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Aga Khan was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of CanadaPeter Power/The Globe and Mail

How often does a spiritual leader win an award for architecture? The Aga Khan is likely the only candidate: The hereditary imam of the world's Ismaili Muslims and also a major patron of art, architecture and city building who is making a significant mark in Canada.

At a ceremony in Ottawa on Wednesday he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. "In Islam, the role of an Imam is not limited to the domain of faith," he said in his remarks. "It also includes a deep engagement in the world, in all of the wide and complex issues that affect our quality of life. Among those issues, not many have more impact than architecture and the buildings in which we spend, at all ages, so many days and nights of our lives."

That understanding has driven the the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of agencies that do urban, social and economic development work in much of the world – from restoring Aleppo's old city to building parks in Cairo and infrastructure in the slums of Nairobi, serving people of many religions and nationalities.

"The scope of their philanthropic activity is astounding, and much of it uses architecture as a vehicle," said George Baird, the distinguished Toronto architect and academic who nominated the Aga Khan for the award. When Baird visited a series of AKDN projects about a decade ago, he says, "I had never seen anything like it."

Aga Khan agencies are making a significant impact on Canada's cities, starting with an Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., in 1982, and more recently a series of contemporary cultural buildings open to a broad public. First came the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa (2008), where the ceremony on Wednesday evening was held. The building is a centre for diplomacy and cultural outreach, with a design led by Fumihiko Maki, the Pritzker prize-winning Japanese architect. Located on Sussex Drive, it is a spectacular building that combines allusions to Islamic screens and gardens with Japanese-style craftsmanship in concrete.

The Aga Khan Development Network is also developing a Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa.

The biggest project is now nearing completion in Toronto: a complex including a park, an Ismaili Centre and an Aga Khan Museum that will include art and artifacts from 1,000 years of Muslim civilizations, one of the world's most important museums of its kind. The museum, also designed by Maki, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, along with the Ismaili Centre, by Indian architect Charles Correa.