A massive, eye-catching cultural center, the first of its kind in the United States, continues to take shape in the heart of Houston.
Construction of the Ismaili Center Houston, on an 11-acre property at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard west of downtown, began last year and is expected to be complete by the summer of 2025. The seven-story structure, with two of those levels underground, will serve as a gathering place for Ismaili Muslims and members of the Houston community at large – where Ismailis can pray and others can take part in programming such as performing arts, conferences, educational seminars and civic events – while being surrounded by gardens, green space and water amenities such as fountains.
"Ismaili Centers are not just architectural marvels," said Farah Lalani, a spokesperson for the Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States. "The purpose of the center is to give back to the community, to enrich the city where it's residing."
There are six other Ismaili Centers around the world – in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Vancouver along with Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Lisbon, Portugal; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; and London, England. They are commissioned by the Aga Khan, a Muslim spiritual leader who is a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. Ismaili Muslims are part of the Shia interpretation of Islam and believe in pluralism, the idea that strength lies in diversity of thought, people, cultures and faiths, which can bridge societies, according to Lalani.
She said Houston was chosen as the first U.S. site for an Ismaili Center because the region has America's largest population of Ismaili Muslims, an estimated 35,000-40,000.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Prince Amyn Aga Khan, the brother of the Aga Khan, took part in a ceremonial event Monday in which they planted a Texas red oak tree at the site and were among those to sign a steal beam that will be placed at the top of the under-construction center, which will stand 72 feet.
"Houston is a very special city, which is why the Aga Khan chose to build the first Ismaili Center in the United States here," Turner said at the event. "The center is going to be a jewel of the city for decades to come."
A smaller Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center opened in 2002 in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. The larger center under construction in Houston, immediately to the south of Buffalo Bayou Park in the Montrose area, has been in the works for more than a decade.
The forthcoming center also will include a Jamatkhana, which is a community gathering place used partly for prayer, along with several other features. There will be other communal spaces for public programming and spiritual, cultural and intellectual engagement, along with a black box theater, according to Lalani, who said the underlying mission of the center will be to share knowledge and promote dialogue and understanding.
The green space component to the Ismaili Center also is important, Lalani said, as local flora will be used and the site will have the capability to hold flood water.
The landscape architect for the project is Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, which is known for its recent work at Houston's Memorial Park. The center was designed by Farshid Moussavi of Farshid Moussavi Architecture.
"The tree-planting ceremony held there, that basically was also signifying sustainability and respect for the natural environment," Lalani said.