October 11, 1998

From New York Times: http://www.nyt.com/

An Islamic Reminder of the Sacred in Design


Aga Khan: the name shimmers with glamour. Fabulous wealth. Palatial houses. Racehorses. Yachts. Jewels. Royal prerogative. As if that weren't enough, the Aga Khan is also the most important figure in the world of architecture today. In a ceremony at the Alhambra in Spain last Friday, Prince Karim Aga Khan honored seven buildings and urban plans, winners of the 1998 Aga Khan Awards for Architecture.

Founded in 1977 with the relatively modest aim of raising the standards of modern building in the Islamic world, the awards program has since become far more significant. By focusing the attention of Western architects, planners, historians, critics and the public on new building in the developing Islamic world, he has created a dynamic forum for defining architecture's place in the global culture emerging in the wake of the cold war.

Though less well known than the Pritzker Architecture Prize -- often described as architecture's Nobel -- the Aga Khan's awards program has embraced a far broader cultural mission. Unlike the Pritzker Prize, the Aga Khan awards go to projects, not architects.

In addition to appraising esthetic merit, jurors assess social needs, economic growth, environmental impact and the relationship between local traditions and innovations in contemporary architecture worldwide.

This year, for example, the winners include the restoration of Hebron Old Town on the West Bank, the design of a leper hospital in Chopda Taluka, India, a new arts center in Lahore, Pakistan, and Tuwaiq Palace, a recreation center for the diplomatic quarter in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The range of projects is typical of those awarded in previous years. They adhere to no esthetic school, historical style or theoretical doctrine. But they do expand ideas on architecture beyond Western frames of reference. And they alter the context in which even Western buildings should be appraised.

Above all, the awards program has created an opportunity for Westerners to reckon with the withdrawal of architecture's spiritural dimension from the public realm.

In his commencement address at Brown University in 1996, the Aga Khan observed, "For all Muslims, the concepts of Din and Dunya, Faith and World, are inextricably linked." At 61, the Aga Kahn is imam, or leader, of the Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims, an affluent group of about 13 million members who reside mainly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Egypt, the former Soviet Republics and other communities worldwide.

He traces his descent from Mohammed through Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. A man of independent wealth, he also receives tithes from his followers and uses the money to support public works in Ismaili communities.

As imam, the Aga Khan is responsible for the material as well as the spiritual well-being of his followers. Based at his Secretariat in Chantilly, less than an hour from Paris, the prince exercises his authority through the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of organizations that relies extensively on volunteers in Ismaili communities.

The prince's interest in architecture began with his experience as a dissatisfied client, frustrated with the poor quality of the schools, hospitals, housing and other projects he had commissioned to serve Ismaili communities. Since then, he has also established a program to restore historic cities, including buildings in Cairo, Zanzibar and Samarkand, and funded the study of Islamic architecture at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

I first learned of the awards in the late 1980s in Mimar, the prince's sumptuously produced magazine dedicated to new buildings and restoration projects in the Islamic world (alas, it has since ceased publication).

Another royal, the Prince of Wales, was then making waves with attacks on modern architecture that were little more than dim appeals to reactionary taste.

Like the British prince, the Aga Kahn sought to build upon architectural traditions But his approach was dramatically different. Instead of villainizing modernity as the enemy of history, he grasped that modernization is a part of history. He perceived that nothing historically significant could be achieved by merely hating the present.

The British and the Ismaili prince share one overarching concern: the withdrawal of architecture's sacred dimension from the public realm. Architecture is traditionally an art form of the rich, but it is also a medium that since prehistoric times has been used to stake a place for spiritual values in everyday life.

As recently as the late 19th century, the design of ecclesiastical buildings played a central role in British architectural discourse. Today that focus has all but vanished. The extent to which its disappearance has made ours a time of mourning is perhaps not fully realized.

I went to Turkey to look at a small group of projects that have received the Aga Khan Award for architecture over the years. My itinerary included a mosque in Ankara, a reforestation program outside the Turkish capital, a park in Istanbul and a group of vacation houses in the Aegean resort town of Bodrum, under the guidance of Suhah Ascan, an architect who directs the program from the Geneva offices of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Turkey is not, as a matter of fact, a center of Ismaili life. Since 1922 it has been ruled, if at times tenuously, by a secular government. But, as a country that has long symbolized the threshhold between East and West, it is steeped in the cross-cultural spirit that guides the awards program.

I wanted to look at buildings outside the superpower frame of reference, to step outside the membrane that has come to enclose much of American architecture within the environment of consumer fantasy. What drew me to the awards program initially was the belief that the end of the cold war had precipitated a crisis for American architecture, urbanism, and those who write about these fields.

After World War II, architects enjoyed substantial moral authority, a reflection of their simultaneous commitment to creative discipline and social responsibility. Much of that authority has evaporated. Today, American architecture often resembles an infernal bubble machine run by evil clowns.

Amusement parks with swan hotels, Egyptian gambling casinos, pseudo-urban shopping malls, gated communities, pasteboard versions of history with comic book historians to endorse them. It is as if all the energy once exerted to contain Soviet aggression has imploded, enclosing the world's superpower within the bubbular fantasy that a changing world can be understood by dominating it, monitoring it, contacting it through cyberspace.

I'm finding it hard to focus on the architecture because I can't figure out why Can is still wearing his tan loafers. We're in a mosque, for heaven's sake. I've left my shoes outside, and I'm not even Muslim. Is Can trying to make a statement? Or perhaps the gaffe is mine. Maybe you're supposed to wear shoes in a mosque attached to the Turkish equivalent of our Capitol building: the legislative heart of a modern secular state. Both are reasonable conjectures.

The building itself makes a political statement. It was deliberately designed to reinforce the secular government against those who would see Turkey ruled by clerical law.

Designed by Behruz Cinici, in association with his son, the stubbornly shod Can, the concrete building is situated on the secular equivalent of sacred soil. The assembly's 1930s buildings, in modern classical style, embody the political legacy of Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder. Cinici, a student of the assembly's architect, declared he would not design a conventional mosque on Ataturk's land.

Critics of Mies van der Rohe's design for the Illinois Institution of Technology campus once complained that you can't distinguish the chapel from the boiler plant. The assembly's mosque distances itself even further from the conventions of sacred architecture. It deliberately inverts the elements of traditional mosque design.

In many mosques, the entrance is approached through an open arcade that partly screens the main facade. Here, there is nothing but a long row of concrete pedestals -- symbolic bases of the columns that the architects have declined to provide.

Instead of a dome, the roof mounts in low steps to form an elongated ziggurat. Clerestories between the levels admit light into the prayer hall below. On the right side of the building, where a minaret would typically rise, a set of steps leads up to two platforms, both open to the sky.

The mosque's most unconventional element is visible from within the prayer hall. Instead of facing a solid wall, kneeling worshipers face a large glass window and, beyond it, a sumptuous, multilevel sunken garden with pools, fountains, trees, a waterfall and a profusion of water plants. It is a representation of paradise, an image of the afterlife to which devout Muslims aspire.

Can Cinici tells me that for Muslims, life is a threshhold at which we stand, preparing ourselves throughout life, through faith and devotion, for entrance into heaven. The Canicis designed an architectural interpretation of that theshhold. Beyond the garden, one beholds the earth berm, an intimation of death and burial.

I like the threshhold image, not only as a key to this building's meaning, but as a metaphor for the awards program itself, as a doorway into realms of deeper understanding of the post-cold war world. The awards are presented every three years, after a selection process that is elaborate, well-financed and rigorous. Several hundred nominations are proposed by a network of architects and critics throughout the Islamic world.

An international master jury meets in Geneva to review the nominees and make an initial cut. Experts conduct extensive field research on the finalists. The jury picks the winners at a second review in Geneva six months later.

The composition of the master jury changes with each cycle. Over the years, non-Muslims on the panel have included Charles Corea, Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Hans Hollein, Fumihiko Maki, Charles Moore, Alvaro Siza, James Stirling, Kenzo Tange and Robert Venturi. Excerpts from the jury's deliberations are published in book form. These are adding up to a permanent record of the impact of global change on the art of creating place.

But why is Can still wearing his shoes? (Because, I later learned, he was flustered by showing a Western journalist around his building.) Or, why does this building continue to cause anxiety?

Just months before my trip, last year, the Turkish military intervened to prevent the ruling party from mandating religious education in the nation's public schools. The ground occupied by the mosque, in other words, is contested as well as sacred space. Here, formal invention serves architecture's unparalleled power to open the pores to history and meaning.

Since 1961, one million trees have been planted annually on the hills outside Ankara: pine, cedar, oak, poplar, almond and plum. The 11,000-acre-plus project of the Middle East Technical Institute has altered the city's climate, creating milder winters and summers and helping to decrease air pollution. The forest has also become a haven for abundant life and an oasis for the eyes.

But perhaps the major impact of the forest has been to limit urban sprawl. Turkish law forbids the development of forest land. Like the mosque's sunken garden, the forest offers a vision of paradise, but the delights here are earthly as well. The forest offers greenery in a desert, a parched terrain of banal housing that spreads outward from Ankara's urban core.

At the Technical University, classes are conducted in English, campus buildings are designed in the Brutalist style and architectural instruction is derived from the Bauhaus model. It strikes me that the reforestation program lies partly within the tradition of British Arts and Crafts.

Like that movement, the program is grounded in the values of simplicity, social reform and truth to materials; in rejection of the shoddy and the ornate. Arts and Crafts was more than a style. No other movement declared more emphatically the withdrawal of the religious dimension from the public sphere.

With it, belief withdrew into the sanctity of the home, the privacy of what we now call life style. It is heartening to see that tradition revived on the urban scale of collective expression.

The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is now a big pit in the back streets of Bodrum, a hip resort town on the Aegean coast. In the early 15th century, Crusaders pillaged the Mausoleum, quarrying it for stone to build the Castle of St. John, a fortress that still stands on a mole in the harbor. But enough rubble was left lying around in the 19th century to construct two small stone houses built on the waterfront. These are now the property of the record producer Ahmet Ertegun and his wife Mica, who remodeled the buildings in 1973 with the architect Turgut Cansever.

On the ground floor, the rooms are cool and white, with high ceilings and floors strewn with blue and white striped cushions. The bedrooms, lodged in a newer annex, are more richly decorated.

The old buildings and the new enclose a garden of enchantment. It covers a small area, but tall trees are mingled with short ones and the foliage bursts out at eye level, creating an effect at once infinite and intimate. Mausoleus was a tyrant, and the Crusaders were terrorists. It's a joy to see these ancient stones recycled into a house rebuilt by jazz.

After an afternoon in this garden, it comes as a letdown to visit another award-winning project, the Demir Holiday Village, also designed by Turgut Cansever. Like Seaside in Florida, this resort offers itself as a model for urban development. And like the reforestation program, it was designed to limit sprawl.

In two decades, Bodrum has gone through a San Tropez-style transformation, from fishing village and hippie colony to a booming resort that makes South Beach look sleepy. The hills surrounding the harbor bristle with stumpy white apartment buildings of no distinction.

By contrast, the holiday village is compact, its houses unified by stone walls, terraces and stairs that organize the dwellings in a staggered arrangement on the hillside site. It's a rustic Habitat, Acapulco on Alka-Seltzer.

If you care about architecture, this is the sort of project you're supposed to admire. But the rooms in the houses are minuscule, the sun is gone from the water in the afternoon, and the entire complex is so tight and repressed that you want to blare a transistor radio and race back to the sprawl. Why bother with Bodrum if you want to be square? I'm glad to see that Turkey has bubbles too.

Completed in 1856, Dolmabahce Palace is the superbubble of a burnt-out superpower, the last seat of the Ottoman rulers before the sultanate was dissolved in 1922. An imperial palace can feel like a desert, too. The grandiosity of this European-style palace is more oppressive than Death Valley.

It is one gigantic package of everything that Arts and Crafts designers rebelled against, 25-ton crystal chandeliers, bear skin rugs (gifts from the Czar), diamond-encrusted demitasse cups, gilded moldings, red brocade. Just climbing the Crystal Staircase, with its Baccarat balustrade, can induce reverse vertigo: you fear you won't make it to the top.

This is the center of an empire rapidly devolving into the so-called Sick Man of Europe, a nation whose assets and interests were dominated by businessmen and politicians of the major European powers.

But the Aga Khan Award wasn't presented to this project for interior decoration. Rather, the award honored the restoration of the palace gardens and the decision to open them to the public. Istanbul is not rich in parks, and this is a fine one.

The palace stands at the mouth of the Bosphorus. An esplanade, with five water gates, is one of world's great river walks. Among Istanbul's public spaces, I prefer the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, where people come to sit on benches and contemplate great buildings. But, for a native of the eastern United States, it is a thrilling reversal to gaze westward across water toward the European shore.

"One can't write directly about the soul," Virginia Woolf states in her diary. "Looked at, it vanishes. But look at the ceiling, at the cheaper beasts in the Zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regents Park, and the soul slips in."

On the way back to New York, I stop off in Paris to pay my respects to the Aga Khan in Chantilly. It also happens that the one Western building to receive an Aga Khan award is in a Left Bank riverside location at the foot of the Boulevard Saint Germain. Jean Nouvel is an architect I greatly admire, but I've never been a fan of his Arab World Institute. Each time I enter this visually cool, gunmetal gray building, the body temperature drops.

But the institute's lozenge shape makes good use of its site, and the views from its rooftop restaurant outclass those from the Tour d'Argent. And the building makes a historical point. Its most noted feature is a south-facing sunscreen wall made up of hundreds of light-sensitive irises, which was designed to control the light entering the building.

Arranged in blocks fitted into a grid, the irises form patterns resembling arabesques: a reminder that Western technology arose from the genius of Islamic mathematicians. We've taken that inspiration in more than one direction. The irises stopped working within weeks of the building's opening, but we still love the image of science even when appliances break down. And, to me, Nouvel's arctic architecture is a fine thermal symbol of the chilly rationalist philosophy for which Paris was long the supreme urban center.

I feel as if I've been traveling around inside one of architecture's most interesting minds, but the Aga Khan's Chantilly compound feels oddly bland. The road winds through a lovely, leafy park. Stables to the right; the prince's house to the right; the secretariat just ahead, the latter blonde in effect. Tawny limestone walls; floors of honey-colored marble; ecru carpeting; brass accents. Only the small foyer to the prince's office, encrusted with a collection of mineral crystals, gives an Oriental impression. Inside, chairs and sofas are upholstered in blue and white.

I came here to run two ideas by the prince. Can he confirm my impression that his interest in architecture stems from that art's capacity to unite spirit and matter in the landscape of everyday life? Yes, he answered, his eyes lighting up, as if to suggest that no point is more fundamental to his thinking.

And what about using the threshhold as a metaphor for this story? This idea he rejected. It evoked for him images of conquest, of crossing a border with the intention of colonizing the territory on the other side. The threshhold also implies terrain left behind -- epochs, values, roots. Neither image fits the prince's mission. His aim, rather, has been to create a meeting ground for cultural exchange.

Some critics have said that the buildings commissioned by the Aga Kahn are still not up the level of the projects honored by his awards. Others have wondered whether the money it takes to run the program might not be better spent on actual buildings. Both criticisms miss the point. The aim of the awards program is to construct a world view, and this is priceless.

With a morning plane to catch, I had no time to pretend that I was actually visiting Paris. But before turning in I decided to walk down to the Seine and see its banks bathed in the harsh glare of the bateaux mouches. There, I encountered something unexpected: an impromptu memorial to Princess Diana, sculptured from thousands of letters, cards, flowers and photographs.

These were massed around the base of the replica of Liberty's torch that stands on the quai at the bottom of the Avenue George V. Visitors replenish offerings there to this day.

The princess had died the night before I left New York for Turkey, and since I'd been out of touch with the news, I hadn't heard about the cascades of grief generated by her death. Surprising, too, was the volume of cards and letters written in Arabic script. "Pour Diana, Reine d'Islam," one large placard read.

Like the princess's death, the site of the memorial was an accident of fate; the torch stands at the entrance to the Alma Tunnel, where the car in which Diana was riding spun out of control and crashed. But I thought it paradoxically apt that this public expression of grief was clustered around this golden symbol of liberty, of French Enlightenment values and their passage to the United States.

Those values included religious freedom, and even the right to be free of religion in the public sphere. This is a cherished principle of modern democracy, an idea to be defended with vigor. Yet it seemed to me that more than a princess was being mourned here. Our separation of Faith from World has also left a void, fleetingly filled by this collective floral tribute.

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