The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, spoke at MIT's Media Laboratory with the presidents of Harvard and MIT at the debut of ArchNet. With just a personal computer and Internet connection, scholars, students and professionals in the developing world will have access to a Web site with more than 600,000 images, and 6,000 members in 110 countries.
''Historically, the Islamic world has stood out in the area of design, but if you look at higher education in the Islamic world,'' there are problems, the Aga Khan said. ''This is a historically powerful tool usable on a global scale, a living encyclopedia of knowledge and ideas, of peoples and cultures.''
The site, four years in the making and already up and running, creates a forum for architecture experts and students alike to debate and communicate. The site's creators hope the ongoing discussion will foster stronger ties between East and West.
''What happens in the Islamic world ... will help determine the overall world which all our children will live in,'' Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers said. ''That makes it essential for universities like Harvard and MIT to deepen the understanding of things Islamic.''
Because Internet access is not readily available in some war torn cities, including Kabul and Sarajevo, Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been building computer labs and providing equipment in such places.
''ArchNet fulfills the original promise of the Internet,'' MIT president Charles M. Vest said. ''It provides accessibility to teaching resources that are currently unavailable to many universities, while creating a worldwide online community that is constantly enriching the contents of the catalogue.''
The Aga Khan has a history of promoting architecture. He established the $500,000 Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977.
Two years later he established the Aga Khan Program for Architecture at MIT and Harvard. For years, the Aga Khan had been searching for a way to share the knowledge of his Cambridge program with the Islamic world.
The Web made that possible. MIT became the technological hub of the project, while six Middle Eastern institution signed on as partners.
''Not only is ArchNet a means by which we share information and design, it is also a very real attempt to build an architecture of understanding between those regions of the world that might benefit from a better understanding of each other,'' the Aga Khan said. ''I think there is a consensus that we need that now more than ever.''
On the Web: www.archnet.org