Architecture of the Ismaili Centre, Dubai
The Ismaili Centre’s design brief described a desire for a sequential, experiential and integrated use of space. Clear emphasis was placed on ensuring order and harmony and on fostering mutual respect and understanding both within the Ummah and across society at large. At the same time, the Ismaili Centre was expected to be a metaphor for a time of renewed vigour, growth and commitment. The design and construction would need to take account of Dubai's climate, of indigenous building and craft traditions and methodologies, as indeed of coherent landscaping. In an environment where glass and concrete towers have often set the trend, the objective was to allow innovation to draw on tradition, all the while preserving symmetry, rhythm, unity and continuity.
Respecting a history of tolerance and openness, Egyptian architects Rami El-Dahan and Soheir Farid sought inspiration from the Fatimid mosques of Cairo. Maintaining their focus on the human scale and the recent past, they also drew on the insights of a mentor, the late Hassan Fathy, renowned in the 20th century for his building in clay and for his “architecture for the people.” Their prior experience encompassed mosques, housing, hotels, resorts, commercial projects, historic rehabilitation and urban planning.
Designing contemporaneously the Hilltop Restaurant in Azhar Park on the edge of historic Cairo (a city founded by His Highness the Aga Khan’s ancestor, the Caliph-Imam al Mu’izz in 969 CE) strengthened the architects' familiarity with the vocabulary and spatial concepts that would inform the Ismaili Centre, Dubai.
The use of masons and craftsmen, and of forms with distinct historical origins, did not distract from the originality of design, execution or technology. Whether with brick, stone, marble or wood, the essential human touch remained a vital component of an enterprise that sought to approach grandeur with humility. Committed to the parameters of the Centre’s function, the architects applied their knowledge of structural geometry, and of the way shape and ambience were created in extant Fatimid mosques in Cairo, to contemporary Dubai.
Exceptionally innovative and responsive to the Centre’s requirements and the community’s ethos, the multidirectional domes are a synthesis of skilled masonry, the physics of construction, material technology and the spatial semantic that relates heaven to earth. Of equal symbolic significance, are the variant fountains and water features. Each is distinctive in style and role.
Each, by its appearance and function, corresponds to the mood and purpose of the spaces it serves to articulate. Inlaid, hand-worked and crafted patterns in carefully selected types of marble and hardwood for interiors and exteriors are a deliberate effort to relate the aesthetic to human talent. Apertures of all dimensions and lamps of innumerable variation remind us of the effect of light, both natural and artificial, on different surfaces. At each interval of contrasts are continuous allusions to the allegory of “Light” from the Holy Qur’an.
The salsabil water feature is the centrepiece of the intimate Morning Prayer Hall courtyard. Photo: Gary Otte
The landscaping also takes as a starting point the representation in the Holy Qur’an of paradise as a garden. Symbolic of continuity, growth and change, the natural features of both the even and uneven soft surfaces throughout the complex and the adjoining Park incorporate trees and flower beds whose effect on the senses extends beyond the physical. Date and fan palms, rolling lawns, cool ferns and seasonal plants in and around the Centre’s courtyards also temper the heat and aridity enabling the Centre to enjoy its own milder microclimate.
Faithful at once to an atmosphere of reflection and learning but also to one of calm repose and togetherness, the Centre’s design has woven into its common areas alcoves, loggia, stone benches and balconies to provide vantages for interaction and introspection. Versatile in their use, rooms intended for active learning are not only conducive to the exercise of creative imagination and constructive exchange of ideas, but are also properly equipped. Pedagogical spaces, recreational areas, administrative and hospitality facilities have all been designed to accommodate appropriate fixtures and the latest technology. Every distinct common space emphasises a reaching outwards towards others even as it facilitates a process of personal search.