On Nov. 27, 2013, as president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, I had the distinct pleasure and honour of spending the evening with His Highness, the Aga Khan.
The occasion was to present the 2013 RAIC Gold Medal, the Institute’s highest honour to His Highness.
The ceremony took place at the delegation of the Ismaili lmamat in Ottawa.
The RAIC Gold Medal was established to recognize “a person of science or letters related to architecture and arts.”
The selection of the Aga Khan marks the first time in more than 30 years that a non-architect has been chosen to receive the award.
The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).
In his nomination, 2010 Gold Medal recipient George Baird, FRAIC, noted his remarkable accomplishments in various aspects of the field of architecture, as part of his broader social and economic development work.
In particular, the specialized cultural programming undertaken through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture includes architectural and urban design projects.
Its Historic Cities program has been responsible for the restoration of many heritage sites throughout the Muslim world.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established in 1977, is given every three years to projects that set new standards of excellence.
It was obvious that the respect the Aga Khan affords given the number of dignitaries in attendance for the presentation.
In addition to distinguished members of Canada’s architectural community, a host of Canadian dignitaries and representatives from African and Asian consulates attended.
Although the Aga Khan and his family are continuously on the world stage, both he and his daughter, Princess Zahra, were very humble and appreciative of the honour being bestowed.
During the rehearsal for the event and the pre-event reception, the Aga Khan and Princess Zahra were very welcoming.
He remarked a number of times on the fact that he feels comfortable and relaxed in Canada because of its welcoming pluralism.
That is one of the reasons Vancouver was selected in the early 1970s as a place to rebuild the Ismaili community.
The Aga Khan concluded his remarks at the ceremony by “emphasizing the potential of architecture to communicate across the boundaries that may otherwise divide us. Architecture provides us with ways to express that which is distinctive in our own experiences, even as it responds to what is universally human.”
At the closing reception, the Aga Khan spoke to many in attendance and personally thanked them for attending.
He commented that he sees receiving the RAIC Gold Medal as a validation for what he believes architecture gives to the world.
Given all of this evidence, it can truly be said that the RAIC 2013 Gold Medal is not at all a break from tradition, but rather the recognition of a person whose lifelong commitment upholds the spirit of the RAIC’s highest honour.
Paul Frank, FRAIC, is the immediate past-president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.