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Toronto Trip to famed Islamic gardens inspired Aga Khan Park in Toronto

Sometimes works of art spring from a flash of inspiration. Just as often, they come from years of reflection, planning, revision and collaboration. In the case of the new Aga Khan Park, it was a mix of the two.

The formal garden near Don Mills and Eglinton in Toronto is a thing of beauty. Spreading out between the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre, it features five big reflecting pools in a field of soft gravel. Rows of serviceberry trees shade granite benches. A bed of Russian sage, which flowers purple, offsets the black stone of the pools and the white of the gravel. The pools mirror the sky and the monumental buildings at either end. The water spilling over their edges makes a soothing murmur that acts against the muted roar of the nearby Don Valley Parkway.

This is the ninth park project of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has rebuilt and restored Islamic parks and gardens from Cairo to Kabul. It had its official opening on Monday afternoon, presided over by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims. To get to that moment took more than 10 painstaking years that included scores of meetings and dozens of international trips.

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Landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic told the story as he toured me around the park on Monday morning. Mr. Djurovic is based in Beirut, where he leads a firm of 25 that does landscape work around the world. The son of a father from Montenegro and mother from Lebanon, he learned his trade in Britain and the United States before going back home to build his practice in Lebanon, then bouncing back from years of civil war.

The Aga Khan came across his work by chance. Usually, he chooses established, name architects for his projects. For the Toronto park, he had asked 15 major companies to join an invitation-only competition. But one of his advisers was flipping through a magazine in an Italian book shop when he came across a spread on Mr. Djurovic's work. Impressed by its simplicity, he persuaded the Aga Khan to bring him into the race.

Mr. Djurovic and his team worked feverishly for four months on their concept. A team of the Aga Khan's people grilled his clients and fellow architects to make sure he was up to the job. "I've never seen a process like that. No one does that, no one," he says. "They don't play around."

Since winning the competition in 2005, he has made no less than 45 trips to Toronto to discuss his plans for the site. On top of that were trips to Japan and India to talk with the architect behind the Aga Khan Museum, Fumihiko Maki, and the architect behind the Ismaili Centre, Charles Correa.

Most important of all were the visits he made to famous Islamic gardens. After Mr. Djurovic won the design competition, the Aga Khan told him he was perfectly happy to build the garden just as the architect set out in his winning proposal. But he had a suggestion: Why not make a tour of famous gardens anyway? If the trip caused him to alter his plans, fine. If not, that would be fine, too.

Mr. Djurovic, now 48, was confused. "The question was always in my mind: Why did he send me? What does he want? I never got any answers."

The architect visited the gardens of Alhambra in Spain and of Fatehpur Sikri in India. At the garden of Humayun's Tomb in Delhi, a place of watercourses and sandy paths laid out on a formal grid, he was struck with the simplicity and solidity of a design that had pleased visitors for hundreds of years.

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"It just hit me crystal clear," he recalls. "I knew I had to change everything I'd done."

He threw out his plan for a garden where water flowed through raised, transparent acrylic basins – how long would they last in a Canadian climate? – and set to work anew.

When he went back to the Aga Khan to say he was shifting plans, "He didn't say anything. He just smiled and nodded." Since then, he has worked closely with the Aga Khan's people and the other architects to refine the new, simpler concept. The Aga Khan himself took an interest in every detail, he says, right down to the size of the pebbles in the gravel.

The result is a modern take on a traditional chahar bagh, or four-part garden. At Monday's opening ceremony, the Aga Khan called it a "masterpiece."

Walking around it beforehand, Mr. Djurovic watched with satisfaction as a swallow dipped over one of the pools and a robin hopped among the serviceberry trees. "It's been quite a journey."

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