TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 26th 1978
Hikmat, II, 3 (January 1984), pp. 20-22
In 1980, the first Aga Khan Award for Architecture will be presented. Prior to that, five seminars are to be held to discuss various criteria and categories for the Award, as well as some of the other mundane aspects of its organization. Though this is the second seminar chronologically, it is the first one to be held in a country of the Islamic world, and I therefore attach particular regard to its participants and importance to its subject matter. I am thus truly happy to welcome His Excellency The President of the Turkish Parliament who, both personally and in hid official capacity, has been responsible for playing a major part in the restoration and preservation of Turkey's historic buildings.
The theme of the seminar to which I heartily welcome you all is "Architectural Transformations in the Islamic World." It is appropriate that I should state publicly the reasons why Turkey has been chosen as the site of the first seminar. After the medieval contacts of Islam with the West in the Mediterranean islands and southern Europe, it is Turkey which has probably had the most constant, long-term and consistent contact with the modern West and, clearly, it is a part of the Muslim world which has been exposed to great potential for change in its physical environment. This potential for architectural transformation did not occur in the face of a vacuum, but came into direct contact with one of the great centres of Islamic civilization with a magnificent heritage of aesthetic achievement.
Turkey has always been an internationally recognised centre of exceptional architecture and will remain a treasure-house of great Ottoman monuments. These have served in the past and will continue in the future as sources of inspiration for architects all over the world.
A second reason for choosing Turkey for this seminar is that this is one of the Islamic countries which has the longest and best established traditions of modern architecture and modern architectural schools. This fact is widely recognised, and is witnessed by the large number of buildings designed by Turkish architects in other countries of the Islamic world. Thus, because of her exposure to the modern West and her own architectural traditions, Turkey as a nation and her architects in particular have been substantially and extensively exposed to the problems of transformation and change in all aspects of the built environment, including design, materials, and social and climatic environments. Yet another reason for selecting Turkey as our venue is that, while the country shares the building boom evident in most countries of the Islamic world, commendable efforts are also being made here in the restoration of great monuments and in the conservation and rehabilitation of whole habitats.
I would also like to inform you of my purpose in establishing the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, to put this seminar into perspective in relation to the wider problem facing us -- that of defining what physical environment future generations of Muslims will have around them in the years ahead. Will it be an environment made of spontaneous and fortuitous building, or will it be one to which all thinking Muslims have made meaningful contributions based on their faith, their background, their customs and their aspirations?
My interest in architecture is practical and aesthetic. The Ismaili community of which I am the Imam is relatively small, but possesses members in a large number of countries both East and West. It is in daily contact with an extremely diverse range of Muslim as well as non-Muslim societies, and is therefore exposed to an unusually broad cross-section of religious, linguistic, social and cultural influences. It is a community united by a common interpretation of Islam, a significant aspect of which is its dynamism. In most countries where Ismailis live they have been active in building for the future: schools, medical complexes, housing colonies and other welfare institutions. These institutions are used predominantly by Ismailis, but also by other Muslims and people of disparate races and beliefs. As Imam, I have therefore been directly and intensively concerned with the process of building. The scale of this building has ranged from a nursery school for a small town in northern Tanzania to a 680-bed hospital and medical college now under construction in Karachi. Whenever we conceive of a new building, whether small or large, social or commercial in purpose, the same question recurs: what is the impact that the building should have on the eyes, minds and thoughts of those who will see and use it?
The specific design requirements of nursery schools, hospitals, offices or industrial buildings are better understood today than ever before. Nevertheless, the degree to which modern buildings, constructed by Muslims and primarily for the use of Muslims, should incorporate design principles and aesthetic considerations which are specifically Islamic remains unclear. In what way should they, or can they, become intrinsically different from those architectural styles adopted by other societies and other faiths in non-Muslim parts of the world?
I am not speaking here of factors such as climatic conditions, physical environment or the availability of land. Any moderately competent architect would take these limitations into consideration during the design stage of his project. I am looking for something much harder to define. It is an evocation partly of our faith, partly of our culture, partly of our history and partly of our aspirations. Our history is firmly rooted, our culture evolving and our faith strong and permanent; surely these have an impact on our modern lives and sensibilities. Should they not be reflected in a happy and harmonious way in our buildings, in the different environments which make up the cities, towns and villages of modern Islam?
All cultures naturally influence each other to a greater or lesser degree; the strongest are those in which the dominant elements remain dominant and refuse to be overwhelmed by external forces. They become stronger still when they retain the ability to select, to absorb that which invigorates and enriches and to reject that which is inimicable. This is what the Western world did in building upon the stronger Muslim civilization to pull itself out of the Middle Ages. I venture to suggest that this be the process by which Islamic architects and designers develop a physical environment, one which will make of their institutions, their work places, their houses and gardens something which future generations may look upon as a true reflection of the spirit of Islam.
The contemporary Muslim world faces a fundamental and unique challenge in determining its future physical environment. Sudden affluence and rapid demographic growth and urbanization have resulted in an unprecedented rate of building activity. In many Muslim countries, the next two decades will see a radical large-scale transformation of the urban physical fabric. Many of these countries have emerged suddenly from a colonial era, and are searching for identities of their own. Partly because Muslims enjoy such a rich and diverse cultural heritage, and partly because of the dynamics of the Islamic faith, I am confident that this identity will emerge quickly -- not simply in economic or political terms, but in the physical environment as well.
It is an inescapable fact that one always knows when one is in the presence of Islamic civilization. The specific elements which make Islamic cities and buildings both beautiful and functional must be researched and defined, so that we can continue the traditions of our ancestors. We must ask ourselves how we can prevent future architectural development from accelerating the loss of our cultural identity. These are indeed universal problems, but they require solutions within an Islamic context. We are not looking for a facade of Islamic architecture, hiding the new behind a shallow imitation of the old. Nor are we looking for an Islamic city which conforms to an outdated and unrealistic system of organization and human relations. We must acknowledge that the world is changing, but in so doing we must realize that there are still many lessons to be drawn from the past. Whatever design solutions we choose should be conceived in such a manner as to allow evolution and progress to orient us toward the future, rather than retreat into the past for its own sake.
In closing the first seminar I said that any man or woman who professes the Shahada is a Muslim. Yet because we are so numerous, live in so many parts of the world, speak such different languages and are of such different racial and cultural origins, I am profoundly convinced that there is no such thing as one type of Muslim environment or one type of Muslim building. Each region of the Islamic world must create its own architectural solutions, but just as we are all enjoined to help the needy, the sick and the poor, so I think we must all assist in a challenging but fundamentally important task. We must demand from our respective national decision makers, our architects, 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.
This seminar will discuss one of the most fundamental issues in achieving that goal, the architectural transformation in the Islamic world. I would like to formally open this meeting by expressing a deep personal wish: that our objectives not be considered simply in terms of the survival of the Islamic heritage in building forms, but as an attempt to stimulate in the architectural profession and among its teachers an exciting and fulfilling thought process, one which will develop a momentum of its own and become an almost instinctive manner of expression for any architect designing anywhere in the Islamic world.
There are no easy formulae and no simple solutions to the questions we are putting to ourselves during this seminar, nor to those raised at seminars which will follow before the first prizes are awarded in 1980. We are setting ourselves an exceptionally ambitious goal -- that of rediscovering and drawing afresh upon the inner inspirations which were the source of architectural greatness in the Islamic world.
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