NOVEMBER 25, 1995


Tropical downpours refreshed the tranquilizing humidity, and dusk transformed into gentle silhouettes, the verdant foliage of Central Java, in the heart of the Indonesian archipelago, as Mawlana Hazar Imam and Princess Zahra arrived in Solo last November for the presentation ceremony marking the latest Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

As state guests in Indonesia, Hazar Imam and Princess Zahra had the day before been received by President Suharto at the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, where they witnessed the official signing by the President of the commemorative postage stamps issued by Indonesia on the occasion of the award ceremony.

Honoured by His Royal Highness Paku Buwono XII, Sunan (Sultan) of Surakarta, Hazar Imam and Princess Zahra received a warm and dignified welcome as they alighted from a gilded horse-drawn carriage and were escorted by the Sunan and members of his family into the Karaton Surakarta, the Royal Palace complex. Complementing the colour and variety of the traditional Javanese costumes was the graceful yet lively accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra which heralded Hazar Imam's and Princess Zahra's entry into the Karaton.

From the moment they arrived, Mawlana Hazar Imam, Princess Zahra, and the invited guests were able to appreciate both the historic and architectural significance of this setting. Combined in a remarkable harmony were the island's Islamic heritage, its indigenous cultural traditions with linguistic roots in Old Malay, Sanskrit and Old Javanese, and the legacy of the Mataram dynasty's interaction with the Dutch colonialism, which dominated Java for 350 years.

Every aspect of the ceremonial events, including their location within the Karaton, reflected a rich cultural symbolism. The kraton evolved over the centuries as a micro-cosmic replica of the universe and the kraton in heaven, home of the gods. According to Kejawen, the ancient Javanese religion, the umbilical cord between heaven and earth penetrates at the centre of the palace complex from where divine power emanates outwards in concentric circles of decreasing sacredness. The closer one gets to the centre, the more refined one's dress, language, and behaviour need to be.

Following gracious welcoming remarks by the Sunan to the hundreds of guests from around the globe, His Excellency, Mr. Wardiman Djojonegoro, Indonesia's Minister of Culture and Education, delivered an address on behalf of the government. Recalling with gratitude the award's association with Indonesia, having held two seminars in the country previously and honoured projects during four earlier cycles, Mr. Djojonegoro spoke of "the need for a renaissance - innovative and imaginative thinking ..... allowing us, in all Muslim countries, to not only cope with today's challenges, such as our deteriorating built environment, but also with progress and change associated with the world of tomorrow." "In so doing," the Minister added, "we should find sustenance and direction in our basic Islamic beliefs. In my view, the awards presented today, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, are a major stimulus for this new way of thinking to come to the surface."

In his speech, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that the Master Jury's choices for the 1995 Award "demonstrate the ability of the Muslim world to address with deep competence the major thematic challenges and problems of change in the built environment of our entire world. The rehabilitation of historic urban spaces, the rejuvenation of their economic base, the integration of different communities and the opening up of incremental opportunities to the homeless, all addressed by our winners, indicate directions on how to replace urban decay and social chaos with humane environments."

The Jury's statement, Hazar Imam felt, was "a powerful message of hope... of immense importance for the Islamic world, its view of itself, and the way non-Muslims will view it today and in the future." It recognized how the Muslim world's inherited cultural talents, ethical vision and artistic, ethnic and geographic plurality could "once again represent a significant contribution to world culture."

This message, Mawlana Hazar Imam declared, "validates our unflinching confidence in the creativity of Muslims, and others, to design for (the Muslim) world in a way that will inspire the future without resorting to mimicry of the past. It deepens our conviction that spirituality and architecture together become a full force that can build bridges between people and communities, and empower them to build a more harmonious and humane future."

Other questions facing the Muslim world, Hazar Imam suggested, could be addressed in the spirit of the Award: "a trust in pluralism, a confidence in unfettered debate, a rejoicing in innovation, a deep respect for cultural and physical resources could well be the basis for developing new approaches to other central needs in these same societies.

"I have in mind," Hazar Imam said, "such issues as the appropriate role of civil society; or the desirable size and qualities of modern pluralistic government; or the establishment of new premises for ethical, social and economic attitudes in the world's free market economies of tomorrow."

During the presentation of certificates that followed the announcement, and projection of slides of each winning project, the confluence of cultures in the Muslim world that the Award ceremony celebrates could hardly have been more apparent. Crystal chandeliers and rococo motifs of the Sasono Sewoko Great Hall revealed the Dutch and Portuguese influences syncretised by Javanese artisans into a distinctive style of interior decor.

Subtly conveyed in the variegated splendor of national costumes, Islam's diversity found visible expressions as djellabah, sherwani, boubou and sari, turban, keffiyeh, and bahane blended with Western evening dress. The evening's events were brought to a close by a rare performance of the sacred Court dance, Bedhaya Pangkur. Bedhaya dances, described as the ultimate personification of Javanese culture, were believed to have the power to link the sovereign and the supernatural to ensure the fertility of the land and prosperity of the people.

With a gamelan accompaniment, these dances seek to demonstrate the beauty of movement, music, and poetry, and to convey the sense of a world where the mind and passions are quiet and no longer present obstacles to the attainment of a harmonious union with heaven.

In contrast to the formal aspect of the presentation ceremony, the Award Seminar, which was held in Yogyakarta the next morning, provided Mawlana Hazar Imam and Princess Zahra with an opportunity to hear the exchange of views among the architects and sponsors of the winning projects and members of the Master Jury and the Award Steering Committee.

Seminar participants were able to obtain insights into the Master Jury's thinking: why, for instance, it felt that each of five projects (in Bukhara, Sana'a, Tunis, Hyderabad and Indore) represented one facet of a solution to problems of inner historic cities, degradation of the urban environment, and growing homelessness. The seminar was informative, too, about how three winning projects (in Riyadh, Kaula Lumpur and Kaedi) contribute to addressing contemporary architectural challenges in the Muslim world such as the need for architecture to transcend limits of its locale and to overcome a crisis of identity in its choice of vocabulary.

Finally, the seminar heard from those involved in four innovative projects (two in Ankara, one in Kaolack and one in Jakarta) which the Master Jury felt would encourage "imaginations to be unleashed to generate new ideas." In the case of the latter projects, the achievements noted were: the invitation for architects to provide new symbolism in the built expression of mosques; redressing the impact of urbanism on ecology and nature; the transformation of architecture into ornament; and showing the potential for new relations with nature in even the most functional high-tech spaces. Quite exceptionally, for this cycle, the Master Jury has shared publicly its thoughts. Only alluded to here, in the 1995 Award publication, Architecture beyond Architecture, published for AKAA by Academy Editions, London.

Summarizing the progress of the Award to date and the achievement of the sixth cycle, Professor Muhammad Arkoun, a member of the 1995 Master Jury, elaborated on the "process of liberating minds" that he believed the Award must continue, providing what he had described some years earlier as a "space for freedom" in the Muslim world. He noted that a significant breakthrough during the present cycle was that architects from the Muslim world were able to tell those in the West to take account of the language "we are creating." Touching upon the concept of spirituality as an example of an area of intellectual endeavour requiring a new vocabulary, as much in Muslim traditions as in others, Professor Arkoun explained how this search was encouraged by the debate enabled by the Award process.

This, however, he said, needed to be taken further, so that systems of education were revised to reflect the humanistic attitude that, he said, AKAA had made it a vocation to engender.

In his closing remarks at the Seminar, Mawlana Hazar Imam paid warm personal tribute to all who had committed themselves to the Award process over past 18 years, making special reference to the technical reviewers, their effort and their credibility, which enable the Master Jury to examine projects in such great detail. He explained the Steering Committee's role in establishing objectives for the future. Hazar Imam also concluded with the view that when looking at the relationship between Islam and the built environment, in analyzing what had been achieved and what lay ahead, we should be seeking not form but rather the ethic within which we should live.

Source: Canada Ismaili (March 96)

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