SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 11th 1984
Source: The Expanding Metropolis coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo: Proceedings of Seminar Nine, pp. xxi-xxii
It gives me great pleasure to welcome so many eminent planners and architects here today, and especially to pay tribute to His Excellency the Prime Minister and His Excellency the Governor of Cairo for the help and encouragement which both they and officials at ministries and the Governorate have given to the organization of this seminar and to the site visits associated with it.
When the World Heritage Convention listed 136 sites as being of major importance to the heritage of mankind, no less than one third were monuments of Islamic culture. By definition, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture must give strong consideration to this great patrimony. Further, because it is so significant a part of the civilised inheritance of the whole human race, the Award must endeavour to harness the regard of both Muslims and non-Muslims to its defence and, where appropriate, its regeneration.
Cairo, as well as being an international intellectual and commercial centre, is of course one of these historic sites, which is the reason we sought the privilege of holding our seminar here. I hope I may be forgiven for also expressing some personal pride that my ancestor, the Fatimid caliph al-Mu'izz, should have been the city's founder.
We are now embarking upon four days of papers and discussions devoted to the many, and often conflicting, requirements of a rapidly expanding metropolis. These exchanges of views will make an influential contribution to the achievement of the aims of the Award.
Architecture is of primary importance to all of us, from ordinary citizens to national leaders. The buildings in which we live and work, the mosques in which we pray, the schools in which our children are educated, the places where we seek recreation and solitude, all these affect our day-to-day existence continually and deeply.
For Muslims the relationship between a person's life and his or her physical surroundings is a particularly critical matter. For us there is no fundamental division between the spiritual and the material: the whole world is an expression of God's creation and the aesthetics of the environment we build are correspondingly important.
This ethos guiding the finest Islamic architecture was not lost when the great Islamic empires fell, rather one could say that it went into hibernation until a whole series of new nation-states emerged from colonial rule in the present century.
During the long periods before the reattainment of sovereignty, the nature and form of Islamic culture was affected by the West which had become the focal point of international economic development.
When the Khedive, admiring Hausmann's grand boulevards in Paris, began transporting French ideas to Cairo in 1868, he was exemplifying a tendency which affected architecture at all levels in most Islamic countries, from government buildings down to the vernacular of rural construction. International canons of architecture were accepted despite their being in essence alien.
As Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims I have been required to become involved with building of all kinds and in consequence to think more and more deeply about the physical form that the Islamic world of the future will take and how modern technological expertise can be utilised to assist it. How best can we encourage an architecture for the Islamic world which is sympathetic to both our spiritual and aesthetic heritage and to the present-day aspirations of Muslims for change and improvement?
This was the search which motivated the creation of the Award in 1976.
Of all the domains on which the Award has since encouraged reflection, urbanisation presents some of the most intractable problems. Much of the Islamic heritage of architecture flowered in cities, but now high birth-rates and the continuing drift of populations away from the land are causing a near-uncontrollable pressure upon every aspect of urban infrastructure: on jobs and services, on drainage and health, on transport and communications, as well as on housing.
We are all agreed, I am sure, that determined governmental action is vital in dealing with urbanisation. It is less certain that we have established adequate reference points for guiding the growth of cities within the all-important context of our culture, our way of life and our faith.
In order to address this situation effectively, we urgently need to clarify our perception of the many issues involved. To this end the Award has already organised several seminars addressing aspects of urbanisation in the course of its long-term consideration of architectural transformations in the Islamic world.
In March 1979 we met in Jakarta to concentrate upon the issue of housing. A further seminar, held in Fez, considered the symbols and the search for identity in Islamic architecture. Last year Sana'a was the scene of discussions of urban development, against the background of the Yemen's magnificent traditional architecture, now itself under threat.
This week we come to questions which have the most profound implications not merely for Muslims but for the entire world. Fifty cities are expected to have populations in excess of fifteen million by the end of the century. Are they going to collapse into disorder under the strain of expansion? And if solutions can be found, will those solutions satisfy the needs of the inhabitants?
Cairo is likely to be one of those fifty cities. But unlike many of the others it has experience of centrally controlled urban planning going back over a century and, more significantly, possesses the rich tradition of a thousand years of Islamic culture to which I referred earlier. Egypt's efforts towards the conservation and rehabilitation of this heritage have deservedly attracted international recognition and support.
It gave me great happiness that in 1983 the Master Jury of this Award premiated the restoration of the Darb Qirmiz quarter of Cairo's old city. The Jury did so because the planners concerned had made the revitalisation of community life in Darb Qirmiz a priority, which could be initially addressed by saving the fabric of local mosques and monuments.
On this important subject of revitalising the old parts of a city, our seminar in the Yemen concluded that unless the local inhabitants, usually the urban poor, can be emotionally and physically involved no rehabilitation scheme, however carefully thought out, is likely to succeed.
Equally when rural dwellers move into the fringe areas of cities and start constructing their own informal -- and often illegal -- housing, they immediately find themselves confronted by a system of laws and controls of which they may scarcely have been conscious before. Nor do they comprehend the patterns of life which originally made urban centres bearable to live in.
In both these instances -- in urban slums and in fringe settlements -- there is liable to be a deep communication gap between planners and decision-makers on the one hand, and the people on whose lives they have an impact on the other.
Yet the poor can display considerable ingenuity in improving their own environment and in utilising locally available materials. I was delighted when Hassan Fathy's work of a lifetime in this direction, reflecting his profound understanding of the virtues and possibilities of vernacular architecture, was recognised by the Chairman's Award in 1980.
People are the Islamic world's greatest single resource. If we are to harness their latent abilities then we have to understand ordinary citizens' aspirations -- which may be far removed from architectural or planning ideals -- and we have to persuade them of the value of what we are attempting to do.
But, I ask again, are we starting from the correct premise? Have we successfully identified our long-term objectives?
My own experience of initiating and sponsoring major building projects over the past two decades have made me aware how even the most sophisticated societies can suffer acute difficulties first in identifying overall aims and then in managing resources effectively towards their realization.
I am assuming that governments accept a duty to manage the development of cities and that they have the will to do so.
Given that assumption, the availability of able architects, planners and, not least, decision-makers is crucial. Unhappily in the Islamic world today there is a serious lack of them. We do not possess the necessary expertise. This deficiency is obviously fundamental and, in my view, has three basic causes.
First, there are too few first-class schools of architecture and technical colleges in Islamic countries and even the ones that exist often draw their curriculum from the West, where the whole ethos is not merely different, but inappropriate.
Linked with this is a serious shortage of libraries and research centres, while those that we have are often inadequately stocked. One has only to speak to students to appreciate how desperately they need better reference materials.
Thirdly, for various reasons, the vital interchange of ideas and technical information between professionals working in Islamic countries is too seldom achieved.
This was a major reason for the creation of the Award and is why it organises seminars. Although it is not a teaching institution, it can hope to stimulate all those concerned with the built environment to think about the future implications of their plans and actions and to disseminate knowledge through its publications.
Because our aim is to act as a catalyst and a motivator, I have not attempted to advance possible solutions to the problems of the expanding metropolis; nor indeed am I personally qualified to do so. But having suggested that the control and management of the Islamic world's limited resources is crucial to attain success, I would like to place that issue within a context which is of the greatest possible importance to us all.
Whether we are architects or planners, engineers or builders, governors or governed, we have to ask ourselves what vision the Islamic world should have of its cities, not today, not tomorrow, but in twenty-five years time.
When we build, we must do more than seek to overcome immediate crises. The urban infrastructure we create in our generation will have to serve not merely the next, but possible many more. We must build with vision for the future of our faith and of our civilisation.
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