At the occasion of a special address to the The United Nations Development Programme December 11, 1980
Mr. Morse, Mr. Secretary-General, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentleman: It is a great honour for me to stand before you at the United Nations-the symbol of man's hope for the future and man's belief in the primacy of reason and peace-to discuss the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
The Award and the United Nations share the common goals of human development and self-determination. The United Nations, directly and through its specialized agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, seeks to preserve and support the culture and traditions of all nations, races and creeds: so too the Aga Khan Award has begun a process to identify, encourage and recognize the diversity and vitality of Islamic culture as expressed in contemporary architecture.
I established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977 because I became increasingly disturbed by the loss of cultural identity in much of the Muslim World. A few centuries ago, architecture was one of the great Islamic art forms, but today our built environment does not do justice to our cultural past, nor does it accurately reflect the aims and ambitions of our present. Lacking a certain self confidence, Muslims began to absorb and import foreign architectural forms and expressions without thought or analysis.
In my own commitment to the well-being of the Ismaili Community, I have come to be ever more concerned with the physical form that the Islamic world of the future will take. The houses we live in, our places of work, the institutions that serve us, the garden and parks where we rest, the markets and, of course the mosques.
How will they look? And how will they affect our perceptions of the world and of ourselves? Indeed, will the Islamic environment of tomorrow be identifiably ours?
The Aga Khan Award was established to encourage an understanding and awareness of strength and diversity of Muslim traditions. Our aim was to combine those traditions with an enlightened use of modern technology to recognize, as positive examples, building which we believe would be more appropriate for the Islamic world of the future.
In three years, many distinguished people from many countries have joined our search for an architecture of the future. One hundred and eighty nominated projects were carefully researched, documented and studied, and technical review teams travelled to more than twenty-five nations in search of architectural solutions to the questions raised by the Award.
In the end, an international Master Jury composed of architects and non-architects, Muslims and non-Muslims, chose fifteen projects representing twelve Islamic nations from Senegal to Indonesia to share the first Award.
A few weeks ago, in Lahore we gathered for the presentation to recognize the work of men and women, who we believe and hope, will have a profound impact on the environment of Muslims in the years ahead.
As you will see, they reflect a highly diversified pattern of architectural achievement-individual homes to grand hotels; by architects and by masons, by anonymous bureaucracies or specific individuals and collectivities, by Muslims and by non-Muslims-yet always for Muslims.
Now that the first awards have been given, it is time to ask what do they mean? What questions do theyraise? And what implication might they have, not only for the future of Islamic architecture and culture, but for the future of the whole society?
We are in the 1401st year of our faith, only beginning to grasp the social, intellectual, aesthetic and cultural aspirations of the Muslim world. We know that political and social changes of momentous proportions are taking place everywhere and that expectations have risen for both, a good life and a good Muslim life.
But we also know that we are far too ignorant of our past and far too careless in preserving it. Muslim lands are subject to pressures and temptations from cultures which are not ours, even though nearly all Islam's lands are independent of foreign rule.
As we stand on the brink of the 21st century, we must face the challenge of self-determination. We must explore our relationship to our roots and uphold our moral right to decide on the environment which will be ours. Our past and our roots give us the right to say that the choices, the opportunities we have today, will do for future generations what the early Muslims did in Spain, Syria, or Iraq, or what the Ottoman Turks, Timurids or Mughals did some five hundred years ago in Anatolia, Iran or India--create something profoundly Muslim, whatever the sources of the techniques involved.
We also face the awesome challenge of technology, a force with its own momentum, developed for the most part outside the Muslim world. Can we selectively draw from the endless array of technological wonders those elements that are appropriate for our spaces and spirits?
As airports, office buildings, hospitals, schools, industrial complexes and whole new cities grow in numbers and in quality, they will not easily satisfy the originality of our traditions.
The models of the past, even if available, will be technically or economically unsuited to new needs. These new creations run the risk of becoming homogenized, internationalized, inappropriate monuments
But need it be so? While preserving and nurturing the immense variety of our vernacular architecture, how will we be able to utilize high technology without becoming its slaves? There are areas, such as solar energy, water conservation, thermic control of prefabrication, where we should become leaders rather than followers, where innovative answers to our specific need could one day revolutionize the building process for the rest of the world.
There is also the challenge of education. We have not been able to product in sufficient numbers our own experts and practitioners with the full competence to solve the environmental problems of tomorrow. Too many of our best minds are being trained outside their countries.
Clearly, we must develop ways to establish our own schools of architecture and planning, to which others will want to come. This will require another kind of intellectual and practical effort.
It is not enough to create an architecture worthy of praise; we will have partly failed if we do not educate the men and women who will realize the architecture of our future.
The Aga Khan Award, in itself, is a process designed to be a means by which a collective search can be made for the answers to some of the challenges I have mentioned.
One of these is, certainly, the recognition of a human scale, of local decisions (even if they require outside expertise), of local needs and concerns for thousands of separate communities within the universal ummah which is a central part of the Muslim message.
Through architecture, we are recognizing the quality of life within the Muslim world today. It is an architecture for men, women and children, not necessarily an architecture for history books and tourists. By recognizing a housing project developed by a whole community, or a medical center, we are preserving for all times the memory of this quality of life.
Each part of the Islamic world must create its own solution. I think, therefore, that we must assist in the challenging but fundamentally important task of demanding from our architects, national decision makers, our planners and our landscape architects, an environment in which we can live, work and practice the precepts of our faith harmoniously and to the fullest.
While the first series of Awards has served to recognize and emphasize some of the future's needs, it is by no means the end of the effort. It is in fact only the beginning. We are about to embark on the process leading to the second Award in 1983. We seek to extend our network of nominated projects, to refine the ways in which we judge architectural solutions, and to develop a better understanding of the issues involved.
Yet many of these issues which led to the creation of the Award are not unique to Muslim nations. They are issues found in all new lands where developing societies grope for a visible self-identification and struggle to satisfy rising global expectations about about the quality of life. But why think only of new and developing countries? Social problems plague lands with the highest per caoita incomes and self-identification is a concern in nations with long histories of independence and expansion.
It may be that as the Award highlights the search for the Muslim world for architectural forms centred on Man and proclaiming the potential of Life, it creates an example which others might follow. In part, it is simply that the Muslim message is a universal one and not restricted to a few areas or a few ethnic groups.
But beyond that, the environment we are looking for is not only ours; it is something we want to share with everyone. It is in fact a reflection of our beliefs, and not an exercise in pride and vanity, that, by sharpening issues, we may discover solutions for all mankind to use and understand.
In our contemporary world, Man is creating for himself and his neighbours, a setting for life and for health, preserving and utilising what nature has created, developing ways to maintain his identity rather than accepting the impersonal massiveness of so much of today's world.
It is as a Muslim, however, that I will conclude with the words of one pf Islam's great poets, Mohammed Iqbal, which can say better than any speech what the Awards mean. Speaking of Islam in his vision for tomorrow, he wrote; "The journey of love is a very long journey. But sometimes with a sign you can cross that vast desert. Search and search again without losing hope. You may find sometime a treasure on your way"
On behalf of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, I invite you to share with us some of the thoughts and premises of the Awards. I hope you will agree that this is a first step in our collective search for a new environment.
Source: Ismaili Mirror June 1981
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