The award, now in its ninth cycle, was begun in 1977 by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of a small sect of Muslims, and is now run under the aegis of his Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Geneva. Typically, such internationally renowned architects as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Charles Correa, Ricardo Legorreta, Kenzo Tange, Peter Eisenman or artist Mona Hatoum join the Aga Khan's steering committee or master jury, giving the hefty prize, totaling $500,000, worldwide visibility and credibility. The 2004 nominees are being interviewed by a steering committee that includes Jacques Herzog of Herzog & de Meuron, architects of the new M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.
The pluralism of the jury reflects the scope of the nominated projects, which can be palaces or slum dwellings, restorations and reuse projects, or contemporary designs. A project can be by anyone as long as it appears in a society where Muslims have a significant presence. That means it can be from anywhere between Indonesia and Europe. So far, thousands of entries from Bosnia to Paris have been recorded. By August next year, about 10 winners will join the list of 84 who have won over the years.
"The prize is unique in that it awards the honor equally to the architect, the contractor and the client," says Cairo-born Nezar AlSayyad, professor of architecture and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley. He was nominated in 2000, and had he won, his project would have been the first on American soil to win. Most American winners have projects in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. Sometimes work by non-Muslims in cities not ostensibly Islamic is also considered. For instance, Jean Nouvel's extraordinary Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris won in 1989.
"My design for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley was also considered for 2001," says AlSayyad. "It is simply an example of what gets nominated and considered. The center has Islamic influences. But (it) is not an Islamic building," he says. AlSayyad's modernist design incorporates a vibrant color palette and subtly refers to Moorish forms.
"The heritage of the Islamic world is embedded in architecture and needs further study, but it is not known beyond the Islamic world," says AlSayyad. To that end, an additional endowment to the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at MIT and Harvard that has grown to more than $58 million offers American students fellowships to travel to the Middle East and other Islamic locations around the world.
"Though there is a concern for sites in Iraq, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is a nonpolitical organization," says Shiraz Allibhai, director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture's new educational ArchNet Web site (www.archnet. org) at MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. Partners include Harvard and institutions in Egypt, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey that provide more than 600,000 images, articles and sources for this digital, global library.
And yet, a gathering of winners from virtually every Islamic country in the world does make a political statement, and in a further show of colors, prizes are usually awarded at prominent Muslim sites, such as the
Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
The trust also encourages the rebuilding of historic cities through yet another cultural arm of the organization. "We are rebuilding in Afghanistan with a $75 million grant from the Aga Khan," says Allibhai. The famed Mughal Emperor Babur's tomb; the founder of modern Afghanistan, Timur Shah's, garden in Kabul; and Emperor Humayun's tomb gardens in Delhi, India, are all being restored.
Last June, the Tanzanian government and the trust embarked on further rehabilitation of the historic Stone Town and waterfront in Zanzibar. Similar collaboration in Egypt -- the installation of Al Azhar Park in Cairo's old city -- is expected to revitalize a large neighborhood near the 12th century Fatimid quarter.
In Mostar, Bosnia, war-torn buildings have been restored. "None of the projects would just restore a monument and not concern itself with the rebuilding of lives around the monument," says Allibhai. "It all happens hand in hand."
BAGHDAD AFTER BOMBS
If the war against Iraq moves apace, the trust would have much to do because Baghdad would be no ordinary loss. According to CBS News, the Pentagon plans to drop up to 800 cruise missiles in its first two days of a premeditated attack on a civilian urban population of 5 million. Located near ancient Babylon, Baghdad was founded in A.D. 764 by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. It was in its prime about A.D. 800 during the reign of the famous caliph Harun al-Rashid and became the crowning achievement of the Medieval Muslim world. Its libraries safeguarded the books of the world.
Faded but resplendent to this day, Baghdad could well turn into a cultural wasteland without the buildings that give it identity. If it were to be shorn of its schools, hospitals and mosques, we would witness at an accelerated pace what happens anywhere when even ordinary buildings rooted in a culture are destroyed. The grand mosques from Baghdad's Medieval heyday near the river Tigris share the simple vocabulary of Middle Eastern oasis structures and walled gardens. Despite their tiled and decorated trappings, they essentially serve as places for convivial gossip and prayer. Men and women gather there as they have for centuries. Muezzins in their slender watchtower minarets call the faithful peaceably to prayer; open courtyards with fountains are for ablutions, and simple, cool open-plan marbled interiors under impressive domes are for prayer.
Absent these delicate desert- inspired structures, what could rise from the ashes might take an ugly shape, brandishing a less peaceful message along the lines of Saddam Hussein's Mother of All Battles Mosque recently inaugurated in Baghdad. Its language of revenge is made plain by stolid minarets that are reportedly shaped like scud missiles. Inside, people say, the Koran's eye-for- an-eye message is writ in Hussein's own blood. Since U.S. attacks on Baghdad in 1992, other mosques by Hussein have risen at a pace that puts the Abbasid output to shame. It should come as no surprise that these heavy structures seem to squat defensively like fortifications, in a language of war. Even madrasas, the traditional schools adjoining mosque compounds that encouraged Arab literacy, have instead become hotbeds of zealotry with record enrollment.
But even this may interest the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. "They want to study Islamic ways of life in an indigenous base to attempt to understand issues of aesthetics and craft and to improve life in those communities," says AlSayyad.
The Aga Khan award encourages not just the fruit of Islamic architecture, but "the roots that nurture the plant," writes Indian architect Charles Correa, professor at MIT.
One program, begun by the trust last year, interests itself in the music of the Silk Road, where oral Islamic traditions are embedded in song. In much the same way, "architecture in the Muslim world emanates from non architects," writes critic Kenneth Frampton, concurring with Ismail Serageldin, author of "Space for Freedom: The Search for Architectural Excellence in Muslim Societies."
Fifteen of the projects awarded by the master jury of renowned architects between 1980 and 1998 were for low-cost housing and as such, structures designed by indigenous and financially indigent people. The award's mandate to recognize those buildings or environments that help to preserve a way of life, and particularly Islamic life, has led the jury to the bleakest parts of Iran, Turkey, Africa, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. And nowhere is this more evident than in the winning entries for the eighth triennial cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2001 presented at the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria. On the jury was Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, architect of San Francisco's anticipated Mexican Museum.
The 2001 award included rehabilitated structures in Iran; a vital aqueduct for the village of Ait Iktel in Morocco; a poultry farming school in Guinea to improve the local diet; the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt; an orphanage in Jordan; a social center in Antalya, Turkey; and the Bagh-e-Ferdowsi park, a haven in crowded Tehran, Iran.
At one end of the architectural spectrum the jury also awarded prizes to the Barefoot Architects in Tilonia, India, rural builders with traditional skills who make geodesic domes out of scrap. At the other end, the jury recognized the lavish but ecologically sound Datai Hotel on Langkawi island in Malaysia. Datai is a structure in the heart of the rain forest and to some it might seem a desecration. But the jury admired its sensitive freestanding design and ability to attract visitors to boost the local economy. In a similar vein, the prestigious Chairman's Award, issued only three times in the award's history, went to Sri Lanka's Geoffrey Bawa, who is noted for his elegant structures rooted in indigenous architecture fused with modernism. The award seems to encourage self-reliance and modernity in Muslim societies.
Critics, such as Turkish historian Sibel Bozdogan, who is affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, and others in Islamic countries question the award's reliance on Western juries and its association with American universities.
But AlSayyad defends the practice. "The most important thing the award has done is that it has energized the architecture world in areas where it had been sleepy because the acknowledgments never came from the West," he says. "Additionally, when architecture magazines routinely cover the award, it makes people aware of the Muslim world." And because awareness builds understanding, "a lot can be learned."
Copyright 2003 SF Chronicle
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