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Event - 1981-10-19
Monday, 1981, October 19
Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

I want to begin by saying, quite simply, how delighted we are to be in China. China is a nation we constantly read about and discuss. But for most of us, myself included, it is the first time we have actually seen and visited this fascinating country. For that privilege we are indebted first to our hosts, the Architectural Society of China and especially its charming and most gifted President, Mr Yang Ting-bao.

I know that Mr Yang and his executives in the Society have taken immense pains to make the visit a success -- in numbers we comprise a dauntingly large delegation -- and I speak for all our visitors when I say how immensely grateful we are for the Society's unstinted help and warm welcome. I would also like to express my deep personal appreciation to the Government of the People's Republic of China for the generous hospitality they have extended to myself, to my brother, Prince Amyn, and to my staff. I should also mention the helpful and friendly introductions I received before arriving from the Ambassadors of China in France and the United States.

This is an historic occasion. The people gathered here represent a unique concentration of intelligence and expertise in the topic that is to be dealt with and on the questions that will be raised and must be answered. The place -- the People's Republic of China -- will provide the stimulus to encourage the innovation so desperately needed to solve the problems of rural peoples all over the world, but especially of the poor among them -- and it will also supply the kind of perspective that only a country with millennia of history behind it can aspire. Finally, the occasion coincides with -- and is indeed a response to -- the increasingly urgent demands on the part of the rural peoples in the developing world not only for a longer, happier and healthier life, but for achieving it without violating the regional differences, obliterating the traditional cultures, and destroying the natural environment that make that life worth living. In many parts of the world, I venture to say that the rural population has suffered either neglect or the uncertain ministrations of national and international bureaucracies.

Things will change, and no doubt they will change radically. It is the responsibility of people like yourselves -- the planners and designers of our built environment -- to mobilise your intelligence and your technologies to ensure that they do not change for the worse. For if the events of the twentieth century thus far have taught us anything at all, they have taught us that technologies unguided by intelligence and compassionate understanding invariably create more problems -- and more insoluble problems -- than they remedy.

The subject of this seminar is the changing rural habitat. The word 'habitat' refers, of course to places where people live, but especially in recent parlance it has taken on the additional meaning of suitability -- that is, it has come to mean the places where people ought to live. Here we will be concerned with both its meanings as we seek to reach an understanding not only of what is, but what ought to be. For obviously, if we are to plan for the future, we have first to decide what it is we are planning to achieve, and I believe that the solutions and conclusions we come up with will be equally applicable to all of the developing world.

We chose to deal particularly with the rural habitat largely because the attention of professionals in both West and East has hitherto been so concentrated on -- even distracted by -- the problems of our ever-growing and ever decaying cities that the plight of the rural poor has thus far been almost entirely ignored. In the industrialised West, the latter problem might be said not even to exist, comparatively speaking, and this may be part of the reason behind its neglect elsewhere in the world. It has not received, in my view at least, the level of attention, the input of thought and creativity, which it demands, and indeed must receive.

A few statistics taken from a development report compiled by the World Bank in 1979 can demonstrate the point. According to that report, four-fifths of the population of the non-industrialised world live in rural regions -- less than a quarter of the population in industrial nations live in the countryside. Seventy-three per cent of the labour force is in agriculture in low-income countries, as compared to a mere seven per cent in the industrialised nations. Of those rural peoples of the Third World, easily half survive under conditions that most of us cannot even contemplate: fully seventy-two per cent can have no access whatsoever to a safe water supply. No one is so deprived in the industrialised nations. The implications of this fact alone for the levels of health and life expectancy in those countries need not be spelled out -- suffice it to say that most of the people in those regions cannot expect to live beyond the age of fifty at best -- fully twenty years less than the rest of us can expect to enjoy -- and that there is only one doctor per ten thousand people to serve this sick and suffering population. In a survey carried out some years ago by my own organization in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, we discovered that those who had a net disposable income were many times more wealthy in the urban area than in the rural countryside.

All nations aspire to develop policies which will better the social and material welfare of their peoples. China is not only the world's oldest civilization, it identified its major national problems (and often found solutions for them) long before most of today's nation states had even been thought of. As a country with a vast rural population it is in the vanguard of those who give the highest priority to the welfare of its countryside, and it has done so with courage and originality. This fact alone, it seems to me, makes the choice of China for a seminar on the rural habitat a most felicitous one.

The problem of the rural habitat is an almost overwhelming one for the developing countries of Asia and Africa. Their enormous rural populations make it inconceivable that a similar process can take place with them as occurred a century or more ago in the much smaller nations of the industrialised world whose cities managed to absorb -- however painfully -- the people who flooded in from the countryside. The great cities of Asia and Africa are already at the point of collapse beneath the unrelenting pressures of immigration from the rural hinterlands. Somehow ways have to be found to make the countryside itself a more desirable place to live in, which in turn demands an ability to earn more and to save enough, as individuals or families or communes to begin the process of self-generated economic growth and thus social well-being. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture seeks to identify and premiate all successful efforts in the resolution of man's built environment, and clearly the fate and future of the rural habitat must be of prime concern to us.

As the Imam of a Muslim community which lives in twenty different countries around the world I have seen for myself the immense importance of meeting the needs of those sections of my community which live by the land. For the past ten years or so they have received priority in all our social and economic development plans.

As patron of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and as successive seminars took place in different countries, I quickly became aware that the problems of the rural habitat were general throughout almost all of Asia, Africa, the Near and Far East. The priorities which architecture in its broadest sense would bring to bear to resolving those problems would be influenced not only by religious faiths, but just as much by tribal cultures in Africa, for example, and by the different national, historical and ideological forces which dominate man's environment across the globe.

Unless change takes account of rural life in all its aspects, unless it respects the past and the heritage of rural areas and peoples, unless it recognises the intricate ties between the physical and the social environment, it will fail to achieve planning and developing goals for each nation. It will also fail to provide attractive alternatives to migration and thereby fail to stem the tide of people flooding into the cities adding to the already almost insurmountable social problems the urban areas are facing.

I am hopeful that this seminar will have a very particular significance for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Two village development projects have already won Awards in 1980. Without any prompting on our part, therefore, rural change has already pressed itself upon our attentions. Yet if the Award is to continue to recognize excellence in rural projects, it must develop improved criteria for their evaluation and these criteria can become of great use to individuals and agencies throughout the world. This would be the most important result of our meeting.

We hope, indeed we expect, that all of you who have prepared case studies and each delegate who contributes through discussion and criticism during the next few days will also help significantly to generate the development of those criteria. The seminar is also important for the Award because it symbolises its ongoing search, a process of 'reaching out'. In one sense the seminar is reaching out by opening up new areas related to architecture and planning but not commonly recognised, let alone rewarded. In another sense this seminar will reach out by drawing upon extensive experience and valued counsel -- particularly from China -- on a set of problems which extend beyond any national or cultural or religious boundary.

Our central purpose here, then, is to increase understanding of the rural habitat and, from that understanding, to devise appropriate strategies for change, both for our colleagues in planning, architecture and other related fields, and for a wider audience of decision makers and concerned people everywhere. To achieve this end we have chosen to present and to discuss both case studies and papers on selected technical problems. The case studies have been drawn from a variety of cultures ranging geographically from Africa to Southeast Asia. They portray a variety of situations, since we believe that there is no single answer to guide our planning for rural change. Ideas about modernisation are often in conflict and theories are almost always untried. Local cultures and ecologies vary. This is why we have chosen first to present specific experiences through the case-study approach, and specific aspects of technology through the technical papers, and then call upon you all for whatever wisdom you can provide.

To guide that discussion and to lead it toward valid generalisation, we suggest that you keep three aspects of rural development and a number of questions that result from them in mind: the aspects are technology, expertise and ideology. Let me ask some of the questions: what technologies should be employed in changing the rural habitat? What materials and techniques of building were used and how valid are they still in terms of cost and availability? Whose expertise was, or should be, employed in the building and planning processes, and how should the use of that expertise relate to traditional crafts and their development? Where experts are drawn from many backgrounds, and often cultures, how can an amicable and fruitful working relationship be guaranteed? In terms of ideology, what were the reasons for the changes that were initiated? How were these rationales perceived by the different actors in the building and planning process? Finally, how do cultural values and social expectations become modified through contact with the outside, urbanised world, especially as revealed through the process of changing the rural habitat?

Following the seminar itself we shall visit Xian, China's ancient capital and centre of culture, and then venture forth to travel parts of the Silk Route of Western China to experience life at first hand in some of the rural areas of this great country still harbouring the culture of the Islamic civilizations of the past.

We have much to learn from that journey. We also have much to share with China, for we both have the obligation to understand our past, to respect and preserve it, and to learn to recognize the appropriateness of architectural innovations we introduce into it. As a prime civilising forces for thousands of years, China's cultural heritage is rich and fascinating. Its significant Muslim heritage will also enrich our knowledge of Islamic culture in general and provide a dimension of which few of us have hitherto been aware.

Many of you have joined me earlier in the quest for cultural appropriateness in architecture, and especially in the architecture of the Islamic world. Many others are joining us for the first time to provide their expertise in the area of rural development. I trust that all are committed to gaining a heightened understanding of architecture in all its manifold forms. Most important of all, perhaps, by your diversity and talent you can indicate to the rest of us how best to achieve an appropriate physical environment in rural regions and how to guide the relentless process of change.

In a few days' time delegates from the industrial nations of the North will be meeting once again with the developing countries of the South in Cancun, Mexico. This is not the first and certainly not the last attempt to re-dress the balance between rich and poor nations. I am deeply convinced that money by itself will not solve our problems.

The nations of the South themselves must identify their own priorities -- of which the imbalance between urban and rural development is surely the foremost -- and establish the human and professional infrastructure which alone can make outside financial assistance, or indeed local resources, both meaningful and productive.

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