Construction of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat along Ottawa's historic Sussex Drive is nearing completion. Gary Kamemoto, Director of the architecture firm Maki and Associates, describes the vision and architectural ambition behind the building.

The view of Ottawa from across the river in Gatineau has undergone a calculated transformation during the past few months. In fact, the impact of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat on the national capital's skyline as viewed from the neighbouring province of Quebec was considered long before construction began late last year.

In his eagerness to experience the site of the Delegation building and appreciate its beauty, renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, travelled directly there when he arrived in the city after a long journey from Tokyo. Members of his firm, Maki and Associates, also pondered the site from a number of angles before visualising its design.

“As architects, we always want to create contextual buildings that extend beyond the physical realm,” explained Gary Kamemoto, Director, Maki and Associates. He explored the property at a leisurely pace, hopping on a bicycle to check out the view from the other side of the river. “It was crucial for us to understand fully the spirit of the place so that we could design a building that would feel as though it was emerging from the site.”

This process is standard for the firm, which recently completed the redevelopment of a university campus in Singapore, and undertook the rebuilding of one of the four towers at the World Trade Centre site where construction is slated to begin later this year. Maki is also the architect for the future Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

It has been five years since Maki and Associates was commissioned to design the Delegation building, whose construction is nearing completion on a prominent site of Ottawa's ceremonial Sussex Drive. The project marks the firm's first Canadian venture. Fumihiko Maki is also well-versed in Mawlana Hazar Imam's work, having served as a juror for two cycles of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat was conceived as a pavilion amidst serene landscaping, emanating a feeling of openness and transparency. Different forms of glass are being combined and arranged in a subtle manner to give the structure an ethereal quality. “With a lot of important buildings already in the neighbourhood, we wanted this to be a quiet building with a lot of stature and dignity,” Kamemoto noted.

The building is inspired by the aesthetic properties and dynamic visual effect of rock crystal. The vision for the Delegation described the provocation of mystery in the eyes of people who see and interact with it, and the creation of a curiosity that can only be satisfied after the structure is experienced multiple times.As unique as the building itself, the site – located at the landing of the bridge over King Edward Highway – is actually sunk from Sussex Drive, with a seven-foot drop from the highest to the lowest point of the site. To compensate for the change in grade and to achieve an appropriate presence on this distinguished road, the building will sit on a black granite podium, surrounded by a field of green. From the outside in, this architectural creation is nested in different layers.

“It wasn't until we began studying rock crystal and obtained a sample that we fully understood what His Highness [the Aga Khan] was communicating to us,” Kamemoto said. “The way light behaves on rock crystal makes the object change. It goes from being completely transparent to being a completely opaque white, with various qualities of translucency when touched by light.”

To conjure the feeling of rock crystal, Maki and Associates selected a man-made Japanese product called neoparie as the primary façade on the building walls. It is a unique material that is the result of a highly sophisticated and specialised technique of crystallising glass. According to Kamemoto, the particles of glass will pick up and reflect colours from the surrounding environment, including the green from the trees, the blue from the sky and the gold from the sun.

The building will house two large symbolic spaces of note, an atrium and a courtyard. The atrium is an interior space to be used all year round. It is protected by a unique glass dome made of multi-faceted, angular planes assembled to create the effect of rock crystal. Within the glass dome is an inner layer of woven glass-fibre fabric which will appear to float and hover over the atrium.

Maki and Associates challenged themselves to design the exterior courtyard in the style of an Islamic chahar-bagh – traditionally a sanctuary alive with greenery and water – for the Canadian climate. Their solution was to interpret a modern chahar-bagh that will be animated during each season. “Flowers will bloom year-round, and their scents will create a certain ambience,” Kamemoto said. “We also hope that an interesting and unique snowscape will emerge in the chahar-bagh in the winter – perhaps the first of its kind. We're very excited to see that happen next winter.”

Other elements of the building are yet to be discovered. One of Fumihiko Maki's key interests is the construction of scenery to create a powerful building for its users. “In this building, there are tremendous opportunities to see one space through another space,” Kamemoto noted. “That kind of visual transparency from outside-in and inside-out is going to be something we'll all discover when the final building is built.”

The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat is being built along Sussex Drive in Ottawa, Canada. Photo: Courtesy of Imara Sussex Drive The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat is being built along Sussex Drive in Ottawa, Canada. Courtesy of Imara Sussex Drive

The neighbouring residential communities will benefit from a pathway to be constructed onsite that connects Boteler Street and Sussex Drive. This pathway will provide unfolding views of the building in part and in whole. “Architecture has the responsibility to contribute not only to its users, but also to a city and to the general public in a large way,” Kamemoto said. “We hope the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat building will do that.”

The Delegation building will bring a refreshing modernism to ‘the Mile of History' better known for prestigious historic structures. “The architecture of Fumihiko Maki will add a new and modern edifice on the ceremonial Confederation Boulevard,” said Mohamed Manji, President of the Ismaili Council for Canada. “It will also create an open and exciting facility from which the activities of the Imamat institutions will connect with the people of Canada.”