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Event - 1982-11-02
Tuesday, 1982, November 2
Reading the Contemporary African City: Proceedings of Seminar Seven, pp. xiv-xvi
Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

A little more than a year ago, the Sixth Seminar organised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture met in China -- first in Peking, where experts from throughout the world talked about rural architecture and such important questions as the role of the experts, financial and otherwise, in the creation of rural living environments suitable for the men and women there who produce the raw materials that are essential to our community life -- and then in Urumqi, Turfan, Kashgar, cities bearing witness to the thrust of Islam eastwards. The general problems raised in Peking, without any specific ethnic or religious context, were here transformed into questions that were both urgent and immediate for the world of Islam, so vast and so diverse.

And now we are meeting at the other end of the Muslim world, at a point where it touches, not on age-old China, but rather on the vibrant world of an Africa seething with hopes and formulating -- sometimes with difficulty -- its own way in a disoriented and frightened world.

From our particular, and perhaps limited viewpoint -- that of a search for Islamic factors in the architectural creativity of today -- it is easy to justify this leap from Muslim China to the African shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is quite logical to presume that it is easier at the periphery of the vast experience of Islam to identify those ways in which, and the degrees to which, this experience has inserted itself into such highly differentiated socio-cultural milieux as China and Black Africa. How does each national culture, and even each regional culture, manage not only to express but also to flower by means of the Muslim faith and the works of Islamic civilization? This is the great question that has particularly concerned the historians and the sociologists, but which must now be a focus of attention for the architects and the city planners in Islamic countries.

Our purpose is to learn, to understand and to explain, to find the new paths that would also be the age-old ways; to identify, in everything surrounding us and in everything being created around us, the forms, the mental attitudes, the exact techniques and the hopes that, on one hand, enable us to define ourselves and, on the other hand, offer us models to be adopted elsewhere.

Our first objective is to get to know our Islamic personality in a critical and intellectually responsible way. The second objective is to determine to what extent this knowledge can help to illuminate and support a new phase of Islamic civilization as dynamic and creative as the classical period of the initial centuries of the Hegira. I should like to concentrate on these two questions, these two processes, and to draw some conclusions from them.

The subject of this seminar is the "reading" of an urban world in West Africa. When Professor Arkoun proposed this subject, I was a bit surprised, since I thought that people looked at cities, that perhaps they experienced them, but I did not know that they could read them. So I should like to tell you about what I imagined -- whether correctly or not -- in connection with this idea of reading a city.

What kind of literature is under consideration? The city is a novel full of dramas, of tragedies, of comedies, of unexpected upsets and predictable outcomes. The city is a legal document, essential but also boring, by which it organises itself, and gives terse and precise expression to the balance of forces that enables it to function. The city is a book of history and of philosophy, since the layout of streets, the succession of districts, the large buildings along main arteries, the national or other symbols of large squares, the houses, the apartments, or else the hovels and the suburbs, are all signs recalling the past or implying group and individual choices. These were made knowingly or unknowingly, but always imbued with ideological positions, sometimes with human passions, often -- alas -- with strictly financial interests, and sometimes probably with fine and noble theories about the space that man needs. The city, finally, is a poem. Just as the poets rarely testify to original feelings (love, life, death), similarly each city has the same streets, houses, schools, governmental and religious establishments. And yet, poets have shown great skill in giving forms and a quality to ordinary feelings that go beyond triteness; and similarly, whether in the heart of the inhabitants or in the imagination of strangers, many cities -- perhaps all cities -- have a poetic aspect, a quality that makes all of them unique, even if the statistics so often make them ordinary.

So the city is a novel, a legal document, an essay on history and on thought, and a poem. I am quite aware that it is also a sociological document and an architectural ensemble, but if I have taken the liberty of talking about the city as an object to be read, it is because that enables me to give a better definition of what can be expected from the very idea of "reading a city".

Having a book, and knowing how to read it, means first of all being able to re-read it. A book enters the memory, becomes an integral part of ourselves, and belongs to our collective heritage. Reading a city like a book also means sharing one's personal experience with that of the people living in the city. It means the application of one's own world, through the knowledge of these experiences, to the experience of thousands of unknown people. Hence being able to read a city means enabling the city to become a link between an individual and his environment.

Finally, reading a city also means learning how to talk about it. This process is of particular importance, since we all know how difficult it is to express all of the intermediate nuances there are between a detailed but sometimes coldly statistical description on one hand, and easy but useless generalisation on the other. When learning how to read a city, we equip ourselves with the means of bringing out its various elements and of finding the words, the sentences, the expressions that will enable us, on one hand, to identify the various levels of the meaning and of the importance of a particular city, and, on the other hand, to apply these terms to other cities.

Thus I imagine the reading of a city as a way of enriching our collective memory, of making it possible to have a dialogue between the city and the people, and finally of finding a suitable language by which to talk about cities.

But in the final analysis, all this is only the technical side of the undertaking represented by this seminar, its methodological aspect, the development of its working instruments. The results actually have a much vaster purpose: we are actually dealing with a series of objectives or of hopes that are intermingled and that I should like to define on three different levels.

First of all, we want to learn and to understand. We want to come to know this world of West Africa where Islam is linked to another destiny, the destiny of an Africa freed from colonialism. We want to see and to understand the forms that you have created for your cities, and the ones that you have rejected. Over and above the forms, we want to hear the voices of the men and women who decide, who choose, who invent, who construct; and who live in your new cities and ancient villages. In West Africa, unique forms of collaboration among international organizations, national governments and local needs have been created, and one of their best-known result is a simple and original architecture in which we find both the inspiration of the African tradition and the modern use of new techniques. Two of these creations were given awards by the jury of the first Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and revealed this creative originality of Africa to all of us. We have come here to learn more about this, to obtain a better knowledge and understanding of a region that is probably among the most inventive ones with respect to original architecture, and yet among the least known.

On a second level, we have an obligation to integrate this knowledge, this appreciation of African originality, into our research on architecture and the environment. It is a matter first of all of learning how, and to what extent, the social, personal and collective needs of African Muslims have played their role in new planning and construction. In other words, is there an aspect -- physically tangible or symbolic -- that can legitimately be called Islamic because it links up with the great tradition of Islam, or else because the African Muslim considers it as a sign of his faith or of his daily experience as a Muslim? The other aspect of this Islamic level of our research is its applicability to other regions of the Muslim world. To be sure, people have often exaggerated the cultural unity of Islam, which is actually so rich in the variety of its expressions and of its languages, whether visual or otherwise -- but the question should be asked, since the same questions are raised and the same searches are going on in the entire world of Islam: how can people live in dignity, and with all the means and aspirations of the late 20th century, while maintaining the rights and the values of each national community?

It is legitimate and fruitful to ask ourselves whether success in one region could not inspire and support other creative efforts in other countries.

And finally there is what I shall call the universal dimension of our quest. It is quite right for this seminar to emphasize a particular region of the world, for the region has received little attention and it is essential for its own development that it be spotlighted in order to be better appreciated. And it is certainly part of the very program of the Aga Khan Award to seek out and identify the real Islamic factors and forms in today's architecture. But it seems to me that it would be neither correct nor really wise to consider the results of our reflections or the programs that we may be led to formulate as being limited to the regions that we study, or to Muslim culture alone. For the problems assailing us and the questions we ask ourselves all have a universal significance today. Whatever their specific nature may be, our responses have value and importance for the whole human race -- and just as it was in Africa that, according to the anthropologists, man as we know him took his first steps just as it was Islam in the 9th and the 10th centuries that transmitted ancient science and philosophy while transforming them, can we not imagine that at the end of the 20th century, a collective effort of Muslims and non-Muslims will enable us to find and apply the major solutions demanded by the ever more pressing challenges of our time?

That may still be too ambitious a dream; but it is essential to give free expression to the dreams haunting all contemporary minds. Talking about dreams already ensures an initial incarnation for them, a necessary stage in making them a reality in our daily behaviour patterns, our institutions, our surroundings. All of the great works of civilization were initially dreamed, designed, put into expressive forms -- plans, descriptions, calls, manifestos.... -- before taking material form. That is why we have the firm hope that the dreams nourished within the framework of this Award for Architecture in the Islamic world will finally penetrate people's minds and motivate the concrete behaviour patterns of everyone who has the difficult responsibility of constructing the living environment for the Muslims of today and tomorrow. But with this small imperfect vision, I am getting away from our immediate purpose, which is, more simply, to learn to read the cities of West Africa.

All of us together, teachers and students, architects, planners, sociologists or scholars, Africans or specialists from the rest of the world, Muslims or non-Muslims, can seek a response or responses to the basic question of how to relaunch the dynamics of national, regional and Islamic identities.

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