April 13, 1984


Mr. President:

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Medal was established in 1966, and is awarded annually by the University under a grant from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. It is given in recognition of excellence in architecture in the world, and is selected by a Steering Committee representing the Foundation, the University, and (as of this year) previous Medalists. Past prize winners have included a distinguished roster of internationally famous architects, educators, historians, and critics.

The 1984 Medalist is none of these . yet the concerns that have caught and held his imagination and have led him to establish an unprecedented worldwide program - realised commitments for which we honour him today - encompass architectural practice, education, history and criticism and much more. His interests have been architectural excellence in the broadest social/cultural sense; of an architectural culture rooted firmly in an idea system yet tied at the same time to the pressing realities of varying specific places most of which are very poor. Although intended for Islamic cultures, the activities that he directs have profound meaning and example for all cultures, for their values and intents are universal. They postulate and seek a built world which is practical, culturally, cohesive, elegant and just: an architecture which is uplifting and in the service of man.

His Highness The Aga Khan became Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims in 1957. He was 20 years old. Overnight a Harvard undergraduate, who happened also to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace of Allah be upon him), had become 49th Imam, spiritual leader of a following which spread from Africa through the Middle East across the Indian subcontinent into Southeast Asia and Malaysia. His new responsibilities were indeed awesome; the record of his response in the years since, extraordinary. Fortunately, the Aga Khan was born into a tradition of responsible world leadership. (His grandfather was President of the League of Nations; his father, Ambassador from Pakistan to the United Nations; his uncle, UN Commissioner of Refugees and Special Consultant to the Secretary General; his brother had served with the UN Secretariat.) And he would need the nurturing strength of this tradition confronted with the enormity of problems facing his own people in the developing world specifically with the crisis of growth and identity which Islam and Islamic communities face. For a man of commitment, his was a challenging, if sometimes seemingly overwhelming, role. He has met the challenge.

It would be inappropriate to list today the Aga Khan's involvement in social welfare, in the fields of medicine, education, rural and economic development, management and the conservation of natural resources. Suffice it to say that he could as easily be here today to receive an award from any one of our Schools of Medicine, Commerce, Business, or Government. But our focus this afternoon, under the benign but discerning lense of Mr. Jefferson's oculus, is on Architecture and it is here that The Aga has made an extraordinarily significant contribution, one felt both internationally and locally throughout the developing world.

In 1976, His Highness established the Aga Khan Awards Foundation to encourage exceptional achievements in the Arts and Sciences; architecture was chosen as the first broad area of concern. He said at the time: "I can think of no human art form which exercises such a permanent influence over our lives." Aga Khan Award, up to $500,000 in prizes given every three years, the richest and most prestigious architectural award in the world, is intended to nurture a heightened awareness of Islamic culture, its heritage and its potential, in the creation of physical environments which appropriately address 20th century as well as traditional problems at all scales of building from the village to the region. The Award is not a competition, nor is it given to architects alone, but to clients, designers, and builders; to all involved in the conception and realisation of a building. Nor is the Award given on solely aesthetic grounds but on a careful technical review of the building or complex in use over time. In short, the Award emphasises social and cultural fit between a building, its physical context and the requirements, needs and aspirations of its user. The Award has to do with complex cultural patterns, not "designed objects". Rather than establish a school, or further an ideology, it has brought to the Islamic world, as well as to those on the outside who work there, an appreciation of its own architectural heritage and potential.

Aga Khan Awards were first given in Lahore in 1980 and again last year in Istanbul. They have already begun to exert a major influence in architectural circles. To complement the Awards, The Aga Khan has convened a series of seminars throughout the Muslim world to further explore various aspects of Islamic architecture in the contemporary world, and in 1979 he founded at Harvard and M.I.T. a joint program for Islamic Architecture to promote informed professional training, research and teaching in Islamic art, architecture and urbanism. A quarterly international architectural journal, Mimar, Architecture in Development, emerged from these activities in 1981, in response to the need of greater understanding and coverage of the architectural professions in the developing world.

The Aga Khan has become, in the best time-honoured sense of the term, a patron of architectural culture: the most wide ranging, committed, and culturally influential such patron of our time. And the activities which bear his imprimatur are a model for the developing world and for the West as well.

For these reasons, it gives me the greatest (personal) pleasure to be able to present to you, Mr. President, for the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture a man the Founder would have enjoyed and respected, truly a man for all seasons and all countries, His Highness the Aga Khan .

Source: Africa Ismaili (July 1984)

Please use the back arrow to go back to the previous page

Back to timeline 1984