NOVEMBER 2, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 18

A Prince And His Prize

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture acknowledges both the sacred and the secular in the Islamic world

When the 1970s oil boom fueled a construction frenzy in the Islamic world, Prince Karim Aga Khan watched in dismay. Anonymous modernist buildings started sprouting across the land, and his society, he felt, was suffering from a poverty of abundance. Many of the structures were bereft of style and cultural context. It is therefore not surprising that the Aga Khan, 61, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims, found a new calling.

To remedy the impoverishment, the prince in 1977 founded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Presented every three years, its $500,000 prize is the most princely of all sums bestowed in the field. In the past two decades it has become one of the profession's most important honors. Unlike the famed Pritzker award, which acknowledges only architects, the Aga Khan award considers architecture as an integral part of a larger cultural whole. It focuses on work designed in Muslim societies or inspired by and respectful of Islamic heritage, citing projects in such varied fields as contemporary design, community development and historic restoration. "There has always been a concern not to think of architecture as a profession or cultural activity that is frozen in time," says the prince. "It is an activity that must be looking forward."

This year's seven winners, announced three weeks ago, justly fulfill those requirements. There is a plan for the rehabilitation of Israel's Hebron Old Town; a slum redevelopment in Indore City, India; a home in Selangor, Malaysia; and an arts council complex in Lahore, Pakistan.

Three of the winners are studies in contrasts. A leprosy hospital in Chopda Taluka, India, is not only a treatment center. The roughly coursed slate, sandstone and brick buildings designed by the Norwegian architects Jan Olav Jensen and Per Christian Brynildsen also serve as a refuge. The low structures with arching roofs covered with shards of tiles create a courtyard, a sort of paradise garden where patients can comfortably exist away from the society that scorns them.

In counterpoint to the hospital stands the Tuwaiq Palace by Omrania Architects of Saudi Arabia, Atelier Frei Otto of Germany and Buro Happold of England. This diplomatic recreation center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, may be a safe haven, but one for the privileged. The exterior wall snakes around an artificial oasis complete with swimming pool and bowling alley. The building's beige-colored stones recall a desert fortress, while a series of large tents billowing alongside the outer walls brings to mind nomadic encampments that once hugged such bastions.

The Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal, India, also plays on the notions of a stronghold. But this state complex towers as a citadel of democracy. Within the acropolis, Indian architect Charles Correa created a government village with legislative chambers and library connected by a labyrinth of passages and courtyards. Composed of local tiles and stone and sporting domes and gateways, this city-within-a-building pays architectural tribute to its citizenry.

These varied projects and the architecture prize are accomplishing what the prince set out to do in 1977: dotting the land with stunning and thought-provoking buildings and redevelopment plans that speak to the best of Islamic traditions. More importantly, his award has enabled the West to appreciate the lives and aspirations of the followers of the teachings of his ancestor, the Prophet Mohammed.END