The London-based architect – who works with AKT II, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects and local practice DLR Group – was selected for the project from a star-studded shortlist that included David Chipperfield Architects, Studio Gang and OMA at the beginning of 2019.
The stone-clad building will be a religious, social and cultural meeting place for the city’s Ismaili Muslim community. With reference to historical Persian design (look downstairs), it will be the first such center to be built in the United States and the seventh worldwide – each designed by leading architects.
Moussavi’s plan will occupy part of a 4.5-acre area – the rest handed over to gardens – overlooking the Buffalo Bayou waterway at the intersection of Montrose Boulevard and Allen Parkway in central Houston.
In addition to providing space for prayer and serving as the administrative headquarters of the Ismaili community in the United States, it will host concerts, plays, exhibitions, conferences, seminars, book launches, and community gatherings.
Houston is home to one of the largest Ismaili-Muslim communities in the United States. The branch of Shi Islam has about 15 million members worldwide and is headed by Aga Khan, who founded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977.
Moussavi was chairman of the Aga Khan Award for the Architecture Master Jury in 2004 and was a member of the award’s steering group from 2005 to 2015.
She said: ‘What made this project particularly rewarding was the close alignment between the client’s and the architect’s aspirations. What made it particularly challenging was my awareness of the strict standards that His Highness Aga Khan has set for architecture!
‘We have tried to work with Islamic design philosophy and celebrate its singularity and unique qualities as well as the features it has in common with Western design, so that the building, both through its fabric and through the way it is used, would function as a symbol of dialogue. ‘
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner added: ‘[This scheme] will once again elevate Houston on the world map as a global city where people of all backgrounds can meet. This notion of learning about and accepting differences between peoples and societies – what we call pluralism – is central to Aga Khan’s vision for the survival of an increasingly interconnected world.
‘The Muslim Ismaili community in Houston and the United States continues to actualize the values that these centers aim to promote: friendship, service, and mutual understanding.’
The announcement of the new building comes 40 years after the Casson Condor Partnership began work on the first Ismaili Center in South Kensington, London. In 2018, Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki also completed a new Aga Khan center in King’s Cross, London.
The architect’s point of view
The building is designed with a compact footprint that leaves much of the land to be used as gardens. Given the often hot and humid climate of Houston and the place’s prominent place in the city, it is designed with a three-part shape, where each of its volumes hosts a soaring eivan (veranda) to allow for social and cultural gatherings to take place outdoors all year round. .
The Eivans are supported by 49 slender columns reminiscent of those used in Persepolis and 17th-century palaces in Isfahan, Persia. By being open on all sides and visible from all approaches to the site, eivans will make the Ismaili Center open and inviting in all directions. At night, they will turn it into a lighthouse of light along Montrose Boulevard and Allen Parkway.
The design of the scheme, which is modern in its expression, reflects a historically rooted, rich architectural heritage. It combines modern architectural technology – its lightweight steel structure – with traditional Persian shapes and ornaments, including ceramic mosaics and displays drawn from Islamic traditions around the world.
Its design for sustainability includes ensuring improved energy performance and material life and durability by encapsulating exposed steel with concrete in a 100-year life cycle and using stone for the building’s exterior walls.
Conceived as a stone tapestry, the exterior walls will range from solid areas to porous screens that provide shade and privacy, and from flat surfaces to deep alcoves to allow shady rest in front of the gardens. The exterior of the building will therefore be defined by simplicity in form, openness and an abstract decorative character.
The interior of the building will include three atriums that will serve as common, non-exclusive flexible spaces between rooms dedicated to specific events. Each is located next to a eivan to bring natural light and views of the sky into the heart of the building. The staircase structure of the central atrium, clad in ceramic screens, celebrates the dome’s heritage back to 3000 BC, dominating both the architecture of the Sasanian period in Persia and the Christian buildings of the Byzantine Empire.
The western and eastern atrium provide access to a theater, a large hall and learning space. The landscaped gardens will provide a sense of serenity and peace and offer a respite from its urban surroundings. They will include treetops, fountains, shady walkways, flower beds, lawns and walkways. These will be spaces of comfort that provide for the rejuvenation of the mind and spirit.