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Ismaili Muslims hire rising architect Farshid Moussavi to design first U.S. cultural center in Houston

Tuesday, 2019, February 5
The land Montrose Boulevard at Allen Parkway is the future site of the Ismaili Center near downtown Houston  photo Mark Mulligan
Molly Glentzer

Ismaili Muslims hire rising architect Farshid Moussavi to design first U.S. cultural center in Houston

Molly Glentzer Feb. 6, 2019 Updated: Feb. 6, 2019 6:52 a.m.

The vacant lot along Montrose Boulevard at Allen Parkway is planned as the future site of the Ismaili Center near downtown Houston along Buffalo Bayou, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.Photo: Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Architect Ramesh Kholsa designed a rotunda area that leads to the prayer hall of the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center in Sugar Land. The area provides a transition from the hectic outside world to the quiet and peace of the hall.Photo: unknown / unknown

The pictures are of the Ismaili Jamatkhana (place of gathering) and center in Sugar Land. The building was designed by prominent architect Ramesh Khosla of Montreal.Photo: unknown / unknown

The worldwide Ismaili Muslim community announced Wednesday it is moving forward with plans to make Houston the site of its first U.S. cultural center and to create an architectural landmark in the heart of the city that will reflect a spirit of tolerance, diversity and learning.

London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture has won the commission to design the important new building on a high-profile, 11-acre site at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard. A rising star who also has taught for more than a decade at her alma mater, Harvard University, she was selected from a star-studded selection list of finalists that included David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas.

“The rigorous competition was a vivid illustration of the global stature that an Ismaili Center holds in the architectural and built environment community, and of the attractiveness of Houston as a destination city for world-scale architecture,” said Dr. Barkat Fazal, president of the Ismaili Council for USA.

Houston’s Ismaili Center, the seventh globally, will be the institutional, intellectual and cultural center for the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in the U.S.

Like unique, elegant and dramatic Ismaili centers in London, England; Burnaby, British Colombia; Lisbon, Portugal; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Dubai, UAE; and Toronto, Ontario that were built between 1985 and 2014, it will be designed both to embrace its surroundings and to symbolize core Ismaili values.

“All of them were designed by architects of great international standing, and, I would emphasize, of great multicultural sensitivity,” said His Highness the Aga Khan, the worldwide Ismaili spiritual leader, when the Toronto center opened in 2014.

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the Houston property in 2006 and in 2011 donated the seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures of kneeling figures — that are situated just across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Moussavi said she was honored to partner with the Ismaili Muslim community. “Our team brings a broad perspective, with diverse skills and experience in international practice, scholarly research, multidisciplinary thinking and delivering cultural projects successfully in the U.S.,” she said. “It will bring Houston’s diverse communities together in a unique space for cultural, educational and social activities.”

Omar Samji, an energy-industry lawyer who volunteers with the Ismaili Council, said the community had been waiting for the right time to move forward. The group declined to release preliminary renderings, although Samji said the Center “should be distinctly American and Texan in its approach, but expressive of Houston’s diverse cultures.”

The building will occupy less space than the landscaping, he predicted, with outdoor spaces that connect visually to the adjacent Buffalo Bayou Park.

Samji said a construction timetable and budget would not be finalized until Moussavi’s designs are complete. He expects the entire project will take several years.

While the facility will house a Jamatkhana, a place for spiritual contemplation and prayer services, it will also have a larger ambassadorial mandate to present public programs that promote culture, knowledge sharing, civics and faith dialogue. Since 2002, local members have presented programs such as Ted Talks, concerts and political debates at the $10 million Ismaili Community Center and Jamatkhana on 11.5 acres in Sugar Land.

“Ismailis are a very generous community, very service-oriented and engaged,” said local member Afshi Charania Merchant. “Volunteering is part of our ethos, and we’re heavy on programming and intellectual engagement.”
Houston is home to one of the nation’s largest Ismaili Muslim communities, with an estimated 40,000 members. Worldwide, the diverse community within the Shia branch of Islam has 15 million members. They are the only Shia community led by a living, hereditary imam who is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad.
In addition to program spaces, all of the major Ismaili centers incorporate courtyards and green space. Landscaping of the flood-prone site in Houston, adjacent to Buffalo Bayou Park, will be designed by Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz, familiar for his master plan and ongoing work at Memorial Park.

Hanif Kara, co-founder of AKT II who also teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, is the structural design consultant; and Paul Westlake of DLR Group/Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland is the architect of record.
Mayor Sylvester Turner called the development a milestone for the city. “The Ismaili Center will be a place where Houstonians of all backgrounds, faiths, and walks of life will find engaging, thoughtful and compassionate programs and people,” he said.

Philanthropist Nancy Kinder is also pleased. “This is tremendous news for Houston and further evidence of our growing role as a global city and cultural capital,” said the president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation — the angel behind a number of the city’s public-private park redevelopment projects. “Not only will the Ismaili Cultural Center complement Buffalo Bayou Park but the world-class design team … reflects a high caliber of design we have come to expect from the Aga Khan.”

While Moussavi has designed apartment buildings, cultural spaces, parks and retail stores across the world, the Ismaili Center Houston will be just her second U.S. project, following the $18.7 million Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, which opened in 2012.

“This will put her on the map,” said Rice University architecture dean Sarah Whiting, who has known Moussavi for years and called her both a dynamic presence and a terrific talent with composition, space and materials.
“It’s super exciting for them to take a chance on a rising architect,” Whiting said, comparing Moussavi’s opportunity to that of Johnson Marklee, the designers of the new Menil Drawing Institute.

Whiting also finds it significant that the Aga Khan chose a woman for the project. Although half of the students at the Rice Architecture School are women, she said, “we don’t have many buildings by other women to show them in Houston.”
She also finds the site significant for the city because it establishes a northern anchor for the cultural corridor that begins at the southern end of Montrose with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Anne Olsen, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, noted that several commercial developments will also be taking shape in the next few years on significant parcels of land that remain along or near Allen Parkway. But she also sees a cultural corridor taking shape east-to-west, from Bayou Bend and Rienzi (both of which are on the bayou), toward Buffalo Bayou Park’s Cistern and other planned amenities. The park wants to expand its public art offerings, Olsen said.
She already envisions shared programming with the Houston Ismaili Center. “I can’t think of anything better to be on that site,” she said. “How they open up to the community is going to be really important.”


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