April 13, 1984
Islamic Architecture: Concerns and Directions
Dean Robertson, Members of the Faculty, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Earlier today I became the proud recipient of the 1984 Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Medal for Architecture, one of the greatest honours this historic University can bestow and one that it gave Me immense pleasure to accept.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am about to repay that honour by addressing your school of Architecture on its own subject when I have no architectural training Myself. Worse still, of all days on which to take such a liberty, I am taking it on Friday the thirteenth.
I doubt if anything can excuse such behaviour, even being a graduate of Harvard.
However, there is an entirely serious and deep-rooted reason for My concern with architecture and it is one which your University's founder would, I think, have appreciated. The built environment which we inhabit affects the qualities of all our lives, whether we are Muslims or Christians, whether we live in the West or the Third World.
The architectural questions with which I have increasingly occupied Myself are universal although as a leader of a Muslim community My primary interest has naturally been with the Muslims and because Islamic countries are almost entirely in the Third World, My attention has been focussed there.
Since the arts and architecture of Islam are possibly unfamiliar to some of you, it may be appropriate for Me to begin by setting the historical scene of the Islamic world, which is both geographically and demographically far more diverse than people in America and Europe generally realize.
The Muslim Ummah is a world community of the faithful, some eight hundred million strong, which extends as far east as Indonesia and far west as Morocco. The heartland of Islam is of course the middle-east, north-Africa and Pakistan but there are Muslims in western China, in Southern Russia and in Yugoslavia, while the peoples of many west African countries - Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal and others - became converted to the faith when they were accessible only by the desert route across the Sahara. Kano, a major Muslim city in northern Nigeria, has a recorded history stretching back well over a thousand years.
At the height of Islamic civilisation Muslim academics of higher learning reached from Spain to India and from North Africa to Afghanistan. Muslim scholars reached pinnacles of achievement in astronomy, geography, physics, philosophy, mathematics and medicine. It is no exaggeration to say that the original Christian Universities of Latin west, at Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, indeed the whole European Renaissance, received a vital influx of new knowledge from the Islamic world: an influx from which later Western colleges and Universities were to benefit in turn, including those of North America.
Along with this civilisation came a magnificent flowering of the arts and architecture: the buildings created by the great Islamic Empires rank among the finest monuments of civilisation in any part of the globe.
From the Dome of the Rock completed in Jerusalem in 692 to the Taj Mahal and the Pearl Mosques constructed by the Moghul emperors in India in the seventeenth century, from the Topkapi Seray in Istanbul to the glories of Isfahan, from Cordoba and Toledo in Spain to the Gur-i-Amir in Samarkand, architectural triumphs have signposted the development of Islamic civilisation, many of them designed to reflect the promises of our faith.
Here I must explain the importance of the faith to every aspect of a Muslim's life including his physical environment: all beings are affected positively or negatively by their surroundings but for Muslims it is a particularly critical matter.
Muslims believe in an all-encompassing unit of man and nature. To them there is no fundamental division between the spiritual and the material while the whole world, whether it be the earth, sea or air, or the living creatures that inhabit them, is an expression of God's creation. The aesthetics of the environment we build and the quality of the social interactions that take place within those environments reverberate on our spiritual life, and there has always been a very definite ethos guiding the best Islamic Architecture.
At their simplest, these social interactions affecting buildings revolve around the family being a closely knit entity with an internal momentum and rhythm of its own, the family living and working within a wider brotherhood of people of the same faith.
Thus, although in time the great Islamic Empires fell, as did the empires of Greece and Rome, of China and Japan, the Muslim culture they sustained was not affected in a parallel way to those others, since the faith itself remained strong and for many Muslims the concepts of what was desirable in a building continued to be inspired by the faith.
Nonetheless there was of course a profound effect upon Muslim culture when centrifugal forces fractured the material power and economic strength of the Islamic empires, for example when the Fatimid dynasty was destroyed in Egypt in the twelfth century, the Moghul power was broken by the British conquest of India in the nineteenth, and finally the Ottoman Empire collapsed as a result of the First World War.
However, the spirit behind the culture was not broken. Rather one could say that in succeeding centuries, different areas of Islamic civilisation went into eclipse, almost into hibernation, until a whole series of new nation states emerged from colonial rule during the present century, some like Syria and modern Turkey, between the two World Wars, but most of them after the 1939-45 War: Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Gulf Emirates, the numerous states of North Africa, Central Africa and West Africa.
Only a few of these states, Saudi Arabia being one, had not experienced foreign rule and all found themselves facing political, social and economic challenges that were immensely more complex and potent than had been current in those earlier centuries when Islamic architecture had flowered.
During the long periods of interregnum between the destruction of empire and the re-attainment of sovereignty, Islamic culture - already, as I have said, forced into hibernation - was further weakened by the West becoming the focal point of international economic development, with a resultant emphasis on Western cultural and artistic values.
Even when the Islamic states did recover political independence, sometimes within freshly-drawn frontiers, they were brought into being as reflections of Western concepts of nationhood. The most obvious example of this was Turkey, which Ataturk reshaped from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire as a secular state in the belief that the adoption of Western patterns would enable his country to achieve a Western degree of economic development.
The impact upon architecture, first of colonial rule and then of modern Islamic nations obtaining their impetus for economic development from the West, has been all but overwhelming. It has affected both the monumental, or what one might call opinion-making, structures - government buildings, hospitals, corporate offices, industrial complexes and airports - and the vernacular traditions of rural construction.
This is not to say that the architectural legacy of colonial rule was necessarily bad. The Secretariat buildings in New Delhi, completed in the early 1930s by the British architect Lutyens, incorporated elements of Indo-Islamic tradition with Greek classical forms to create a series of monumental edifices which would reflect the grandeur of the British Raj. The result was hardly Indian or Moghul, but remains spectacular and memorably dignified.
At the domestic level, the British developed the traditional Bengali single-storey house with shaded verandas into the new form known as the bungalow, which was well-suited to living in heat and humidity and is today characteristic of better class housing throughout the Indian sub-continent.
However, in the vast majority of cases the legislatures and courts and residences created in the Third World, both in colonial days and after political independence have merely been copies from foreign images of political and commercial power. Anyone who visits former French West Africa or British East Africa must be struck by the impact of French and British design idioms in those areas, that is, of course, equally true for Portugal and southern India.
At the other end of the scale, the vernacular architecture of rural people, the on-going construction utilising affordable local materials, has been seriously eroded. Concrete and corrugated iron have taken the place of mud or stone or wood, first because of their intrinsic qualities and second because ordinary citizens have tended to see such Western materials as modern and desirable, in spite of their unsuitability for hot climates.
At the higher, or monumental level, there have been attempts to reverse this dependence on alien models. People did ask why the Islamic world should accept them. But in nine out of ten cases the outcome was little more than mimicry of the Islamic glories of earlier periods without regard to crucial difference between those times and the present. Adding a dome and towers to a downtown office block does not make it either Islamic or appropriate.
Not only have social and economic conditions altered. The properties of the available building materials have vastly improved and so has technical knowledge. To give a simple example; for countless centuries the unsupported area of ceilings in Arabian houses was dictated by the average length of a mangrove pole, because mangrove poles shipped by dhow from Africa were the only load-bearing beams resistant to white ants.
Yet despite such changes, scarcely any effort has been made to reinvigorate the vernacular architecture which is so important to the quality of life and contentment of both rural and urban people.
In this connection, I must stress the size of rural populations in the Third World and the need to improve living conditions in the rural areas, to maintain food production and to stem the flow of those leaving the land.
Between 1950 and 1975 the world's population grew from 2,500 million to 4,000 million. By the turn of the century it will be 6,000 million and of those people eighty per cent will be in the Third World, the vast majority of them rural dwellers. They represent a housing problem of immense dimensions.
The populations of Third World have always been predominantly rural, and although Western perceptions tend to be of Islamic architecture as having been urban, in fact many exceptional buildings of its golden ages were in the rural areas. Nor were the few urban centres of Islamic culture under pressure as they are today. Coupled with a vastly higher birthrate, unending streams of refugees from rural poverty pour into the cities. Jakarta and Karachi have become enormous concentrations of population. Even the recently sleepy port of Dar es Salaam in East Africa will have four million inhabitants by the turn of the century. Houses, roads, schools, hospitals and drainage systems are required at a rate far beyond the capacity of government administrators to supply them; even if they had the money.
My own awareness of these issues did not come all at once. It developed over a long time. As the Imam of a twelve-million strong community spread among some 25 countries, I have been constantly concerned with the construction of schools, clinics, hospitals, office complexes and indeed ordinary housing. In so doing I have become more and more concerned with the physical form that the Islamic world of the future will take and with how technological experience can be appropriately utilised to assist it. In My view, certain issues need to be addressed with particular urgency.
The movement of people to the cities, which has been an unforeseen outcome of political independence, desperately requires solutions if urban centres are not to be overwhelmed.
Vernacular architecture has to be re-thought because it fails to cater for contemporary aspirations, either in the rural areas or the towns. Eighty per cent of the population of the Third World construct their own dwellings. They must be assisted in a practical and efficient way towards better methods and the use of easily available, affordable materials.
Western technology needs to be reconciled with traditional cultures in a creative way and certain crafts which have dwindled could usefully be revived. Above all, the built environment of the Islamic countries must enable the ethos of their civilisation, to which I have already referred, to express itself, as well as giving the sense of national identity and integrity which political leaders sought at independence.
We who are responsible for the built environment of the Islamic world have to ask ourselves many questions. Islamic architecture has never been monolithic; it has been as diverse as the demography of the Islamic peoples. How much of it is valid and appropriate today?
The mud brick mosques of Mali are still a primary influence in Muslim lives. Can this form of building survive? Can the tall stone and mud townhouses of Yemen adapt to urban change? Have the tilework and plasterwork and magnificently decorated interiors of houses in Morocco and Pakistan an appropriate place in new constructions?
I hope you can bear such questions in mind as we explore some aspects of the Islamic tradition and of the problems thrust upon the built environment by changing social and economic conditions.
Before examining the issues further, I would like to emphasise two related points.
What happens to the built environment is highly visible. You notice decay and change in it immediately. But it was not only architecture which went into eclipse for a long period, the other arts were also affected; literature, music and painting.
Furthermore, when I speak about Muslims' concern for the built environment in the Islamic world, I am talking about the majority of the world's 800 million Muslims.
As I explained earlier, My awareness that there might be a case for seeking to reinvigorate and perhaps re-orient the built environment of the Islamic world was awakened by the needs of My own Ismaili community. But I decided very early on that to attempt to tackle My own constituency alone could be interpreted as self-serving and might even isolate us from other Muslims if they did not genuinely share our concerns. The problem appeared generic to the whole Islamic world and if this was confirmed, as indeed it was, it had to be approached in the widest context.
So what as an individual could I do? Certainly not set Myself up as a judge. What I might do was to become an observer, trying to establish a perception of what was happening so that those responsible for creating or preserving buildings gained greater insight into how their work impacted the quality of Muslims' lives.
It is with the well-being of individuals that we must occupy ourselves, whether they be peasants or the intelligentsia. We must be concerned with how they perceive their environment and would like to improve it.
As we all know, things which we take for granted today were often unthinkable or simply not thought about thirty years ago. Indonesia and Pakistan became independent Islamic nations in the late 1940s, followed by other former colonies. Yet in the 1950s and the 1960s the question whether the environment of the Third World was being developed in a culturally desirable way was seldom publicly debated, perhaps because architecture was seen simply as a tool of national development.
The key political issues revolved around sovereignty, statehood and whether the Third World nations could achieve continuity of government without recourse to either Western or Marxist political concepts. To govern successfully meant addressing the key issues of food production and economic survival. The aim of development was to increase productivity, whether by bringing infrastructure services to industry or irrigation to the fields. This was what mattered and so-called international architecture and design was so widely accepted as representing progress that few people considered there was any other alternative.
When I started asking questions in the early 1970s, I discovered that My concern was shared by other Muslims at all levels of society, from master masons to government ministers though not necessarily for the same reasons.
At one end of the scale, the fervent believer saw architecture as an expression of his faith. At the other stood the individual who had no faith, but was of Islamic extraction. This person discerned a continuity in the culture of the Islamic society in which he lived, and wished what was being built to be compatible with the culture. The link between these two opposites was always the desire to change direction and to cease going forward blindly.
Gradually I realised how essential it was to make the issues publicly understood and to foster the appreciation that there were choices available. This left a further question begging, namely how to select between those choices. We ran straight up against the whole issue of educating the people who influence the built environment so that they would view architectural problems in the light of new and different aesthetic, cultural, historical and economic factors, as well as practical ones.
The more I delved into this area, the more I realised that an immense gap yawned between professional requirements and the cultural content which would enable buildings to match the inherited traditions and social demands of the Islamic world.
Furthermore, time was short. In the newly-rich Muslim nations it is possible to import complete building systems, together with the skilled workforce to assemble them. If we were to create public awareness and impact the teaching of architecture with useful effect, we had to do it by the quickest means.
The Aga Khan award for Architecture was instituted in late 1976 as a vehicle for stimulating awareness of the issues among members of the public, within the architectural profession, particularly the younger generation of architects working in Islamic countries, and amongst the widest possible spectrum of decision makers, both at national and international levels. Through it I hoped to encourage an architecture which would enrich the future physical environment of the Muslim world.
A Steering Committee was set up to formulate policy and its executive arm established in Geneva. We chose Geneva because we wished the corpus of the Award to be located in a stable and neutral country.
The process of the Award includes the surveying of buildings in all parts of the Islamic world. A network of nominators put forward projects for consideration by an independent Master Jury of internationally respected experts. Any project completed within the preceding twenty-five years is eligible, providing it has been in use for a subsequent two years. The Award itself is made every three years, the first ceremony having been at Lahore in 1980 and the second at Istanbul last September.
At the same time, international seminars and field trips have been organised dealing with a variety of themes relevant to Architectural Transformations in the Islamic world. These provide a forum where architects, planners, designers, academics, social scientists and government officials can meet and discuss in a spirit of open-mindedness. The dissemination of information, whether through seminars or publications, is of great importance.
Through this process of the Award we have endeavoured to promote confidence in the architectural languages of the peoples of Islam. By premiating projects which demonstrate excellence at all levels we have tried to encourage those responsible for construction to meet both cultural and functional needs and to seek new sources of inspiration and creativity.
This creativity involves two main components. First, understanding the ethos of the faith and sensing the way Muslims see themselves in relation to their environment. The second component is professional competence in dealing with heat, with light, wit new materials, with climatic extremes, new construction techniques, new client requirements.
Some talented architects working in Islamic countries have perhaps failed to understand the ethos. others may have felt it could not be conveyed in constructions as technically complex as hotels, airports or hospitals.
The outcome of the Award has been that the Master Juries have premiated 26 projects, 15 in the first Awards and 11 in the second. The projects chosen have not been intended to represent absolute solutions, but rather to be valid steps in the process of search, while the eight seminars have helped clarify issues and priorities in a number of specific areas.
Overall the Award has created events which have focussed public attention on the Issues and, we believe, acted as a catalyst in the evolution of a new cultural and environmental sensibility. As its work continues, I hope it will build on this provocative and catalytic role by becoming a medium for the exchange of information and reflection through which everyone concerned with the Islamic built environment can gain the stimulus to think about the deeper implications of what they are doing.
The Award's activities inevitably focussed our attention on teaching. When speaking about dormant or eclipsed Islamic traditions we discovered from architects themselves that they felt there were domains of knowledge which were never offered to them during their professional training. I came to feel it was essential to invest in impacting the teaching of architecture, but the Award itself could not become a school of architecture.
We decided that we should, if possible, seek to do this through existing institutions which were in a position to influence rapidly, as wide an architectural constituency as possible, and particularly those whose work would have the most national and international impact. The result was the establishment in 1979 of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, a joint Program at Harvard University and MIT. Its aim is to promote research and teaching in Islamic art, architecture and urbanism.
We were fortunate to attract such distinguished institutions. Both had strong, pragmatic schools of architecture and excellent libraries, while Harvard had a tradition of authentic research and thinking on Islamic civilisations.
As with the Award, one might ask why this Program was not
established at a Third World university or a series of universities.
There were several compelling reasons for establishing the resources the Program would have at a focal point of research in the West rather than distributing them between a number of prime, though individually less well-endowed, teaching institutions in Third World. One reason was that in seeking to stimulate fresh thinking within the architectural profession, we would have to consider what buildings should be the first objects of concern. Inescapably among the most prominent would be those of high impact, either in their dimensions or their technology. Such constructions would be the ones to influence opinion outside as well as inside the countries where they would be erected. A classic example of this kind of high impact structure is the American-designed Hajj Terminal at Jeddah airport.
However, Third World schools of architecture are not producing practitioners of high technology, largely because high technology can only rarely be afforded in everyday building in the Third World. Therefore it is a strong probability that Western firms will design the more sophisticated structures in the Third World for many years still to come.
If we wished to establish a dialogue with such Western firms we had to do so from a reference point of academic institutions which already commanded their respect.
A second reason for our choice was that we wanted to formulate a complex programme quickly, and that could far more easily be done within the facilities of Harvard and MIT, than in a collaborative effort between schools in say, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia. Equally the sheer volume of cultural resources and capability for updating reference material were much greater.
Finally, because of their wealth of resources, we felt it would not be straining Harvard or MIT unduly if the terms of the endowment included assisting institutions in the Islamic world. The Program has already held seminars in Karachi and Tunis, and will conduct another in Singapore this month, as well as organising visiting fellowships and establishing a major visual archive on video disc which will be available to those working in the field. It also plans to distribute teaching materials abroad and arrange exchanges between faculties.
The eventual objective is to strengthen teaching institutions in the Third World and we may start by selecting some which can have a special relationship with the Program, while a further option might be to develop the Program to degree-giving status.
Having described the methods by which we have sought to stimulate a search for solutions to how the environment built for Muslims can reflect their individuality, their civilisation and their needs, it may be appropriate to note that of the prize-winning choices of the 1980 and 1983 Master Juries of the Award, the first Jury selected in terms of cultural and historical objectives whereas the second Jury attached more importance to physical environment and to visual and spatial architectonic quality.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you have now heard about some of the problems facing architects and planners in the Islamic world and I have described some aspects of the search for directions and solutions. I hope that in the future you may take an active interest in this quest. As the founder of this University remarked, speaking of America's mission in the world, we should "not be acting for ourselves alone but for the whole human race". It is only by the sum of collaborative efforts of individuals that we can hope to progress.
So, in the concluding part of this talk I should like to consider briefly where the principal challenges lie: to identify some of the most intractable issues which I mentioned earlier, the issues which demand the attention of anyone who is concerned, as Thomas Jefferson was, with the human condition.
In My view, there are three domains on which reflection is urgently required.
They are rural development, urbanisation: and developing a design language capable of responding to specific high-tech requirements.
Let us reflect first on how to make the rural areas of the world a desirable place to live, a subject to which far too little attention has been given in the past.
There is still a tendency today - though it is being corrected - to think in Western urban terms about the requirements of societies that are not urban.
In the Third World, as I pointed our earlier, the great majority of the people are rural, and about eighty per cent of the population construct their own housing. The self-built house is a permanent phenomenon and is certain to continue so, because the cost of employing contractors and architects is totally beyond the means of the ordinary people. At the same time, the vernacular tradition - what has been called architecture without architects - is not being modernised and renewed to keep it desirable. In rural areas people must be enabled to construct a better environment for themselves, because poor conditions are one major cause of poor health and of the flow of villagers to the towns: as are the aspirations which even the most limited access to a money economy stimulates - a basic job giving fuller entry to that money economy; education for children and enjoyment.
Access to materials to start the improvement process is difficult. Villagers often cannot obtain cement and glass. Architects and specialists are reticent about working in the countryside, even when they can be paid. The local carpenters and masons who have always assisted with self-building need to be educated in new techniques and encouraged to make better use of local materials.
At the urban centres, parallel problems exist. The pressures of the birthrate and the drift to the towns are causing massive, near uncontrollable, demand for urban housing. But the rural people who crowd into the cities do not comprehend the old patterns of urban life which made these cities tolerable, nor the cultural and moral significance of those patterns. To take one example, in the hot, humid Asian city, space is required in different areas and for different purposes - private family living space; doorstep space for contact with one's immediate neighbours; recreation and social open space used by everyone - the maidan of Indian towns. When the pattern is broken and is not replaced by a viable alternative, city life becomes intolerable.
At the same time, planners and decision-makers tend to regard town architecture of the past as out-of-date and expendable, as has happened in the old cities of Lahore and Fez and may soon be the fate of Sanaa. Yet even if the funds were available, the cities cannot be restructured fast enough to cope with the influx of immigrants.
Does the knowledge of technology which professional planners and architects possess cause them to under-rate local know-how and materials and their potential?
At the other end of the spectrum, do we think enough about how high technology is applied?
Industries, hospitals, universities, atomic plants and airports, all elements of an increasingly technical international culture, are springing up throughout the Third World. To politicians they are often gratifying indication of economic progress. But are they being conceived and designed in appropriate cultural terms?
Ladies and gentlemen, during most of the time which I have been privileged to spend with you this afternoon, I have spoken about the particular architectural problems of the Islamic world. Allow Me, in conclusion, to offer some ideas of a more general nature.
If we decide that dormant cultures - dormant, I emphasise not dead - should be brought out of eclipse, can Universities contribute to their revival?
I firmly believe that they can and that schools of architecture such as this can bring about a better understanding of the issues at stake.
They can provide that "diffusion of light and education" which Thomas Jefferson spoke of as "the resource most to be relied upon for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man."
There are many great cultures in the Third World and it should be an act of integrity for the architects of the future to learn about them and endeavour to emphasise with them before impacting them.
The architects of today are creating the environment of the twenty-first century. They should encourage countries to develop within the terms of their own indigenous cultures rather than allowing external influences to introduce changes so fundamental that they are damaging, perhaps dangerous, and all but irreversible.
The stimulus given from outside needs to be particularly finely tuned, because when it is appropriate it can promote the successful revival of a culture; but when it is in appropriate it has exactly the reverse effect.
Schools of architecture ought, in My view to incorporate sufficient cultural inputs with their technical curricula to enable students who may later design for societies other than their own to comprehend those societies and to be at home in their cultural contexts. If working in Islam, you need to understand Islam; if in Hispanic societies, to understand Hispanic tradition; if in the Far East, to be able to come to grips with the social and cultural backgrounds of the people of that area.
Ladies and gentlemen, this may appear a far-fetched suggestion to make a distinguished school of architecture, whose alumni may well anticipate working only in their home republic. But may I suggest that it would not be inappropriate to your Founder's vision of this University's task?