The Arts: Bright stars in the East The Aga Khan awards were set up in 1977 to stimulate appreciation of Islamic architecture. But their influence today, argues Jay Merrick, now goes far beyond mere bricks and mortar

The Independent - United Kingdom; Oct 25, 2001

The Magna Centre in Rotherham, the deserving winner of the pounds 20,000 Riba Stirling prize for the building of the year, delivers a dynamic reminder of the region's industrial heritage. Architecturally brilliant, and already a popular success, it is the kind of instant cultural icon that only the wealthy West can generate.

In Tilonia, Rajasthan, it is harder to win architectural awards. Here, since the founding of the Social Work Research Centre by Bunker Roy more than 20 years ago, Barefoot Architects have delivered buildings in the toughest of conditions. The key and ongoing project, Barefoot College, was led by an illiterate farmer and women labourers. Plans were drawn and redrawn on site, and local materials - notably rock rubble and lime mortar - were used to build a traditional courtyard complex.

But the 12 Barefoot Architects involved were not completely tied to the local vernacular. They took Buckminster Fuller's geodesic-dome format and made it work, using a dog's dinner of scrap metal from discarded agricultural equipment, bullock carts and broken pumps. The domes can carry a greater weight of thatch than traditional small-span structures, which reduces the frequency of re-thatching. The architects also put up more than 200 basic dwellings for the homeless in local villages.

Barefoot College, which has so far cost $21,000, has won one of the nine 2001 Aga Khan awards for architecture. Its citation says that the college "has had a tremendous impact on Tilonia and other outlying rural settlements, influencing every aspect of people's lives. Lifting the surrounding population out of the vicious circle of poverty and helplessness, the college has facilitated a revival of traditional technologies, and applied them on a wider scale to solve problems that have baffled scientists, engineers, environmentalists and politicians for years."

Barefoot College is an extreme example of self-help architecture. The Aga Khan's steering committee and judging panel, which included Frank Gehry, Professor Kenneth Frampton, Zaha Hadid and Australia's pre-eminent architect, Glenn Murcutt, had plenty to consider in what was mostly the Muslim Third World. Apart from high-spec schemes such as the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt, most of the winning projects arose from the pressing physical needs of communities.

The creation of the Kahere Eila Poultry Farming School in Koliagbe, Guinea, is a good example. The first ripple of an idea for it came in the early Eighties, when Alpha Diallo, an agronomist, and his uncle Bachir Diallo decided that better poultry production would give a big boost to local nutrition and health. They won scholarships to study in Europe, and in Finland Alpha met a local woman, Eila Kivekas, who became interested in his project.

But he died suddenly in 1984. Not long after, Bachir received a phone call from Kivekas, who said she wanted to back the project and, in addition, develop a farming school. She proposed using the Finnish architects Heikkinen- Komonen. There was no architectural culture clash. The architects stuck to tradition, developing courtyards, each with a central tree, to provide a classroom and separate quarters for students and teachers.

Heikkinen-Komonen realised that kilned earth-bricks, the standard local structural material, were not that durable and required a lot of wood to fire. Their solution: wood framing set on to walls made of a double layer of stabilised earth-blocks whose smooth finish did not require rendering. Longer roof spans were achieved with metal trusses and wood beams - a simple, environmentally low-impact solution in an area where there is a shortage of big lengths of hardwood.

The technological advances at Koliagbe are pretty minor, but they send an important signal: carefully applied modern architectural methods can bridge cultures without leaving any aftertaste of forcible imposition. The timber elements may have brought a glimpse of the Finnish barn to the Guinea bush, but the master mason, Abdulhaye Djiby Sow, is doing a tidy business in supplying and laying the new stabilised earth-blocks in houses, small industrial units and even a mosque.

The SOS Children's Village in Aqaba, Jordan, is more sophisticated. It has fused a modern design vocabulary with the local building vernacular to deliver a safe haven for orphans. Designed by Jafar Tukan, the complex looks rather luxurious, and might, with its solid wood windows and light- filtering mashrabiyya screens, pass for upmarket holiday flats in Crete. Closer examination tells the real story. After studying the few remaining traditional buildings in Aqaba - which otherwise has no distinctive urban or architectural character - Tukan decided that the buildings, despite their modernist, rectilinear forms, should be built with undressed granite from nearby mountains. And that presented a problem: the builders had to learn how to lay the stone from scratch, and use timber sections rather than concrete for spans.

But Tukan's solution has created a small pocket of architectural revivalism. Jordan's construction industry uses industrial building materials, which has steadily eroded local craft skills and other involvement from local communities. Which means that Aqaba, in common with other smaller settlements in Jordan, has few architects and no trained labour force. The use of rough stone at the SOS Children's Village has created, or perhaps revived, an ancient architectural precedent: it is not only being used as a model for the upgrading of the old town, but has triggered the local authority into making stipulations that insist on a mixture of old and new building methods in modern housing.

Sometimes, buildings are not the issue. One project that found favour with the Aga Khan's scrutinisers recalls Lord Rogers' mantra on the civilising influence of green space in cities. The Bagh-e-Ferdowsi scheme in Tehran seems to have been cut straight from that cloth. For half a century, demand for land in the city has led to the destruction of many public and private gardens that were once scattered throughout the city. In the 1970s, the city authority created a 12-hectare park, the Jamshidieh Stone Garden, at the foot of the Alborz mountains, which form the northern edge of Tehran. And this has been followed by the bigger Bagh-e-Ferdowsi park, designed by Baft-e-Shahr Consulting.

The architects camped among the steep, bouldered gullies for a month, and their solution has made no attempt to interfere with the flows of the topography. The only obvious "inserts" are water channels and four pavilions representing the building-styles used by the region's ethnic groups. The park is hugely popular.

Some may think architecture in Muslim countries an irrelevance to the West. What do its vernaculars, or copycat internationalism, have to do with us? But the lessons of architecture are not always purely architectural. The Aga Khan's award-winners - the tip of an iceberg of similar work invisible to the West - remind us that architecture is crucial to cultural survival, and to evolution. In that sense, the Barefoot College is no different from the Magna Centre. The pride of Northerners in their new cultural magnet is no different from that experienced by the people of Tilonia in Rajasthan.