The Aga Khan Garden: A Preview of Things to Come

Last week's public unveiling of the Aga Khan Garden Alberta, to be located at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, was an eye-opener for many. I, like many others, envisioned an oasis garden with fruit trees and palms around a desert oasis. We are all, however, challenged to re-imagine a contemporary garden drawing from the Mughal, Ottoman and Islamic cultures of history. This enlightenment comes with the new garden made possible by a gift of over $25 million from His Highness the Aga Khan.

His Highness first referenced the gift of a garden when he received an honorary degree from the university in 2009. He subsequently hosted an international landscape architectural competition to select the perfect designer in Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects. His Highness then sponsored the lead architect, Thomas Woltz, on a year-long tour of the great gardens of the period 400 -1,100 years before present. How does one capture the elements of tropical paradises in a sub-arctic environment though? What chance does a pomegranate, date palm or olive tree have in our windswept prairie landscape?

Turns out it's not only possible, it's going to be spectacular. The presentation by Thomas Woltz at the April 7 event described a very deliberate integration of existing plants and trees with the two main parts of a traditional Islamic garden landscape: a formal, structured centre historically surrounded by fields used for growing food. His design pillars were water, geometry and food production. The development of arid irrigation systems for food production has evolved into using the same water flows to bring aesthetic values of beautiful foliage, scents, tastes and the sounds of flowing water into gardens that host art, poetry, discussion and reflection.

The path into the Aga Khan Garden begins in the existing woods. Formally titled the Woodland Bagh (garden), a visitor follows one of several paths through the trees, possibly over the wetland bowls and heavily forested ancient sand dune hills. If you've ever been for a hike in an old growth forest you'll recognize it as an immersive and effective way to encourage calm and contemplation. Along the path the symbology of water begins with a tree-line reflecting bowl, then later a dripping spring into a basin, later the water along the path grows to pencil fountains then a deluge of the main Chahar Bagh (central courtyard) lawns bisected by torrent flows of water down the hill. This all sets the stage for the vistas and a peek into an adjacent amphitheatre where we will host speakers, concerts and other community events.

At the pinnacle of the terraces, the visitor stands under shaded columns, which provide shelter from the rain and sun. The open four-sectioned central courtyard is the formal, central part of the garden and pays homage to the geometric traditions of Islam. The lawns are framed by carefully selected flowering and scent-selected annual, perennial and shrub borders. Beyond lies the Bustan (orchard) of pears, crab apples and cherry trees to deliver foliar, flowering and fruiting sights and scents.

The University of Alberta Botanic Garden is a unit within the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences. As such, this is also the site of learning, teaching and research. The Learning Dock at the end of the pond will also be used by the more than 17,000 local children who come to the garden's educational programs each year. The world class Master Gardener program will study design principles throughout the new garden and many of the over 50 community classes will avail themselves of the Aga Khan garden for pruning, water color and photography classes among others.

I had the privilege of standing with His Highness on the hill overlooking the Calla Pond years ago as he nodded and spoke of the beauty and appropriateness of this location for the garden as a gift to celebrate the collaboration between his organizations and the University of Alberta. This partnership has created a fabulous new space that honours the traditions of old Islamic gardens, integrates the existing plants and trees on the site with a contemporary lens and welcomes all people to the four seasons of Alberta.

The Aga Khan Garden will open in 2018. The architectural structure of the garden will be beautiful even as the shrub borders, landscaping and fruit orchard continue to grow and develop over the decades. It is a privilege shared by me as director and all university staff to welcome the public into this garden. We believe many new friends, relationships, and participants will find this as enriching an outdoor home as we do.

Overall, the Aga Khan Garden will boost the profile of the University of Alberta Botanic Garden internationally with the estimated potential to increase the number of visitors from the current average of about 75,000 a year to more than 160,000 a year.

For more info, including the overview video tour and concept illustrations, visit the garden's website.

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Dr. Lee Foote - Professor and Director, University of Alberta Botanic Garden, Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences

Dr. Foote is a member of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, The University of Alberta Forestry School, and is a participant in the Land Reclamation International Graduate School sponsored by NSERC CREATE. Dr. Foote is currently co-PI on a SSHRC grant focused on digital interpretation of cultural and botanic gardens. He is an advisor on the Prairie Urban Farm initiative at South Campus as well as the ENCHANT model farm initiative through the Alberta Conservation Association.