The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta

The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta is at the heart of the University of Alberta’s Botanic Garden. The world’s northernmost Islamic Garden, it interprets the conceptual and physical manifestations of traditional Islamic design principles within the context of Alberta’s climate, ecology, and culture. With the support of the client, the Landscape Architects performed an extended period of research on traditional Islamic gardens – their historical and conceptual origins, horticultural palettes, and foundational patterns. The garden’s design serves as a framework through which magnificent fluctuations within the north Canadian landscape are experienced. The rhythm of the color and form of the plantings and the light and wind of the changing seasons register against the fundamental forms of plinth, path, pavilion, lawn, and orchard. By deepening connections to the Albertan ecology and encouraging cultural exchange and understanding, the Aga Khan Garden serves to cultivate the environmental stewards of tomorrow.

The Garden is a gift from His Highness the Aga Khan to the University of Alberta and the Canadian people to celebrate global intercultural dialogue and understanding. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture specifies the creation and restoration of parks and gardens as one of the primary goals of its philanthropic outreach. The resultant landscape explores how traditional Islamic Garden forms and principles can be made 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 Muslim sites and studied with contemporary Islamic artists. 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 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 walkway hovers lightly above the ground, of a native woodland, protecting existing trees and opening views into several natural ‘bowls’ – pocket wetlands within the forest. One encounters a long basin, itself an abstraction of those bowls, reflecting the surrounding woods and the opening in the canopy above.

As one navigates a low ridge towards the constructed terrace of the Talar, the second garden experience emerges. 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 to nurture 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 native wetland species. Here in the care of the University and Botanic Garden staff, species can be studied and monitored, and their seeds can be 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.

The Bustan, or orchard landscape, surrounds the lush wetland of the Calla Pond. This previously dredged wetland has been reconstructed and revitalized, creating lower edge gradients and 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.

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. Innovative, 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.

Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect

Other landscape architecture offices involved in the design of landscape: DIALOG
Architecture offices involved in the design: DIALOG

Project location: Located within the University of Alberta Botanic Garden at 51227 AB-60, Parkland County, Alberta T7Y1C5, Canada

Design year: 2011-2018

Year Built: 2018

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