GLIMPSES OF PARADISE: the gardens at the Aga Khan Museum and the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre

AKP_By Gary Otte(01) crJust as the eyes are the windows of the soul, so are gardens windows of the world’s cultures. Gardens reflect in their design how we see the world, most movingly our dreams of paradise. The literature on gardens is vast, but one book by a professor of Italian literature, Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: an Essay on the Human Condition (2008), contains a penetrating insight into how gardens in the West differ from those in Islamic culture, like the gardens just dedicated May 25th by the Aga Khan at the Ismaili Centre in Don Mills. The insight comes from the French writer Michel Tournier, who points out that Western culture by its very nature is restless, curious, exploratory and given to intervention, while Islamic culture dreams of peace, tranquility and repose. This insight is all the more poignant given the current turmoil in the Near East.

The garden that lies between the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre (which includes a mosque) is a traditional Persian design, called the chahar bagh, or quadrilateral garden (chahar means ‘four’, related to Latin quattuor and bagh ‘garden, orchard’), meant to remind us of the Garden of Eden, with its four rivers, usually identified with the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Ganges (or Indus). These rivers in fact define the limits of the Persian Empire. The Persians have also given us the word ‘paradise’, from pari- ‘around’ and daeza- ‘wall; build, shape’ (related to English ‘dough’ and Latin figura). garden overviewAt the Aga Khan gardens the four rivers are represented by four rectangles of black granite covered by shallow pools of water fed from some unseen source and gently spill over the stones with the pleasant sound of falling water. A fifth granite block represents the fountain at the center of Eden. Between the granite blocks and at their margins are rows of service berry trees, which survive well in our climate.

One of the staff pointed out that the gardens are meant to appeal to the five senses: the sounds of water (including those made by birds that drink from the pools and splash themselves to remove dust); the aroma of the trees in bloom; the reflection of clouds and the trees in the water, the pleasing arrangement of the garden and colorful flowers; the taste of the berries (of which the birds are very fond); and the feel of the textures of the tree bark, leaves, water and stone.

At one end of the garden is the gleaming white block of the Aga Khan Museum and at the other end the Ismaili Centre, with its crystalline dome (especially dramatic when illuminated at night).
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Harrison points out that the Hebrew Bible contains no explicit reference to paradise, while in the New Testament there are only a few vague references. By contrast, the Koran not only identifies paradise with the Garden of Eden, but also describes it in quite some detail: “the righteous…shall be lodged in peace together amidst gardens and fountains…they shall call for every kind of fruit” (44:45-47). The righteous “shall recline on jeweled couches face to face…drink wine that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason” and they shall eat “fowls that they relish” (56:19-26, similarly in 37:46-49). There will be robes of silk and “dark-eyed houris” or “dark-eyed virgins” (Suras 37, 44, 56, 78), and “Trees will spread their shade around them, and fruits will hang in clusters over them” (76:10-14), and mention is made of a “gushing fountain” (37).

The Islamic paradise is like the Garden of Eden as described in the Bible: a place of serenity, abundant food supplied without the labor of farming, peaceful relations with others (Sura 56: “They shall hear…only the greeting, “Peace! Peace!”). It is important to note that earthly Islamic gardens are seen as glimpses or previews of what to expect in the afterlife where everything is perfect and unblemished, uncorrupted. This is also one reason why gardens are a common subject for Islamic carpets: sitting on the carpet you are in a garden that foreshadows the glories of Eden.

This static paradise is in sharp contrast to the Christian conception, as seen most strikingly in Dante’s Paradiso: an essentially celestial, immaterial, spiritual paradise that is dynamic. The essence of paradise is the Beatific Vision with its constant new revelations of God’s glory. This is the paradise of a restless civilization. It should be emphasized that the Islamic paradise is terrestrial and material, a perfect copy of the world we live in.

Noor Cultural Centre.The theme of tranquility is also a characteristic of Japanese architecture, and a fine example exists just a short distance from the Aga Khan gardens, at the former Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre (123 Wynford Drive), designed in 1963 by the famous Canadian architect, Raymond Moriyama, who also designed the Toronto Reference Library, Scarborough Town Centre, the Ontario Science Centre, and the Bata Shoe Museum. Ironically, the JCCC moved to larger quarters nearby and sold the building to the Noor Islamic Centre.

The former JCCC has been modified in keeping with its mission “to become a leading centre for Islamic learning and the celebration of Islamic culture, while respecting the diversity in peoples and religions” (Noor Website). For example, screens with Arabic Kufic script now cover the windows; and two large lanterns at the front of the building are inscribed with “Noor Allah” (Light of God), also in decorative Kufic script.

Moriyama included in the original building symbols that commemorate the tragedy of the mass internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, one of the most shameful episodes in Canadian history. In the main hall there are lattices that symbolize prison bars, and from the roof rain water runs down chains anchored in stone blocks at the base of the building; to some, these chains are another sign of confinement (although according to Moriyama they were an innovation to keep within a tight budget). The property of Japanese-Canadians was essentially stolen by the government and auctioned off at low prices to white Canadians – houses and their contents, businesses and fishing boats. Moriyama himself as an adolescent was incarcerated with his family. He built a tree house as a refuge in the internment camp, which ironically became the inspiration, as Moriyama has reported, for his design of the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo sixty years later. After the War, Japanese-Canadians were expelled from British Columbia and forced to settle in other parts of Canada. Most chose to relocate in Toronto. It is sad that these reminders of the sorrows of Japanese-Canadian history, though still intact, are submerged in the new function of the building.

At the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre there is, however, a small Japanese garden. This garden captures yet another culture’s worldview that contrasts with both Western and Islamic civilizations – that of East Asia. Buddhism permeates Japan, China, Korea and the countries of Southeast Asia such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma. In Japan particularly the Zen sect has radically transformed gardens by employing gravel, large stones or boulders, water, and trees and shrubs that have been neatly shaped by pruning, much as they are in banzai and topiaries. Gravel is used to represent bodies of water such as rivers, and the grooves left by rakes suggest waves. Large, jagged rocks, which can be seen piled high at the entrance to the original JCCC building, simulate mountains.
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The Zen garden, though very peaceful in its overall effect, is closer to the celestial paradise in Dante than to its Islamic counterpart, in the sense that just as a soul in the Christian paradise eternally contemplates the ever unfolding mystery of the Beatific Vision, the viewer of the Zen garden, whether monk or layman, contemplates the nature of life and the human condition. The Zen garden is an object of and an aid to meditation, from which enlightenment (satori) may one day be attained. The garden at the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre has much of the spareness and minimalism of a Zen garden, but the roots of the Islamic garden are in the delight of desert-dwellers in the oasis and in orchards of fruit trees.

– Robert Fisher
Photos of the Aga Khan garden by  Gary Otte, Janet Kimber,  Sean Weaver and Tom Arban
Photos of the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre by Silvana De Bona and courtesy Noor Centre

This article can be found in WHAT’S HERE, in the section The City.


Interesting and insightful article on “gardens” and stunning photographs of the Aga Khan museum and Japanese gardens. Have added the location to my “must visit” list.
Cheryl Kryzaniwsky, Port Elgin, ON




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