In the Muslim world, the Aga Khan is also larger than life. As a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, the 67-year-old holds the hereditary title of 49th spiritual leader to an estimated 20 million Shiite Ismaili Muslims in 25 countries. In that role, he oversees a complex of Geneva-based trusts dedicated to education and development.
Designer Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, above, are an Aga Khan winner, as are Nader Khalili's "earth dome" shelter, below, and a housing rehabilitation project in the Old City of Jerusalem, left. (Kamran Adle -- The Aga Khan Award For Architecture)
Over nearly three decades, design has become an essential tool in his efforts to bridge the gap between traditional Islamic societies and today's world. In Cairo, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture funded the $30 million, 74-acre Al-Azhar Park, which was completed this summer. The massive urban revitalization project transformed a 500-year-old dump into an oasis of citrus and palms, with lake, waterfalls, sports facilities and a restaurant.
At a ceremony today in Delhi, India, the ninth triennial Aga Khan Awards for Architecture will be conferred on seven winners. With a payout of $500,000, it's the world's most lavish design prize. Winning entries combine design excellence with the humanistic spirit of Islam. Worthiness can trump glamour.
The awards, which began in 1977, do not require that designers be Muslim, only that their projects benefit Muslims. Thus the 2004 awards include the tapering polygonal Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at 1,483 feet among the tallest buildings in the world. The designer is Cesar Pelli, an Argentine architect with offices in New Haven, Conn. An iconic library in Alexandria, Egypt, which resembles an immense granite discus, was designed by Snohetta, a Norwegian team recently chosen to design the museum complex at the World Trade Center site in New York. For humanism, there is a prototype "earth dome" emergency shelter made of sandbags, Velcro and barbed wire. The structural system was devised by Nader Khalili, an Iranian-born architect whose Cal-Earth Institute is based in Hesperia, Calif. He once consulted with NASA to develop housing on the moon and dreams of improving the living conditions of the "one-third of the planet" that lacks adequate shelter.
The Aga Khan's efforts recently caught the attention of the National Building Museum, which has decided to award him its top honor, the Vincent Scully Prize, at a Washington gala Jan. 25. Museum director Chase Rynd said the decision was based on design and scholarship, but he acknowledged "the extra benefit" of promoting Muslim-Western dialogue.
"We did not choose him for any political reason but for what he is doing in the design world," Rynd said. "There is such heightened interest in the Muslim world, this hopefully will contribute to people's knowledge and understanding."
To Khalili, the act of building is not apolitical. The architect expressed awe that his modest mud homes had been linked with Pelli's glistening towers. But in a telephone conversation from the construction site of a deluxe four-bedroom dome -- being made with earth excavated for a backyard swimming pool -- Khalili segued effortlessly into a tirade against the intransigence of Third World bureaucracies, which for years have refused to give his low-tech earth domes a chance.
We had talked last January, when he was trying to interest earthquake relief agencies in Bam, Iran, in his shelters. They would have provided quick, affordable, environmentally and culturally appropriate temporary housing, he believes.
"Give me 1,000 soldiers and 100 architecture students, and I will build a big part of Bam with the rubble," he repeated over the din of construction. "Our biggest problem is that the bureaucracy is choking the work we are doing."
The Aga Khan awards also will honor a weekend house on the Aegean coast of Turkey, by architect Han Tumertekin, that is a model of progressive regional modernism -- spare and glassy without appearing too Western. Two restoration projects, a 12th-century Yemeni mosque and the rehabilitation of Palestinian housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, won praise, as did a primary school in Burkina Faso constructed by village residents under the leadership of the chief's son, who studied architecture in Berlin.
In a statement from his Aiglemont, his chateau in France, the Aga Khan traced his interest in modern architecture to the 1970s. Originally the point of the awards was to encourage a modern tradition in Islamic architecture, one that did not mimic its glorious past or copy from Western culture. The definition of architecture has been expanded to include social progress and ecology, although no hospitals or industrial plants have yet won awards. But buildings such as the Petronas Towers and the Alexandria library are distinguished elements of contemporary Islamic heritage.
"By mobilizing the best of its talents in association with those from other religious backgrounds," the Aga Khan said, the Islamic world has reversed "one of the greatest losses . . . namely the quality of its physical expressions in buildings, public spaces and gardens."
Data on the 7,500 nominees and more than 85 winners since the inception of the awards are being put online at www.archnet.org, the Web site of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT. An estimated 350,000 images of contemporary architecture from 1960 to the present will be included.
"Where there was once a lack of direction, there is now a clear sense of promise," the Aga Khan said. "The essence of this adventure may prove to be valuable as we address other issues of great importance in the Islamic world."
The Building Museum's Scully award carries a $25,000 stipend, which the museum expects will go to charity.
"He does not need it," Rynd said, referring to the prize money. "Apparently he doesn't. If he does, we're all in trouble."