The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, also hopes to link war-torn places such as Sarajevo and Kabul to the Web, empower women and foster East-West dialogue through the site, which took four years to create.
The site, Archnet.org, includes 600,000 archived images, counts 6,000 members in 110 countries and links architecture schools around the world, eliminating the need for education centers in the developing world to build big libraries. The site officially will be debuted Friday at a ceremony with the Aga Khan and the presidents of Harvard and MIT.
''This is not simply a resource for a narrow academic community,'' said Amyn Ahamed of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. ''This is a resource for a practitioner, for students, for planners and people living in an environment where their access to knowledge and resources and expertise are limited.''
Architects and academics will contribute their own findings and research to the site, which hosts online forums and chat rooms.
Supporting Islamic architecture long a source of great pride for Muslims is nothing new for the Aga Khan, who for 25 years has given a triennial award worth $500,000 to Islamic architects. That has laid the groundwork for the new initiative, said Hashim Sarkis, the Aga Khan professor of landscape architecture and urbanism in Muslim societies at Harvard Design School.
''It's very ambitious, they've made it clear that this is long-term,'' Sarkis said. ''They're not only providing supply, they're also providing demand. They realize that access might be a problem.''
While Islamic societies may have been left behind during the urban renewal of the 1950s and '60s, that may have helped preserve historic buildings because highways that cut through downtowns around the world were never built, Sarkis said.
Aga Khan institutes have been creating labs and providing hardware, software and training. The effort predates the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the site's supporters say the need for cross-cultural communication is now greater than ever.
That interaction already has begun.
''There's been a very healthy, productive exchange coming from less developed societies in the eastern world,'' Ahamed said. ''It's a genuine dialogue, not something confrontational.''
Expanding Web resources can help level the field for women, who might feel more comfortable taking advantage of the anonymity of the Internet, said Tameeza Asaria, an MIT business student and volunteer for Harvard and MIT's Aga Khan Program for Architecture.
''From the standpoint of women professionals, one of the big issues is there's not enough mentors, there's not a way of developing professionals,'' said Asaria, a Muslim. ''What this does is provide a virtual mentor for criticism, for sharing of experiences.''