Just outside Edmonton, the striking Diwan Pavilion is a feat of Islamic architecture. -macleans.ca

Stunning $5.5 million structure stands out, even in a paradise-inspired garden

When illuminated at night, the Diwan looks like a lantern. (Photo by Michael Manchakowski.)

the view from the Diwan Pavilion seems more suited to Utopia than Alberta. In a nearby courtyard, a leaning fountain pumps water through 12 stone water fountains flanked by wildflowers; your final destination is a placid pond surrounded by leafy fruit trees. The setting is the 12-acre Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden. The pavilion presides over its easternmost edge.

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Opened last fall, the Diwan was built to be a modest backdrop to the splendor of its surroundings. Those surroundings, which cost $25 million, were inspired in part by the elaborate paradise gardens of the 16th-century Mughal Empire. Upon closer inspection, the $5.5 million structure is a masterpiece in its own right. Toronto’s Axia Design envisioned a modern take on Islamic architecture in a northern climate. Much of the firm’s inspiration came from 8th-century tiles and pavilions depicted in centuries-old art.

Much Alberta inspiration shines through in the pavilion’s tiny, ornate details. Its wide cantilever, for example, features a mashrabiya-inspired metallic wraparound shade, which is etched with a pattern resembling wild roses. (That’s Alberta’s official provincial flower.)

The team built the Diwan over a period of 15 months, following the precise geometric specifications of Islamic gardens. To begin with, the garden is built along the north-south and east-west axes; the Diwan is located at the end of the latter. The main sculptural feature of the building, a wide cantilevered canopy, is intentionally lowered to keep the pavilion in a respectful position with respect to the garden. Its exterior is clad in elegant porcelain panels manufactured throughout the Iberian peninsula of Spain, complementing the Algonquian and Portuguese limestone on the exterior.

Just inside the Diwan’s lobby, Toronto design firm Arriz+Co laid custom ceramic tiles in a floral mosaic, an homage to the traditional welcome mats found at the entrance to many Mughal gardens. Geometry reigns supreme inside as well: the fourth of the Diwan’s seven floor-to-ceiling windows is perfectly aligned with the east-west axis of the garden, offering visitors to the event space a central view of the landscape. When illuminated at night, the Diwan looks like a lantern.

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The term divan it has had various meanings throughout history; here, it means a space for cultural exchange and celebration. The pavilion may not host lavish aristocratic gatherings anytime soon, but it will be used throughout the year for university lectures and workshops. It will also be rented out for large private events, including weddings. Some of them opulent, no doubt.

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