at an indent from the usual wall or corridor – is not just a feature of aesthetic value; it encourages groups of people to sit together and engage, with an added quietness from the sound-muffling qualities of the way the windows are shaped.

This smaller retreating space compliments the wider atrium-style spaces commonly referred to as ‘social halls’. These larger multipurpose spaces utilise natural light, open plan design, and various floor elevations to provide larger spaces where the entire community can come together, with the addition of, and a warm welcome towards, non-Ismaili guests and visitors.

Another key design consideration present in the Ismaili Centres is accessibility. Designers of public spaces, furniture and interiors are often faced with the challenge of ensuring that those with all ranges of ability are able to participate in an equally immersive experience, across the entire journey of being in the public space. At the Ismaili Centre London, enclosed built-in ramps on the sides of the entrance provide privacy and comfort for wheelchair users to travel up to the social space, where this ramp rejoins with the shared walkway. Moreover, the shape and form of the staircase railings are able to provide sensory cues to aid visitors with visual impairments to find their way upstairs to the social and prayer halls.

Not only does this suggest the high level of consideration given for people of all levels of ability, but it also reinforces the notion of unity within the community, as all individual members can all take part in a collective experience within the community space.

This notion of accessible engagement for all members of the Jamat is evident in the emphasis Mawlana Hazar Imam places on our Jamatkhanas and Ismaili Centres as spaces for fostering unity within the Jamat, and stronger, collaborative ties with the communities amongst whom we live.

“These are places where Ismailis and non-Ismailis, Muslims and non-Muslims, will gather for shared activities… they will also, we trust, be filled with the sounds of enrichment, dialogue and warm human rapport, as Ismailis and non-Ismailis share their lives in a healthy gregarious spirit!

Yes! We are a community that welcomes the smile!”

  • Speech by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Opening Ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, September 2014.

 

Source: The Ismaili

09 February 2019

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