The new Aga Khan Garden sits at the heart of the University of Alberta Botanical Garden and is the world’s northernmost Islamic Garden. The garden builds from traditional Islamic design principles, forms, and geometries to create a thoughtful and rich design that responds to the context of Alberta’s climate, ecology, and culture. With the support of the client, the Landscape Architect performed an extended period of research on traditional Islamic gardens that then served as a framework for the garden’s design. By deepening connections to the Albertan ecology and encouraging cultural exchange and understanding, the Aga Khan Garden’s research-driven design aims to cultivate peaceful coexistence and environmental stewardship.

The Aga Khan Garden is a gift from His Highness the Aga Khan, the current Imam of the international Nizari Ismaili community, to the University of Alberta and the Canadian people to celebrate global intercultural dialogue and understanding. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a facet of the Aga Khan Development Network, is dedicated to the international sharing of cultural heritage, advocating for the importance of historic memory, and promoting innovative and culturally sensitive solutions to contemporary design problems. The landscape design explores how traditional Islamic Garden forms and principles can be made relevant in the 21st century and how they can respond to and benefit a contemporary community.

The design team began the project with a period of immersive research and discovery to ensure that the design is an effective and respectful interpretation of historical precedents. Designers traveled to significant Islamic cultural sites and studied with contemporary Islamic artists to understand the process of pattern generation and its cultural variants across regions. The designers considered a broad range of forms and many historic examples of pattern applications across material and scales, including gardens, mosques, forts, artwork, and textiles.

The design also needed to respond to its physical context through the use of native species and maintain its experiential qualities throughout weather extremes present at 53 degrees north latitude. Close collaboration with the University of Alberta 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.

The Aga Khan Garden is comprised of three primary elements – the Woodland Bagh, Chahar Bagh, and Bustan – each with distinct inspirations from the Islamic world and 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 wooden walkway hovers lightly above the ground, winding delicately within the native woodland, protecting existing trees and opening views into several natural ‘bowls’ or pocket wetlands within the forest. A long, ovular basin is situated along the walk. The basin is itself an abstraction of the natural bowls and reflects the surrounding woods and the opening in the canopy above.

As one climbs a low ridge to the constructed terrace of the Talar, the Chahar Bagh emerges and unfolds in terraces towards a natural wetland. 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, in the Chahar Bagh, fountains are at their most engaging and dramatic. At the end of the Chahar Bagh is a carefully constructed wetland that creates an ideal environment for cultivating rare native wetland species. In the care of garden staff, plant species can be studied and their seeds can be collected and preserved.

The Bustan, or orchard landscape, surrounds the lush wetland of the Calla Pond. This previously dredged wetland has been reconstructed and revitalized, creating a diversified native plant palette. Higher up upon its banks, informal orchard plantings of fruit- and nut-bearing trees serve as an important reminder of the long agricultural roots of Islamic and pre-Islamic landscapes.

Architecture offices involved in the design: Dialog Design

Location: University of Alberta Botanical Garden, 51227 AB-60, Parkland County, AB TZY 1C5, Canada

Design year: 2011

Year Completed: 2018


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