The Aga Khan Garden is a gift from His Highness the Aga Khan to the University of Alberta and the Canadian people to celebrate global intercultural dialog and understanding. The traditions of Islamic landscapes place an emphasis on our responsibility to care for and protect the natural world, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture states creation and restoration of parks and gardens as one of the primary goals of their philanthropic outreach. The design team was tasked with creating a welcoming and beautiful space which embodies this mission while inspiring stewardship within the local community. The resultant landscape explores how traditional Islamic garden forms and principles can be made newly relevant in the 21st century; how they can respond to and benefit a contemporary community.
To ensure that the design is an effective and respectful interpretation of historical precedents, the design team began the project with a period of immersive research and discovery. Designers traveled to historic sites in the Muslim world and studied with contemporary Islamic artists to understand the process of pattern generation and its cultural variants across regions. The use of geometry and patterns are intrinsic elements in Islamic gardens and graphic arts, but the rules and rationale to their form are not well documented. The designers considered a broad range of forms and many historic examples of pattern applications across material and scales: from fabrics to gardens, mosques, forts, and depictions of patterns in drawings and paintings.
The Aga Khan Garden is comprised of three primary components, each with distinct inspirations from the Islamic world and each imbued with an aspect of ecological stewardship. The entrance to the Garden leads visitors through the first of these components, the Woodland Bagh. Here a delicate path hovers lightly above the ground, treading lightly within the delicate native woodland, protecting existing trees and opening views into several natural ‘bowls’ – pocket wetlands within the forest. Along the walk, one finds a long basin, itself an abstraction of those bowls, which reflects the surrounding woods and the opening in the canopy above. Here within the woods, taut lines and weightless paths begin to suggest the geometries of the garden to unfold.
As one climbs a low ridge to the constructed terrace of the Talar, the second of the garden experiences emerges. This central portion of the garden, the Chahar Bagh, unfolds in terraces down towards a natural wetland beyond – subtle changes in elevation create a dynamic, living tapestry of garden beds that showcase native prairie grasses and perennials in new ways. The garden is structured through the play of water, and here in the center, fountains are at their most engaging and dramatic – The Source, the Chini Khana, and the Chadar, give life and structure to the water, while the broad Nahr carries it across the broad plaza.
Designed for its capacity for ecological education and resilience, the end of the Chahar Bagh, is an important landscape dedicated to research and service. The carefully constructed wetland allows for an ideal environment to cultivate rare and hard to find native wetland species. Here in the care of the University and Botanic Garden staff, species can be studied and monitored and seed collected. This protocol of native seed cultivation that serves the ecological needs of the Province extends the AKTC’s generous gesture of a garden gift to the people of Canada. By re-imagining elements from historic landscapes, the garden reaches into the past, but transforms them to a new northern Canadian context.
At a low terrace between the constructed gardens and the Calla Pond, the third garden component is visible. The Bustan, or orchard landscape, surrounds the lush wetland of the Calla Pond. Through the work of the project, this previously dredged wetland has been reconstructed and revitalized, creating lower edge gradients and much diversified native plant palette. Higher up upon its banks, informal orchard plantings of fruiting and nut-bearing trees serve as an important reminder of the long agricultural roots of Islamic and pre-Islamic landscape while creating magical places for exploration and discovery.
Having established the philosophical concepts underlying their work, the landscape architects understood that adapting cultural precedents to the regional context was crucial to a successful project. The design needed to respond to a Canadian ethos and maintain its experiential qualities throughout weather extremes present at 53 degrees north latitude. Consultants and partners contributed important regional horticultural research and data and guided the team on the hydrology of the site and winter conditions. Close collaboration with the University of Alberta and careful deliberation resulted in a palette of plants that include stone fruits, berries, roses, flowering perennials, and bulbs that can survive the Albertan winter while resonating with traditional Islamic landscapes.
Innovative and contextual, yet grounded in the enduring principles of geometric structure and spatial and textural experience, the Aga Khan Garden relies on both contemporary and traditional expression. The design engages through the beautiful expression of form as an engine of change: effecting ecosystem restoration, carefully stewarding precious water resources, and connecting people emotionally and cerebrally to the essential surrounding ecologies.
Other designers involved in the design of landscape:
Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
DIALOG, CMS Collaborative, ISL Engineering and Land Services, Ion Irrigation Management, FTL Design Engineering Studio
University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden
51227 Alberta 60, Spruce Grove, AB T7Y 1C5, Canada
Design year: 2011 through 2018
Year Built: 2018