For the Aga Khan Museum, I thought that ‘light’ might be a concept around which you could design an outstanding museum….

I hope that the building and the spaces around it will be seen as the celebration of Light, and the mysteries of Light, that nature and the human soul illustrate to us at every moment in our lives. I have explained at the beginning of this letter why I think Light would be an appropriate design direction for the new museum and this concept is of course particularly validated in Islamic texts and sciences: apart from the innumerable references in the Qur’an to Light in all its forms, in nature and in the human soul, the light of the skies, their sources and their meaning have for centuries been an area of intellectual inquiry and more specifically in the field of astronomy. Thus the architecture of the building would seek to express these multiple notions of Light, both natural and man-made, through the most purposeful selection of internal and external construction materials, facets of elevations playing with each other through the reflectivity of natural or electric light, and to create light gain or light retention from external natural sources or man-made internal and external sources.

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A Museum dedicated not only to the display of exceptional objects of Islamic art, but also to music, to education — and to a sense of pluralism and openness that he found in Canada, but that he first and foremost finds in Islam. When His Highness decided that the noted Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki would design the new Museum, he wrote him a long letter. In that letter the Aga Khan stated:

For the Aga Khan Museum, I thought that ‘light’ might be a concept around which you could design an outstanding museum. The notion of light has transversed nearly all of human history, and has been an inspiration for numerous faiths, going as far back of course to the Zoroastrians and their reverence for the Sun, to the Sura in the Holy Qur’an titled al-Nur. Decades of Western history are referred to as the ‘enlightenment’ for good reason.

The letter of His Highness the Aga Khan clearly explains the relationship of the client to the architect in this instance, expressed in terms of the ephemeral but essential qualities of light.

I hope that the building and the spaces around it will be seen as the celebration of Light, and the mysteries of Light, that nature and the human soul illustrate to us at every moment in our lives. I have explained at the beginning of this letter why I think Light would be an appropriate design direction for the new museum and this concept is of course particularly validated in Islamic texts and sciences: apart from the innumerable references in the Qur’an to Light in all its forms, in nature and in the human soul, the light of the skies, their sources and their meaning have for centuries been an area of intellectual inquiry and more specifically in the field of astronomy. Thus the architecture of the building would seek to express these multiple notions of Light, both natural and man-made, through the most purposeful selection of internal and external construction materials, facets of elevations playing with each other through the reflectivity of natural or electric light, and to create light gain or light retention from external natural sources or man-made internal and external sources.

It is surely in the “quiet spaces” of the Aga Khan Museum that the talent of Fumihiko Maki will be felt, and the connection between the client and the architect will be most readily apparent. The Museum will be a vibrant place, full of life and art, but it will also be a quiet one, where the sense of spirituality referred to by the Aga Khan will be felt by those who understand it. It is no accident that in describing “light” in his original letter to Fumihiko Maki, the Aga Khan passes directly from an evocation of a Sura of the Qur’an to a reference to the European Enlightenment. The light he refers to crosses through civilisations and religions — it is the source of life and art the two forces being brought together in the walls of the Aga Khan Museum. The ultimate message of pluralism and tolerance conveyed by His Highness the Aga Khan might best be summed up in this instance by his own references to the two sources of light,

natural light emanating from God’s creation, (and) light… which emanates from human sources, in the form of art, culture and well-inspired human knowledge.

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