Holy Houston

Farshid Moussavi wins competition to design first Ismaili cultural center in the United States

Farshid Moussavi wins competition to design first Ismaili cultural center in the United States. (Courtesy Farshid Moussavi Architects)

London-based architect Farshid Moussavi has been selected by His Highness the Aga Khan to design an Ismaili cultural center on an 11-acre site in Houston, Texas. This will be the seventh such center in the world and the first in the United States. Moussavi’s scheme was chosen over designs presented by a roster of leading architects including Rem Koolhaas, Jeanne Gang, and David Chipperfield.

As home to approximately 40,000 Ismaili Muslims, Houston has one of the largest Ismaili communities in the U.S. Like the other Ismaili cultural centers around the world—in Toronto; London; Lisbon, Portugal; Vancouver, British Columbia; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; and Dubai, U.A.E.—built over the past four decades, the Houston center is intended to serve as an educational, cultural, and spiritual institution for the worldwide Ismaili community and the broader public. The centers are characterized by distinctive designs that blend Islamic aesthetic precepts and symbolism with their local contexts.

The Houston center will host a space for prayer and reflection, and will offer areas for public programs, cultural exchange, and discussion. While preliminary renderings for the center have not been released, a spokesperson for the Ismaili Council told the Houston Chronicle that the Center “should be distinctly American and Texan in its approach, but expressive of Houston’s diverse cultures.” The Houston center will be located across from Buffalo Bayou Park, one of the city’s main green spaces, and is seen as part of a burgeoning cultural corridor anchored by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, along with other planned public art offerings in the park. The landscape elements of the center are expected to be an integral part of the overall design, and will be led by Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

The empty lot across from Buffalo Bayou Park will host the future Ismaili cultural center. (Courtesy Ismaili Council for U.S.)

This will be the second U.S. project for Farshid Moussavi, who designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, which opened in 2012. Her portfolio includes residential complexes, retail flagships, parks, and office towers in Paris, London, and elsewhere in Europe. In her previous practice, Foreign Office Architects, she also designed numerous award-winning projects that ranged from social housing to master plans, including the Yokohama International Cruise Terminal and the Spanish Pavilion at the Aichi International Expo. Moussavi, who is also a professor in practice at Harvard GSD, has previously taught at the Architectural Association in London, Columbia, Princeton, and UCLA. She is a Royal Academician and was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2018 for services to architecture.

The design team for the center also includes Hanif Kara, co-founder of engineering firm AKT II and Harvard GSD professor, who will serve as structural design consultant, and Paul Westlake of DLR Group, who is the architect of record. The project is expected to be complete in several years, with the timeline dependent on Moussavi’s design.

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