February 19, 2002

On the occasion of the 2001 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Robert Ivy talked with His Highness the Aga Khan about the architectural, social, and environmental issues facing Islam today. The following interview was conducted at Aiglemont, France, on August 31. Due to the events of September 11, the interview has recently been updated. An abbreviated version of this interview appears in the February, 2002 issue of RECORD.

Robert Ivy: As Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, you lead a far-flung religious community that is an important branch of Islam. You have personally expressed an affinity for Islamic architecture. We fully appreciate your belief in the traditions and teachings of Islam. But, in light of the events of September 11, we must ask how you view the actions of Islamic radicals toward Western culture and its peoples?

His Highness, the Aga Khan: I should start by saying that I have been exposed to several cultural traditions. As you probably know, I have a degree in Islamic history from Harvard. As I said recently in an interview with Connaissance des Arts [interview conducted by Philip Jodidio, Connaissance des Arts, January 2002], I think there is a massive gulf in the understanding and knowledge between Muslims and non-Muslims—I mean particularly the West and the Islamic world. What we are talking about in reality is a strong minority of people committed to their own particular interpretation of Islam, who seek to impose it on others. I do not believe that the totality of the Islamic world recognizes the Taliban interpretation of the faith as being representative of its own view. There is no unanimity in Islam with regard to this interpretation. Generally you will see as much diversity in the Islam as you do in the Christian world today. But the West does not really understand the pluralism of the Islamic world.

RI: Architecture, which you espouse, can be understood as one of the languages of peace, yet we, the West, are at war.

HH: I also noted in the recent interview that one of the forces of change for all civilizations unfortunately has been war. Conflict situations are driven by concepts of victory, power, and elimination of inherited culture, and not by the underlying values of civilization. There are many interpretations of Islam within the wider Islamic community, but generally we are instructed to leave the world a better place than it was when we came into it. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture seeks to make a better place in physical terms. This means trying to bring values into environments, buildings, and contexts that improve the quality of life for future generations.

The value system of Islam, in terms of the interrelationship between what we call dina and dunia, that’s the world and faith is very particular in Islam. In a sense they relate to each other in an ongoing way. That’s how the value system of Islam carries into everyday life, into the way you exist in society, and clearly into the things that you do in society in a material way.

RI: In what ways do these values permeate the larger world?

HH: This affects not only your family life, it affects your role in society, it affects the way you run your economic affairs, it affects the way you develop your home, and what happens in and around your home. So, there is a continuation of the Islamic value system into the physical environment, which is quite interesting and really special to Islam. I think that much of the great Islamic architecture reflects that.

Some years ago a professor talked to me about a major doctoral thesis at Harvard (in which) a student had demonstrated how the Taj Mahal was a reflection of the conceptualization of heaven on earth--and the relationships between spiritual eternity and the foundational nature of life on this earth.

So, in that sense, I think, the Islamic context is very, very important. I think you can find the premise in many other situations. It’s not specific to the Taj.

RI: The need for global understanding and mutual tolerance has never been more keenly felt. And to those purposes, the awards come into play. You’ve now been conducting the Aga Khan Architectural Award program, administered by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, since 1977, through eight triennial cycles. In what ways has the program evolved over time? From your perspective as founder, has it affected the physical environment? How have the issues you addressed either changed or remained constant?

HH: As the award program has continued, we have learned we needed to have an impact on values—ethical and aesthetic value judgments—and we needed to affect cultural value judgments. Therefore we had to influence opinion leaders.

We also had to accept the reality that the industrialized world was dominating the processes of change in the Third World, in particular in the Islamic world. And, that domination resulted in educational processes that were shaped by the First World. So we felt we had to assume more of an educational role. The award program was not intended to be primarily educational, and we didn’t want the award program to become a school. This is why we established the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

RI: Yet you have described the award program’s role as catalyst for improvement of cities and societies in Islamic areas.

HH: The need for addressing issues such as historic cities in the Islamic world was constantly being put back on the table in one form or another. Yet anything connected with my development interests is automatically disallowed in the award process. I ended up by wondering if there could be a bridge between what I was doing in development and the cultural context of, for example, the historic city. This led to the Trust for Culture to create the Historic Cities Support Program. It is a remarkable bridge between cultural support, and, at the same time, development support for communities that very often are marginalized and underprivileged.

RI: How do you see the Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan Architectural Awards interplaying with the need for rural populations to find work and the problems that they face when they get to the city? I’m sure that affects the communities that you deal with.

HH: It’s difficult to summarize such a complex question in a short answer, but one of the driving questions is how people perceive opportunity. They will perceive opportunity through the inherited perception of previous generations in the family, or they will perceive opportunity through communication, or they will perceive the downside, which is risk. If the notion of risk is very high in certain environments, people will try and remove themselves from those environments.

In looking at the rural issues, I think one needs to start with what the risks are. It’s interesting to see how rural communities look at risk--in terms of health, in terms of physical security, in terms of corruption, in terms of conflict. They have a certain number of what I would call downside risks that they’re looking at that affect their attitudes to the rural environment, because they assume that those risks don’t exist in the urban environment. But, because they’re not in the urban environment, they don’t know what are the risks within the urban environment.

RI: You are describing a kind of naïveté’, but a kind that can be changed.

HH: Then comes the issue of opportunity. I think the issue of opportunity is whether the rural environments of the developing world and the Islamic world can change sufficiently positively, so that the sense of opportunity will be stabilized and enhanced and people will say, ‘future generations of my family do have as good or even a better opportunity by staying in the rural environment than by moving to the urban environment.’ That’s a difficult equation, it really is. But, I think that where the award can have an impact is in education, first of all to educate people about changes in the rural environment--which are positive and which ones are damaging.

Secondly, it’s to cause the changes in rural and physical environments to be appropriate to…the rural environment. (As an example), a large part of the Islamic world is in that seismic belt that goes through much of the Islamic world. You can look back in time and you will see thousands of people killed by earthquakes at different times in our history, and yet seismic construction in rural environments is unheard of. People who build for themselves do not know about seismically sound construction. Most of the construction in rural environments is self-built. It’s not architect-built. The question is, how do you get that knowledge into the rural environment? How do you teach people how to build in a safe manner?

Clean water, sewer systems, open spaces, sports areas, you know, they’re all the things that are part of everyday life that need structure in the rural areas. By recognizing small medical centers, handicraft centers, (the awards program is) saying to the rural population of the Islamic world, you don’t have to go through architects and big, mega-projects to improve the quality of the physical environment. You can do magnificent projects that will serve you well.

RI: Are the social issues you encounter in these emerging nations changing?

HH: Yes, because civil society is changing. If you go back to the 1950s, you see colonialism and poverty in the Islamic world. You also see the effects of the cold war, and essentially government-driven processes of change, such as centralized economic planning. You see the need to create a sense of nation in a number of countries that were not yet independent.

Today you have decision making by independent governments. Nationhood is now an accepted notion. You have economic change resulting from a process of market forces rather than dogmatic attitudes toward economic change. You have areas of extreme wealth in the Islamic world. You have countries that are emerging from a colonial past. The cold war is over. And you have an awareness—perhaps, to me, one of the most important—that in most parts of our world, the rural community dominates. The numbers of people in rural communities in the Islamic world, plus the difficulty of addressing the problems of development in rural communities, is a central issue. For example, people who build for themselves do not know about seismically sound construction. How do you teach people how to build in a safe manner in the rural environment?

RI: Unlike other award programs in which highly touted architects dominate the shortlists, this program regularly confers honor on lesser-known individuals and communities. What effects have these decisions produced?

HH: That’s one of the things which the award has tried to respond to—it’s looked at how society causes change, not how architects cause change, and it’s tried to help societal processes to improve the processes of change.

You’ll see more and more small rural projects, which are considered highly important to be put together by village organizations or non-governmental organizations working in rural environments—because that is an important aspect. We have been driven in the past in the industrialized world by the notion of the urban environment and the architect functioning in the urban environment. I think, at least as far as the Islamic world is concerned, the award has brought a massive change to that (notion).

I think the second area we’ve hopefully had an effect on is the notion of pluralism. You cannot deal with a world like the Islamic world by rejecting the notion of pluralism. Historically, it is part of that world. The faith of Islam recognizes and sustains the right of people to be their own masters of the judgments that they make. By premiating different types of projects and different environments and different countries with different architectural traditions and languages, it’s enhanced the notion that pluralism is an asset.

I think the third one is perhaps one which is less easy to define, but nonetheless important--which I would call high-tech applications, high-tech projects. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many high-tech projects were essentially extrapolations of high-tech buildings in the industrialized world. It has been important to (encourage) those buildings to become more appropriate to their own environments, to their own building industries, and to their own symbolic values: for universities, airports, or hotels.

I certainly wouldn’t want to say that the award has covered all categories—it hasn’t. And there remain areas where the award has not been able to premiate projects that it considered really important. I think that for categories that it felt were very important, buildings which are part of modern civil society, we have not yet succeeded in causing (them) to look at the contextualization… a typical case would be the industrial estate, for example, which is a remarkable phenomenon of economic change. In the industrialized world, you’ve addressed it more and more successfully; but in the Islamic world, not all of it, but in much of it, the whole process of the liberalized economy is the one that’s driving that notion of change, rather than the contextualization of that change. I hope that will happen. We’re beginning to see these questions being addressed, but we’re not there yet.

RI: How did your concern for architecture and planning develop? What previous experiences have prepared you to value the power of architecture and planning? How did you develop this concern for such issues?

HH: As a student of history, you learn about the cultural processes of history. But after my grandfather died, I was looking at the physical environment in the developing world, and I had to ask myself what we were doing correctly or incorrectly, in school construction, hospital construction, housing estates, industrial estates and the commercial buildings. My sense was that while there was a fairly good understanding of programmatic requirements, the contextualization of those programmatic requirements in our part of the world just wasn’t happening.

That had a cultural downside to it; it had a cost downside to it. And, particularly in the poorer countries, it tended to drive society towards things like a consumer environment, towards harnessing the top people in every profession because, obviously, the top hospital people wanted the top hospitals at the time. And, it introduced a value system that I felt had a number of risks to it. But it also had another aspect, which was quite strange.

In the industrialized world, the notion of physical change in urban environments is constant, part of contextual thinking--buildings are torn down, they’re rebuilt, sites get thrown together. In the developing world, land is much, much more constrained than you would expect, in terms of being able to change buildings (with changing) requirements. That caused me to ask, if I built something now, and the life of the building is going to be 25 years or more because we can’t afford to change things every five years, what is the flexibility we need in land management, because programs change. That flexibility was never designed into many of the projects in this part of the world--that notion that you have to be able to mold and remold and mold again—(that) was simply not part of traditional thinking. Yet if you look at the way, for example, health care delivery has changed in hospitals between the 50s and today 50 years later, there’s no commonality.

The same thing has happened in education. The process of educating people has changed so radically. I think the need for a good physical environment for the young is something that has grown also. In fact, the children have got to get exercise and exercise is part of good health and health is part of longevity.

These sorts of issues kept coming back. That’s when I started asking myself, am I alone looking at these questions or are other people looking at them? That’s where the awards started.

RI: Could you describe the contextual question—you mentioned that often, and I assume that you are referring to more than just a stylistic matter.

HH: It’s a value system.

RI: So much of recent international design has embraced the universal—even nostalgia for the International Style. Since these awards are intended for Islamic societies, have they identified places and projects that are responsive to social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, or geographic specifics? I’m trying to get at a definition of what authenticity is or what real, appropriate building for a specific place should be.

HH: I think that the best example of the problem we face is in the architectural schools of the Islamic world. Some years ago we made a survey of the architectural schools, and we looked at the faculties: what was the education that the faculties had received? The answer was 100% in the industrialized world. So, the process of educating had been acculturated. It was another culture, from another part of the world that was being (proposed) as the correct illustration of the architectural profession.

RI: Western, industrialized ideas were being imposed, in a way?

HH: It was a fact and it was related to a number of things. I don’t think it was necessarily an intentional colonial process. If anything it was more linked to the notion of quality of life—that this type of building was likely to be a higher quality building than a traditional building.

RI: Whether it fit or not.

HH: When we went through this process of beginning the award, the group that worked with me came to the conclusion that we all had a whole series of questions. When (the awards group had completed) their work…and we started questioning, we started discussing or communicating (the concerns expressed by the awards committees and) those questions to communities in the Islamic world. Not one of (the communities) asked ‘why are you asking these questions?’ All of them immediately responded by saying these questions are the right questions to ask. They didn’t tell us what answers they wanted, but there was quasi-total identification between the communities and the questions that were being asked.

That meant, in effect, that the processes of change were no longer being driven by architectural schools, which were not asking the questions themselves. People started asking questions. Why do it this way instead of that way?

RI: If the right questions are raised, the right answers will emerge, you hope.

HH: It was amazing because it went through the whole of the Islamic world. The questions could address themselves to Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Arab world, to Central Asia; they could address themselves to Western China. But there was a sense of where is our culture? Not culture in the sense of a capital "C"—it was a culture owned by the people. Where is our culture? What is its place?

RI: Is that where authentic architecture comes from? By asking a culture to define itself?

HH: I think so. When you generate questions, one of the phenomena in doing so is that people come back to you and say, ‘give us the answers!’ That’s where it became a great deal more difficult. I think one of the answers came from the award, which was to give a new sense of value to traditional cultures, traditional forms of expression, to show that modern materials didn’t have to be used to achieve the desired results. It was, in a sense, repositioning these cultures in a value system, or value systems. I think the award did that.

And then you come back to how fine this issue of repositioning of cultures is. It may be achieved, but then the question is, what are the sources of inspiration? And the sources of inspiration, the sources of knowledge, come back to education. Education had to be part of the overall process, not part of the award, but part of the overall process.

RI: And how has the education component played out at Harvard and MIT at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture?

HH: (The question was) how to design an educational resource that would have the maximum possible impact and at the same time have a legitimacy to it, which would make it acceptable to much of the Islamic world. I was a Harvard graduate, therefore I knew about Islamic studies at Harvard. In the arts and sciences I had been involved with MIT. I knew that their school of architecture was very strong. Ultimately, people who are trying to reposition what they’re doing will be looking at the most credible, most competent resources. They are not going to address themselves to a third rate institution.

I asked MIT whether they would be willing to put the entire program together—with Harvard addressing what I would call, in generic terms, a cultural component, and MIT addressing the professional component. (They would be) building a system whereby we would be able to educate people who are already practitioners, or people who wanted to become practitioners. The whole program went into place and the two universities had worked in a very solid way. I think that the graduates from these programs are now having an impact, whether they are museum conservationists or whether they are practicing architects, or whether they are research students. These individuals are having an impact wherever they are.

At the time the Islamic world was not saying we only want Muslim students in this program. There was considerable support that the program should be open to all people from all backgrounds that had a reason to want to work in Islamic societies, whether they were Muslim or not. I think the split at this time is at least 50-50 of people from the Islamic world and people from outside the Islamic world.

Right from the first days of the award, (it was exciting that there) was the intellectual acceptance by non-Muslims of the cultural questions that were being asked. And, I have to tell you I’m enormously grateful to the men and women who worked with me from outside the Islamic societies, who said we will bring our knowledge and our judgment and our competencies to sustain these, to develop answers to the questions you’ve been asking, because we consider that they’re very important. I remember the people from Harvard and MIT saying this is a format that can be asked of other cultures of our world. You have started within the Islamic world, but it could very well apply to the Hispanic world, it could apply to other parts of the world. There was no sense of "normatizing" this towards the Islamic world. The questions and the concepts were far outside the Islamic world.

RI: Since these awards are intended for Islamic societies, have they identified places and projects that are responsive to specific social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, or geographic issues? What is authentic or real for building in a specific place?

HH: The award program gives a new sense of value to traditional cultures and forms of expression that show modern materials don’t have to be used to achieve desired results.

RI: You include hotels among the premiated buildings.

HH: We have premiated a number of projects in tourism, and there’s a downside and an upside. In principle, tourism can be managed if the right questions are asked. Beyond a point, tourists can create a problem. But a lot of ministers of tourism, and a lot of people running hotels or historic areas, don’t look at that, nor do they plan for it. You need to define what sort of tourism you want. Cultural tourism is the most interesting to us because we want to underscore the value of pluralism. Having people visit sites or complexes that they would not normally see or learn about can be very positive for societies that tend to be rigid in their attitudes.We have to recognize the need for tourism, but we also have to recognize that it needs to be managed. Absolute freedom in the tourism field will end up with serious consequences.

RI: And now you’ve established a new Web site [ArchNet.org], which makes the full range of information so much more accessible to a larger group of people. How do you see it functioning?

HH: I didn’t want the Harvard-MIT program to be an ivory tower, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had to articulate its worth toward the Islamic world. We used to publish the magazine Mimar. It was good, but we still wondered if this was the best way to communicate this information outside MIT to the Islamic community. Then, of course, the Internet broke down those barriers; it provided an extraordinary opportunity. Since MIT is so qualified in these areas of communication, it was the right resource to make use of this activity. I’m hopeful that when ArchNet.org is officially launched, it will become a global resource to people working for change in the physical environment in Islamic societies.

RI: You presented the Chairman’s Award this year, which is not an annual event, to Geoffrey Bawa, the Sri Lankan architect. What is the significance of that?

HH: It is an award that, after this year, will only have been given three times. This award stems from the consensus of the steering committee and does not have an independent jury. The people who run the award, who watch how the awards work, and who note over one or several cycles that a certain individual has had a massive, lifelong impact, make the selection.

RI: I personally discovered Geoffrey Bawa through Mimar, which put a name and a face to the architectural award program. In terms of public recognition, however, award winners in the rural cultures are more difficult to identify with. Names and faces are part of contemporary media reality, where we tend to focus on people rather than on ideas. Can you comment on that?

HH: You are correct, but constituencies react differently to the prizes. Many village constituencies tend to look at other villages. The process of change is not through an architect. It is through people or through government programs. One of the things the award has tried to do is get away from the notion that only architects can bring about change.

Creating thought leaders in villages is very, very important. It indicates to village organizations, isolated peoples, that there are certain directions that they can follow in terms of enhancing their own local cultures, (setting standards) in terms of the basic quality that is required for the purpose of the project, if it’s a place for the children or it’s a school or a medical center. So, we’re not addressing ourselves to the high profile architectural profession. We’re addressing ourselves to the majority population of the Islamic world. That’s the target. When you go to the high profile project, we’re talking about the major award, the Chairman’s award, and high profile projects in universities, or airports, hotels. But please go back to the notion of civil society; after all, the award has got to try to address as many aspects of civil society as possible. One of the things the award has tried to do is to get away from the notion of architects as the only constituency that causes change.

RI: The world is extremely dynamic and evolving at the moment, presenting numerous challenges. We talked about cities. What about some of the other challenges like environmental degradation or the converse, sustainability? How can the awards address questions of this type that are broad, societal questions?

HH: I think there are two issues there: one is the rural context and the other is the urban context. The environmental issues in the rural context are related to issues like land ownership, live agricultural production, and rights of grazing, rights of water usage, etc. There the question is really assisting people to understand that the physical process of change can enhance or degrade the inherited issues that they have to deal with. Another question involves land planning in rural environments. I might overstate this, but I’ll say it the way I think it is--it’s literally unheard of. Land planning in rural environments simply is not part of village thinking, nor is it part of architectural schools’ education.

If we found, at some stage, a village which had a perimeter of control over land and they had rehabilitated the whole process, and developed a high quality product, I would recognize and premiate it, and use it as a case study. We actually started doing that ourselves through some of our own programs of instruction.

The urban environment is a very, very different one. The urban environment is one where there is more work that’s being done. There has been, I would say, a massive demographic pressure on the urban space. And it is a very difficult issue to deal with because you’re talking about the livelihoods of people. So, protecting and improving open space is something of an issue. (Oddly) enough it used to be one of the characteristics of Islamic architecture that the great buildings always had spaces around them. They were internalized spaces or at least they were part of the periphery. That aspect of our building has in many ways disappeared.

RI: How are you addressing the urban question?

HH: One of the things that the Trust for Culture is now working on in Cairo, in Zanzibar, and in northern areas of Pakistan, is to try to encourage people to recognize the value of open space. And one of the (past) awards was for a reforestation program for a university in Turkey, which was an enormous program. But, I think one’s got to be respectful of the fact that the demographic pressure is so great, that these open spaces are going to have to be protected tooth and nail. They’ll go, otherwise.

I would say that we have lost some of the competencies in landscape architecture, which were intrinsic to the Islamic world. Landscape architecture is not part of architectural education in a lot of the schools, and this brings me to the program at Harvard and MIT. Now the GSD is part of the program; the GSD was, from the beginning of the program, a target school in my thinking.

RI: Tourism can be both a boon and a problem, because it can introduce stress to culture or to infrastructure. Hasn’t it been an important factor in your own planning for the Trust for Culture, for cities, and for the awards?

HH: We have premiated a number of projects in tourism, and there’s the downside and there’s the upside. I think on the downside, in principle tourism can be managed if the questions are asked. There is probably a level of throughput (of tourists) above which, in a given site or a given building, there will be a problem; a lot of ministers of tourism, a lot of people running hotels or historic areas don’t look at that. Because they don’t look at it, they don’t plan for it. My belief is you can plan for it, but you have to identify the problem (first).

The other aspect to this question is (defining) what sort of tourism you want. We’re particularly interested in cultural tourism. And, we’re particularly interested in cultural tourism—(a) because we’re interested in underwriting the value of pluralism, and therefore having people visit sites or complexes which they would not normally see, and which they learn about. We think that cultural tourism is a very positive factor, particularly in societies that would tend to be rather rigid in their attitudes. The fact that they’ll meet with people from other cultures, other languages, is very important. We have to recognize the need for tourism, but we have to recognize that it needs to be managed. Absolute freedom in the tourism field will end up with serious consequences.

The reverse question is how do you address that? And I think it can be addressed. There are a number of different methods of doing that. It’s also a way of repositioning (a people’s) attitude to their own culture, because very often people who live in a cultural environment are no longer aware of it. When you enhance that environment and you say to people, you actually have an extraordinary asset--protect it, make it work for you, invest in it—that cultural asset, which in many generations has been thought of as an economic and social and physical liability, suddenly gets turned around and they say this is actually something of real value. Then they learn about it, they protect it, and they invest in it.

RI: With regard to bringing about change, can you describe your own experiences as a developer, working with architects and planners?

HH: I learned at a very young age that the resources that we harness to effect change are hardly ever going to be sufficient to meet all the demands. That’s not true now in the entire Islamic world—there are some parts that are very, very wealthy, and they don’t need those resources. The parts of the world I’m working in are generally poor in resources. If you are resource-poor, then you rely on financial investments. You try to make investments in projects that can become self-sustaining, so you don’t have to keep investing in them year after year, and they don’t become burdens on society.

Furthermore, I have been looking at questions of flexibility of buildings, and the way buildings have to adapt to changing society, particularly in the social field.

Also, I give credence to the notion that people’s attitudes toward home are modified if they have an acceptable physical environment. When given the opportunity, people will improve the physical environment they live in. They put a metal shade roof on a hut or they move to a place where there’s fresh water. The physical environment is part of people’s psyche. So I think that in terms of encouraging development, one of the most important aspects is to help people live in better environments.

RI: How do you organize your efforts for the long term?

HH: There are a number of procedures that we employ, most of which have three- and five-year planning processes. We look at our resources and figure out their availability or shortfall. We ask ourselves with whom should we associate to get things moving. For example, in humanitarian aid, the spectrum of support entities is very large, but support for culture is very small.

Because of the way AKDN [the Aga Khan Development Network] is structured, it can bring this multi-input process into these environments. It’s not all the Trust for Culture. In addition to the cultural branch, the AKDN is composed of an economic development arm, and a social development arm. The latter one includes the foundation, health services, education services, and planning and building services components. This means we can build what I would call a form of support net going into these environments. That is just about the only way you can really create a sustainable process of change. Just influencing one aspect, whether it’s agriculture or commerce, doesn’t really work in development. Don’t ask me why.

The nature of AKDN is that we go out into the field. Many development organizations don’t have this intimate relationship with the field that we have. And it’s the intimacy that has given us a bit of an edge in terms of understanding these areas.

RI: Thank you for your attention and time.