Rewarding buildings

The Aga Khan Awards for architecture prove that not only fashionable work by media-savvy designers is worthy of serious accolades. The most striking project among the recent winners is a hospital for lepers that the patients built themselves.

Saturday, November 7, 1998
Special to The Globe and Mail

Norwegian architecture students Per Christian Brynildsen and Jan Olav Jensen were on a student group tour of India and Nepal in 1983 when they took an unexpected detour. They left their classmates to help missionaries plan and design a lepers hospital near Chopda Taluka in the Indian state of Maharastra. Caught up with their first chance to build, the two stayed out of school for a year to complete the project. They helped the patients quarry the nearby sandstone, collect teak wood for windows and use a concrete aerator, the only power tool used in the entire hospital's construction. Fifteen years later, Brynildsen and Jensen found themselves in Grenada before the Aga Khan and the King and Queen of Spain. They were being honoured last month, along with six other recipients, with architecture's richest design award, which offers a total of $800,000 in prize money.

The Aga Khan Awards recognize examples of architectural excellence in contemporary design, restoration, environmental and landscape design, and community improvement in mainly Muslim societies. Given once every three years, these are the world's only near-global design awards -- the other notable one, The Pritzker Prize, rewards lifetime achievement -- the architectural equivalent to Hollywood's Irving Thalberg Academy Award.

With so many architectural prizes now validating only fashionable work by media-savvy designers, the recognition accorded Brynildsen's and Jensen's obscure but profoundly sensitive building was a welcome change. The small hospital consists of a series of simple stone pavilions with vaulted, ceramic tile-topped roofs arrayed around a courtyard garden, which is intended for patients' use.

This is not to say that the Aga Khan prizes exclude the work of famous designers: An award also went to the Tuwaiq Palace, a Saudi Arabian recreation and cultural centre in Riyadh worthy of some high tech-enthused Kublai Khan. German architect Frei Otto, best known to Canadians for his German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, designed this diplomatic-quarter pleasure dome. Otto's design evokes curving mud walls and Bedouin tents, an abstracted, contemporary use of tradition that found favour with the jury.

Charles Correa's magisterial pink sandstone-clad state legislative building for the Indian state of Mahhya Pradesh reflects the Boston-and-Bombay-based architect's interest in traditional Indian design. Situated in Bhopal, the Vidhan Bhavan has a mandala-like circular plan eaten away within its perimeter by gridded warrens of offices, assembly chambers, gardens, pools and reception rooms.

Correa's heroic form-making at Bhopal owes a debt to the work of American architect Louis Kahn. Another award winner was also influenced by Kahn: Nayyar Ali Dada's design for the Alhamra Arts Council Building in Lahore, Pakistan consists of an interlocked set of octagonal brick studio and theatre buildings.

Two other projects, a neighbourhood preservation effort in the Palestinian town of Hebron, and an urban upgrade in an Indian city slum, also made the roster of winners. Just a second -- urban infrastructure, neighbourhood preservation, a lepers hospital -- surely this is not architecture as we have come to know it? Clearly, the Geneva-based organizers behind the Aga Khan Awards have a broad, inclusive definition of architecture -- one that puts design quality ahead of budget, size, designer credentials or media image.

That definition, however, does not exclude rich people's houses. Kuala Lumpur architect Jimmy C.S. Lim won for the spectacular Salinger residence, a design based equally on Frank Lloyd Wright's triangular, late-period houses and traditional Malay wooden dwellings on stilts.

The major controversy of this year's awards was the snubbing of a synagogue restoration project sponsored by Phyllis Lambert, the about-to-retire director of the Canadian Centre of Architecture in Montreal. The synagogue redevelopment, located in one of the oldest quarters of Cairo, was shortlisted and enjoyed strong support on the international jury -- but not enough to overcome a veto-yielding minority. Juror Zaha Hadid, a London-based Iraqi architect and possibly Lambert's only rival for the role of the most influential woman in contemporary architecture, expressed some dismay. "The synagogue restoration is superb, and an important project for Cairo," she said in an interview in Grenada. "I hope it is reconsidered for a future Aga Khan Award." (The competition allows for resubmission of projects.)

In addition to Hadid, this year's jury included Marxist critical theorist Fredric Jameson, of Duke University, Tokyo architect Arata Isosaki, and some of the Islamic world's finest theorists, historians and practitioners of architecture. In a multi-stage process, they assessed the 29 finalists (from 425 nominations) and winnowed the list down to seven winners.

For the first time, the awards ceremony was held in the West, in a city with a strong Muslim heritage. Grenada's Alhambra -- a hilltop complex of fortified, geometric, ornament-encrusted palaces, exquisite fountains and gardens -- together with the nearby Cordoba Mosque, are the most important Islamic constructions in western Europe.

The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims, began his awards program in the 1970s, as a way to address the low quality of buildings he observed throughout the Islamic world. His role as a patron of architecture is about to be exercised in Canada with the selection of a design and designer for a new Ismaili prayer hall, or jamatkhana,for the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. In an interview before this year's awards ceremony, the Aga Khan confirmed that one international and three Canadian architectural firms have submitted plans, now under technical review. "We hope to have an announcement next year," he said. If this year's award winners are any indication, then Don Mills will likely be the site for an innovative, soundly-designed structure.

Source: Globe and Mail, November 7, 1998

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