islamic revelations

Aga Khan

Article From Sept 1997 issue of Magazine Metropolis

by Marisa Bartolucci  "'This isn't architecture,'" Frank Gehry said he remembers thinking when he first looked at the slides of some modest structure that had been proposed for the award. There were so many slides of so many buildings, selected by hundreds of nominators from all over the world. And then there were the reports on whether the projects had been well constructed and on budget, had performed as promised, and had satisfied their users and the community. In all the years Gehry had served on juries, he had never known buildings to be so scrutinized; mostly they had been judged on their formal merits alone. He was, he said, overwhelmed by this elaborate, expensive process; in the beginning, it had seemed quite unnecessary.

Yet as Gehry told the audience a year or so ago at a press briefing for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) at New York's Museum of Modern Art, he soon changed his mind. His experience serving as a juror for the 1992 award had been an architectural revelation: He had seen surprisingly innovative designs created by village craftsmen, employing only the most traditional materials and rudimentary technologies, as well as sophisticated works of regional Modernism, translating ancient vernaculars into strikingly fresh statements. What's more, he was astounded by the socially transformative effect of these works on their communities.

Peter Eisenman, who had served on the 1995 award jury, spoke next. He also attested to how his understanding of architecture had been enhanced. He had joined fellow jurors in selecting some projects that challenged architectural definitions in ways he had never before considered. They had, for instance, honored the massive reforestation program conducted by the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, which restored some 7,400 acres of campus land to its former "natural" state. The forest, he explained, had attracted a bounty of flora and fauna, but even more important, it now acted as enormous green lungs for the smog-stifled Turkish capital. It had become a vital element in the city's infrastructure. Through his experience as a juror, Eisenman said he had discovered the richness and diversity of Islamic culture. "I had never heard of the architectural marvels of Bukhara," he announced. "I didn't even know where Uzbekistan was!"

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is the most generous of the profession's prizes, disbursing $500,000 amongst the winners. But its mission-to honor and promote excellence in Islamic architecture-is not well known here. The reasons are complex and troubling, the most obvious being the quiet bias of the American media against anything Muslim. Islam is typically presented as a menacing, reactionary monolith. There is little discussion of how culturally diverse are its billion faithful or how varied are their interpretations of Islam. Also at issue is the narrow way we have come to think about contemporary architecture, and, for that matter, modernity. Indeed, when it comes to these matters, we may be in our own way as perversely parochial as the Muslim fundamentalists we so fear.

Over the past quarter-century or so, the concerns of contemporary architecture have grown increasingly rarefied. The manner in which the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture is disclosed speaks volumes about how removed the profession has become from the wider culture. Like some inscrutable pronouncement from the Delphic Oracle, a winner is annually proclaimed by the jury, composed of a collection of wealthy connoisseurs, distinguished architects, and critics, without any explanation of the reasoning that informed their decision-making. Instead of edifying the public as to what makes for great buildings, the prize only serves to glamorize architecture's masters.

As for modernity, it has become a secular orthodoxy, defined more and more by a globalizing-and so, a culturally colonizing-economic agenda than by the intellectual and humanistic aspirations from which it arose. This concept of modernity is seen as inevitable, no matter what disruption and damage it inflicts upon civilization in all its myriad expressions-not to mention upon human souls and the well-being of the very planet.

What makes the Aga Khan Award for Architecture so exceptional and daring is that it attempts to reframe these issues: establishing architecture as an integral element in Islamic culture, and fostering a modernity that embraces intellectual and technological progress, but not at the expense of cultural identity, spirituality, or the Earth. Such a noble vision transcends the bounds of Islam. Yet on the rare occasions when the award is mentioned in the American press, this agenda is never seriously discussed.

As Imam to the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims (see "Who is the Aga Khan?" page 67), the Aga Khan's principal responsibility is to guide believers in the implementation of their faith in worldly life. But he has also taken on the mission of improving not only their well-being, but also that of the entire Muslim community. This is an awesome task, since a vast portion of Islamic society retreated into itself in the sixteenth century, just as Europe was on the ascendant and the seeds of modernity were being sown. As the Aga Khan has observed, "No world faith has such a concentration of people living in poverty and fear, from disease to political disenchantment, to the defenselessness of national integrity, from the loss of cultural identity to confusion in the face of the new forces of pluralism, free market economics, and meritocracy."

The challenges are indeed staggering. To meet them, he has established a vast development network comprised of an array of institutions whose mandates range from health and education to rural development, private sector enterprise, and architecture. The Geneva-based agency, known as the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), sponsors not only the architecture award, but also programs for architectural education and for the preservation and support of historic Islamic cities. Why architecture? Because just as the Muslim world needs better education and more sophisticated and sustainable forms of development to compete in the global economy, so too does it require compelling physical and aesthetic symbols if it is to reestablish its complex cultural and social identity within an image-driven world.

The Aga Khan established the award in 1977 in response to his own frustrating search for Muslim architects who could produce inspired designs for the many construction projects he had undertaken to benefit Ismaili communities. Islam's splendid architectural legacy was then in terrible decline. Long years of colonial control and the more recent experience of modernization had robbed many nations of their connection to their heritage, and so their true identity. Some were avidly building glass skyscrapers as symbols of economic achievement, ignoring the fact that these structures were not only inappropriate to their culture but also to their climates, which ranged from the fierce dry heat of Kuwait to the drenching rains and sweltering humidity of Indonesia; others, like Morocco, in an effort to preserve their traditional environments, were legislating the use of vernacular architecture, despite the fact that without some sort of stylistic or technological transformation, these forms were incapable of communicating the culture's changing values and desires. In many countries, like Egypt, it was the growing middle class that hankered after Western-style housing, to them a symbol of success. They eagerly, if awkwardly, attempted to adapt these houses to their still largely traditional lives, placing their clay ovens on the terrace and their chickens in the bathtub. As for the urban poor, if they had housing, much less new housing, it was usually in ramshackle developments constructed out of cheap foreign materials. Few efforts were being made to supply them with dignified, indigenous structures that could be built inexpensively by local craftsmen and proudly linked to the larger community. The problem as the Aga Khan saw it was not just with uninventive architects and planners, but with their private and public clients who had unquestioningly embraced the West's ready-made solutions.

Meanwhile, architecture in the West was itself without focus. The Modernist movement had deteriorated into a generic exercise, while the Post-Modernists were struggling, usually to cartoonish effect, to integrate historical motifs into contemporary forms. The arrival of Deconstruction in the mid-1980s further blurred architecture's direction and concerns. In Britain, Prince Charles joined the critical fray. Like the Aga Khan, he questioned how his nation's noble architectural heritage could be preserved and advanced amidst stylistic chaos and profoundly altered economic, social, and cultural circumstances. But the notoriously contrary Prince ultimately championed a retreat into classicism and staid vernaculars. His stance so outraged members of Britain's avant-garde that they dug in their heels, refusing to engage in a dialogue about the breach between the country's architectural past and its present.

The more circumspect Aga Khan had decided that his architectural award would actually be a wide-ranging "search" for answers. No particular school of thought would be advocated, no architectural style preferred. The quest would evolve as circumstances changed; its agenda would remain flexible. "We are only beginning to grasp the social, intellectual, aesthetic, cultural, and historical needs and emotions of the Muslim world," he wrote in his preface to Architecture and Community (Aperture, 1983), which documented the first award. "To impose from the very outset of the process formal or even social criteria of excellence would be not only an exercise in vanity and folly, but a profound moral wrong."

One of the AKAA's most important goals would be to seek out structures built by non-architects, "the common man," who was, according to the Aga Khan, "creating for himself and his neighbors a setting for life and for health, preserving and utilizing what nature has created, developing ways to maintain his identity rather than accepting the elephantine massiveness of so much of today's world. This recognition of a human scale of local decisions (even if they required outside expertise), of local needs and concerns is a profoundly Muslim requirement." He also believed that all those who actively contributed to the creation of a great architectural work, be it grand or small, should be recognized and rewarded. Along with the architect or master builder, this might include the client, the contractor, the engineer, and the artisan.

The Aga Khan put together a steering committee for the award, made up of nine prominent practitioners and scholars, with him as chair, which would determine the award's policies, procedures, and agenda, as well as select the changing nine-member jury. This independent body would include at least two internationally known architects, along with a group of distinguished Muslims and non-Muslims, drawn from a variety of fields, from art history to economics. Unlike most jury deliberations, which take a matter of days, the judging for the AKAA would be conducted in week-long stages over a three-year cycle to ensure that jurors were
thorough and thoughtful.

He also assembled a large network of advisors, composed of professional institutions, architecture schools, development and planning agencies, as well as individual architects, historians, and sociologists, who together would become "a community of concern." Practitioners once struggling alone and in obscurity to improve their environments now found recognition for their efforts as well as knowledgeable and determined allies. By providing the steering committee with an overall view of the current achievements and problems of contemporary Muslim construction, this far-flung group would be able to help define the issues that the jury, in addition to the larger Muslim community, should discuss. There were many matters to consider: Was a return to archetypal Islamic styles appropriate for what was now a diverse multitude of Muslims living in dramatically different cultures and climates, and largely in urban environments? Or was it better defined by a shared ethos or character? And what would that be now that Islam was no longer an empire, but a spiritual community? Could contemporary architectural forms be devised without relying on an alien Western vocabulary? How should historic buildings be conserved or rebuilt? Could the circumstances that originally gave rise to the great tradition of Islamic architecture be reinterpreted for today?

To stimulate debate, a series of seminars were held over the next two years of the cycle in France, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco. These were to be "a space of freedom," a place where participants-architects, engineers, planners, anthropologists, philosophers, and journalists-could speak their minds, probing and exchanging ideas and opinions on subjects ranging from contemporary architecture and architectural symbolism to housing, conservation, and the making of public buildings. As so many were citizens of nations with tight social controls, this was a rare and relished opportunity, and one the AKTC has continued to offer in the
years since.

This has not been without adventure for the AKTC's members, especially when their work has been in service of the Historic Cities Support Program. Often they and obliging architects, planners, and critics have had to brave flights on old planes, jammed to standing room with rough-looking characters and overstuffed luggage in order to meet with local leaders in such rugged outposts as Samarkand in the steppes of Uzbekistan. One of the oldest cities in the world, Samarkand is renowned for such spectacular works of Islamic architecture as the Registan, a fantastical complex of structures adorned with painted minarets and ribbed turquoise domes that was built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The AKTC became interested in the city in 1990, after the collapse of the USSR, when Uzbekistan became an independent republic. Samarkand hadn't undertaken a major modernization project in more than 20 years. It was in desperate need of an updated infrastructure, but its professionals lacked the skills to properly tackle the enormous planning and preservation problems before them. The AKTC quickly organized an international competition for the restructuring of a key section of the city's historic nucleus, bringing them immediately into contact with the ideas of hundreds of leading architects and planners.

The following year, in order to draw world attention to Samarkand's architectural glories, the Aga Khan held the AKAA's prize ceremony in Registan Square. Meeting afterward with President Karimov and other Uzbek officials, he agreed to establish through the AKTC an administrative center for the city's revitalization. Now being assembled, its function will be to coordinate the efforts of local agencies and authorities, monitor conservation work, and help Uzbek officials find outside monies to pay for the preservation of major monuments. In addition, it will seek to foster a vital private sector, which can eventually sustain Samarkand's
continuing rehabilitation.

More recently, in Samarkand, the AKTC has conducted seminars on appropriate conservation practices and urban reuse schemes. These have been informal but essential, since many of the local architects and engineers, trained in the USSR, were deprived through their education not only of a sense of aesthetics, but also of a true appreciation of their city's extraordinary history. (Their ignorance is a testament of sorts to Stalin's program to eradicate ethnic identity in the USSR. In states with non-Russian majorities, leading intellectuals were executed, native languages banned, and whole populations shuffled to make ethnic groups minorities.) Uninterested in maintaining the city's ancient urban fabric, the Soviets constructed bare-faced cinder-block buildings topped with corrugated-iron roofs which rendered neighborhoods bleak and anonymous. Not knowing better, more than a few local practitioners sought to build projects in a similar vein.

Their attitude is not as exceptional as it seems. Having gained independence unexpectedly, Uzbekistan's historically divisive mix of Central Asian ethnic groups possesses no unifying identity other than their Communist creed. And so many have clung to its symbols as well as to the vestiges of a centralized authority for lack of any other intellectual or cultural framework. Others have been enticed by the alternative dogma of fundamentalist Islam, an especially dangerous lure, since Muslim zealots are currently waging vicious internecine wars in nearby Tashkent and Afghanistan.

Professional and ethnic factionalism got in the way of rehabilitating the old city early on. But when the neighboring Uzbek city of Bukhara won an AKAA in 1995 for its restoration efforts, Samarkand's architects and authorities began to rise above their petty squabbling, and engage in serious dialogues about the city's future at the AKTC's seminars. Here, they've also received another, more liberal view of Islam-the one thing so many of these groups share is a Muslim heritage-and new insight into their own past. As these professionals begin to work together, it seems that the AKTC has nurtured an interest not only in contextual and culturally sensitive architecture, but also in the politics of individual self-determination. Ultimately, this process of conducting planning and preservation projects through consensus-building may be helping to lay the ground work for a truly civil and culturally progressive society in Uzbekistan.

At the AKTC's early seminars in the late 1970s, the framework for the award's selection process was first introduced. Its scope would be quite broad, encompassing works of contemporary design, low-income housing, community development, restoration, reuse and area conservation, and environmental design. Projects needed to be at least two years old but be no more than 25; be either located in a Muslim society, or be designed or used by a Muslim community; or be inspired by Islamic architecture.

In the 20 years since, little about the award has changed, except its dimension: the network of nominators has grown from 120 to 700, with about 500 projects under consideration, from the initial 200 enrolled in each cycle. After reviewing the nominees, the jury retains 100 for further study. The architects of these are then asked to submit a documentation package of slides and architectural drawings, and to fill out a form explaining the project's use, cost, materials, concept, and cultural significance. In addition, clients and users are asked to submit corresponding particulars. (All of this material is ultimately catalogued and filed in the AKAA's archive, which has developed into an essential resource for the study of contemporary Islamic architecture.) When the jury reconvenes, it chooses 30 finalists from these files-technical reviewers each travel to one of the projects to verify the data and offer personal observations. At the next meeting, the review team presents its findings, before the jury begins its final deliberations.

As the jury's eyes and ears, the role of the technical reviewers is one of the award's most distinctive features. For they serve as passionate advocates or tough critics of their given project, and if it is selected as a winner, help determine how the prize money should be distributed among those involved at any level. When the conservation of the ancient towers of Old San'a in Yemen was honored, the technical reviewer asked that the elderly man who had brought tea and other refreshments to the workers be rewarded, as everyone spoke so appreciatively of his ministrations. He was.

Jurors select between seven to 14 winners, depending upon the strength of the final group. Later, they and the steering committee, winners, and invited guests reconvene for an award ceremony at an architecturally significant site somewhere in the Islamic world, courtesy of the Aga Khan. This is an almost unimaginable thrill for many of the awardees, some of whom have never before left their villages, much less traveled on a plane or shook hands with His Highness. One African craftsman is fabled to have brought a large empty suitcase with him, for the purpose of carrying home
his prize money!

Afterward, a one-day seminar is held to further the architectural dialogue and to guide the following cycle's agenda. Since the highest levels of the host nation's government attend, the discussion also ensures that they are exposed to the ideas and standards being promoted. "The only time the Turkish president ever talked about architecture during 10 years in office was at our ceremony at the Topkapi Palace," notes Suha Özkhan, the AKAA's secretary general. Because of the award's prestige, Islamic government ministers now embark on architectural projects they believe can win the AKAA. Indeed, the award's influence extends to Islam's farthest reaches: honored master craftsmen often receive commissions to build in neighboring villages, frequently establishing new idioms and improved standards of construction.

Distinguished projects that aren't acknowledged can be renominated in a subsequent cycle. Such a situation unfolded as a result of the 1986 Award, when the jury, which included Robert Venturi, Fumihiko Maki, and Hans Hollein, chose not to honor Louis I. Kahn's National Assembly Building in Dacca, Bangladesh, although it had been almost universally acclaimed as a masterwork. They were not without reason: it had acoustical and ventilation problems; its materials and design were inappropriate for the climate; in a city of small-scale, mostly open structures, its solidly imposing, complex scheme disoriented visitors and isolated employees from the outdoors; and, finally, for such a poor nation, it was enormously costly to construct and continued to be extremely expensive to maintain.

However, the verdict angered several jurors, who felt their colleagues favored pluralistic architectural expressions over Modernist ones. As proof, they pointed to one of the winners, Pakistan's Bhong Mosque, which may be a marvelous monument to Islamic kitsch, but is a grandiose and undisciplined work of architecture. The name "Muhammad" is vulgarly inscribed in "marquee advertising graphics" over the portal, and florid bathroom tiles embellish the already garish facade. Honoring it was, for them, a brazen push on Venturi's part to further legitimize
his Pop predilections.

In Space for Freedom (Butterworth Press, 1989), which celebrates the award's 10th anniversary, the controversy is openly discussed. "To many architects and intellectuals, the Bhong Mosque complex is a product that negates the very purpose of an architectural enterprise rooted in the deep understanding of the culture," writes steering committee member and architect Ismail Serageldin. "To many others, it is a wonderful, exuberant structure that evokes an almost palpable joie de vivre, and that represents a bow to the prevailing taste of its users." Published along with the majority's final thoughts are statements by two of the dissenters, Hans Hollein and the Turkish architect Mehmet Doruk Pamir, protesting the presumed bias of the other jurors. Also noted is the distress with which much of the international architectural press responded to the jury's choices.

The jurors of the 1989 Award, however, looked benevolently upon the Louis Kahn building. While duly acknowledging its shortcomings, they thought it transcended them. Indeed, in recalling the light, geometries, and spaces of classical Indian Islamic architecture, the Assembly Building eloquently articulates how traditional forms can be enriched through reinvention. Apparently, Bangladeshis feel similarly. According to Selma al-Radi, the technical reviewer, writing in Architecture for Islamic Societies Today (Academy Editions, 1994), they see it as "a symbol of the country's desire for social and technological progress."

The debate over "popular versus populist architecture" continued in a later AKAA seminar in Malta, generating more controversy. Mohammed Arkoun, a steering committee member and historian, grew irritated with some of the Western participants for refusing to recognize the special issues facing contemporary Islamic architecture: "I would like to kill the word [authenticity]. It is not at all relevant." Pointing out that 60 percent of the Muslim population is under 20 years old, he observed that "traditional [Islamic] values" can no longer be realistically discussed. They have become "ideological, abstract claims, and slogans more than living, substantial activities in an integrated society." Instead of focusing on what constitutes "the authentic," there was a need for "a new psychosocial analysis of the aesthetic values in a Muslim environment." Özkhan believes that the AKAA's long-continuing discussion of this topic helped topple the shaky theoretical foundations of Post-Modernism in both Islamic and Western architectural circles, spurring a renewed exploration of Modernism, but this time also incorporating climatic and contextual concerns.

At once passionate, erudite, and penetrating in their commentaries, the participants in these AKAA seminars stand in stark contrast to the glib posturing of so many of the architects and critics at architectural forums here. Not six months after Peter Eisenman's proclaimed awakening to his profession's social responsibility at that AKAA press briefing, he was chuckling to Charlie Rose, the moderator of a televised symposium on the future of architecture, about how his Aronoff Center for Design and Architecture at the University of Cincinnati bewildered visitors because its entrance was so hard to find. His explanation of this cerebral structure was such a tangle of architectural jargon that it served only to further obfuscate his intentions for viewers. And his nonchalant remarks about how "cheaply" the building was constructed and how it would no doubt be torn down for something new in 25 years certainly manifested no sense of responsibility for the school's funds, much less the health of the environment. His fellow great ones, Charles Gwathmey, Stanley Tigerman, Robert A. M. Stern, resisted a down-to-earth discussion of architecture's current direction, indulging instead in a telegenic love fest for their eccentric peer. Rather than sparking viewers' interest in architecture by explaining its vital cultural and social roles, they simply reinforced the public's prevailing assumption that architecture is a profession populated by mad egotists and glitzy mischief makers.

At the AKAA seminars, however, architecture is a serious business. The participants know that if Islam-its people, their cultures, and their habitats-is to be preserved and to advance, it will depend in large part upon how imaginatively and responsibly its built landscape is conceived. They understand how in architecture, economic, political, social, aesthetic, and spiritual (or secularizing) forces converge. Of course, the future of the West also depends on such an understanding, since a flood of technological, social, and economic change is washing away our own cultural and national identities. As borders become virtual and definitions disappear in the emerging global village, we need to reinvent and redefine ourselves. With values diluted by homogenization, societies can become destabilized, providing fertile breeding grounds for fundamentalism, be it the Islamic Jihad or the Montana Militia.

The concerns of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture are thus our concerns. Indeed, the West and Islam are merging. Muslim immigrants are thronging into Europe and the United States; homegrown Muslim sects, like the Nation of Islam, are flourishing. Western culture continues too to permeate Islam; even in fundamentalist nations like Iran, teenage girls wear designer blue jeans under their chadors, travelers sneak in jazz CDs, and residents stealthily install satellite TV to catch Baywatch.

The Aga Khan's vision of an alternative modernity is not unique. Progressive elements in the West have also begun to embrace such a possibility, researching and developing elaborate plans for its realization. But their theories lack the compelling force of the imagery provided by the AKAA's cumulative statement. In stretching our understanding of contemporary architecture and its many far-reaching implications, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has opened new worlds of thought and responsibility. The question is whether we in the West will pay heed. Inshallah.

great mosque

menara mesiniaga

alliance franco-senegalaise

ali qapu

kaedi regional hospital

kairouan conservation

sherefudin's white mosque

bhong mosque

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