EASTERN ACCOLADES

From Egypt to India, civic-minded architects are promoting positive change in Islamic societies, writes LISA ROCHON

By LISA ROCHON

Wednesday, November 21, 2001 Print Edition, Page R3

Where is the most important architecture being done right now? The answer depends on what you're looking for, and where. Given that we're living here in the Western world, here is where we look for signs of brave, iconic buildings. But there is gutsy architecture being made in plenty of patches elsewhere.

It's alive in the design of a human-scale orphanage for girls in Jordan. It's being sketched in the sand by the Barefoot Architects in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Now, the recently announced 2001 Aga Khan Awards for Architecture have honoured these projects and several others with $500,000 (U.S.) in prizes -- collectively, the largest architectural award in the world.

Much of the prejudice against non-Western design lies in the way the dream of modernism, as imagined by white, male, Western architects, is promoted in architecture faculties around the world. The mainstream media regularly privilege the work of a few superstar designers and ignore the important architecture of many others in countries such as Iran, India and Sri Lanka. Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic for The New York Times, regularly flogs a list of preferred star architects in his Sunday column. The list -- Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, Frank Gehry, Diller and Scofidio, Norman Foster, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier and Jean Nouvel -- insists on two things: that architecture of these superstars matters most, and that these authors deserve to create in New York because that is the place that matters the most on this Earth.

Nobody would argue that the work of these practitioners is not urgently needed for the revitalization of cities like New York. But Muschamp's flogged horse is stuffed with toxic levels of jingoism. The list also promotes a definition that architecture is important when it is monumental and extravagant, and that contemporary architecture deserves the moniker of "brave" only when it dangles precariously between visionary thinking and insanity.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture reminds us that there is life for important architecture outside of New York. The Aga Khan, religious and spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Muslims, founded the prize in 1977 to promote Islamic architecture that is designed for or used by Muslims. The awards are given every three years, and nine projects have been selected for 2001. As well, Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa has been honoured with the Chairman's Award for defining an architecture that combines a formal, spare aesthetic with the vernacular building type of the wooden hut on poles.

Bawa's own studio in Colombo was designed as a series of protected courtyards and rooms; a reflecting pool receives the onslaught of the monsoons through an enormous slot in the roof. When commissioned to design Sri Lanka's new Parliament in 1979, Bawa recommended the dredging of the swampy site so that the building, an asymmetrical composition with deep overhangs and copper roofs, could be set on an island surrounded by an artificial lake. In spite of the influence of Bawa throughout Asia and his influence on younger Sri Lankan architects, his work has received scant international attention.

The Aga Khan Award has been organized with the kind of integrity to inspire good company. Renowned architects Frank Gehry, Charles Correa and Zaha Hadid sat for the last three years on the 2001 award steering committee along with the Aga Khan and other historians and intellectuals. This year's jury includes architects, sociologists and an archeologist from the Islamic world as well as Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt.

The award was founded to raise questions about the influence of modern, Western-inspired architecture on the Islamic world. A study by the Aga Khan Foundation found that most faculty members at the region's architecture schools had, in fact, been educated in Western schools. For decades, the theory went that if Islamic architects could produce buildings the way they did in the West, Muslims could enjoy a better quality of life. There was little information about what a culturally and socially relevant architecture might look like -- how it might resist the placeless aesthetic of so many modern, high-tech buildings contributed by Western architects since the 1970s.

The value system of Islam, according to the Aga Khan, operates on the connection between din and dunia, or faith and world. For some scholars, the Taj Mahal, which was built by the Muslim Emperor Shah Jahan, can be understood as a reflection of heaven on Earth. Muslims believe that they are trustees of God's creation -- they are required to leave the world a better place. But what does a better place look like, and how does it define itself in the wake of colonization and violence, civil war and rural disaffection?

The 2001 Aga Khan Award points to the many disparate ways that architecture is framing positive change for Islamic societies. An award has been given to Iran's Urban Development and Revitalization Corp., which has spearheaded the restoration of mud-and-fired-brick buildings and their conversion into schools, guest houses and art centres. Another award has been given to a remote village of a Berber tribe in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where girls and women spent hours every day fetching water from distant sources. An aid organization was formed by emigrant members of the tribe and, over the last several years, a well and manual pump have been installed, traditional street fountains opened, and a library and school established in new and restored stone buildings.

Major civic projects have received awards this year, including the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt, by architect Mahmoud El-Hakim, sited on the eastern bank of the Nile near an ancient granite quarry. The 10,000-square-metre museum is clad on the interior in local pink granite, and the ceilings of the exhibition areas are open-timber grids.

Architecture that speaks directly to first one and then many communities is also awarded this year. The SOS Children's Village in Aqaba, Jordan, is designed as a family compound rather than an overscaled institution. Eight family houses with nine children accommodated in each are organized around a village square. Vaulted archways lead to shaded courts with cooling gardens surrounding all buildings.

The design architect Jafar Tukan insisted on using a traditional cladding method of random granite stones, requiring training of the builder and contractor in ways to handle the stone naturally rather than having it mechanically cut or dressed. The orphanage is now considered to be a crucial anchor in the urban fabric of Aqaba, and other local builders are required to match the standard in their own developments.

For North Americans, accustomed to the conventions of credentialism, the work of the Barefoot Architects is the most unseemly honoree this year. In Tilonia, a rural community in Rajasthan, a training college was established in 1972 to help the rural poor improve their lives. The Barefoot Architects, most of whom have never received any formal education, have been hired to design and construct the campus buildings as well as simple, earth-brick dwellings in surrounding villages. In a place where paper and pens are hard to come by, plans have been drawn and redrawn in the sand.

The Barefoot Architects are not superstar architects. Their buildings are rough and squat. But now rainwater is being gathered and solar power is being harnessed at the campus. Life has been improved. And that means the architecture in Tilonia is brave, vital -- and, by anyone's standards, important.

lrochon@globeandmail.ca


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