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Times Online
December 06, 2004
Notebook: Architecture

Lavish ceremony celebrates visionary design

By Marcus Binney, Architecture Correspondent

THE WORLD of architecture overflows with awards, including the $100,000 American Pritzker Prize, the $200,000 Japanese Praemium Imperiale and Britain’s RIBA Gold Medal, which was founded in 1848. All are trumped in key ways by the Aga Khan’s triennial Awards for Architecture, which carries a bounty of $500,000 for projects that benefit Muslim communities.

The Aga Khan believes in honouring his winners with splendid ceremonies and banquets set in great monuments. Ten days ago in Delhi and Agra he brought together more than 300 guests from around the world, including past winners, prominent architects, artists and philosophers and leading figures from Muslim countries.

This is not sheer largesse, for underlying it is a strong diplomatic mission reflecting award applications that have come from 88 countries. Opening the awards in the glorious setting of the Mugul Emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, a 16th- century version of the Taj exquisitely illuminated for the occasion, India’s Prime Minister called for all Indians to play a part in maintaining their country’s heritage.

A second, romantic concert, aimed at sparking interest in Central Asian music, was held in the great court of Agra Fort. Fairouz Nishanova, who runs the Aga Khan’s music initiative, explained: “Our job has been to seek out the music masters who were not allowed to teach during 75 years of Soviet rule. We have opened music academies in Kazakhstan, Kurdistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.”

This is a family in love with architecture. The Aga Khan’s daughter Princess Zahra was talking about the dome of the Pantheon as I passed her in the airport arrivals hall. Their enthusiasm is expressed not in building palaces or mansions but in public works, restoring old buildings, rejuvenating historic quarters, laying out parks, establishing hospitals, academies and universities — the latest campus is to be designed by the Japanese Arata Isozaki.

The Aga Khan is passionately committed to the meticulous and scholarly restoration of a select number of landmark historic buildings and gardens, including the grand verandahed Dispensary in Zanzibar and most recently the $650,000 restoration of the water gardens around Humayun’s tomb — a gift to celebrate 50 years of India’s independence. Other projects include a public park in Cairo that was created on the site of a rubbish tip, the re-creation of Babur’s garden in Kabul, where every tree had been cut to provide firing lines.

The Aga Khan is compared and sometimes confused with his flamboyant grandfather, and his playboy father Ali Khan, but he is a man of enormous courtesy, utterly without hauteur, and with a intense concern for giving practical help to some of the world’s poorest communities.

In a rare interview he described some of these ventures. Focus is a crisis response aimed at providing food and shelter in disaster areas. He has an extensive programme of helping declining rural communities to build their own schools and medical centres. The University of Central Asia is devoted to the support of mountain areas.

He explained: “Ten years ago if we had taken a cultural project to a development agency they would have said, ‘You must be living on the other side of the moon’. Historic areas were considered backwaters, places where you could not change the quality of life.” His Historic Cities Support Programme has completed projects in Tunis, Samarkand and Mostar, creating new opportunities for local people with an ingenious system of microcredits.

It is only in this context that the varied nature of the 2004 Awards can be understood, ranging from emergency projects such as sandbag shelters for disaster areas to the tallest buildings in the world — the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The unifying theme set by the Aga Khan to the jury was experimentation. The award that struck the most universal chord was a simple village school in Burkina Faso, the former French African colony of Upper Volta. It was won by Diébé do Kéré, the first person in his village to study abroad, winning a bursary to study architecture in Berlin. He returned to rebuild the decayed village school with the help of the villagers, using compressed earth blocks and a graciously curved metal roof held aloft on spokes to allow a cooling breeze to play on the ceiling below.

Heroic conservation was represented by the rescue of the isolated al-Abbas mosque in Yemen, where a hole in the roof threatened imminent ruin of a remarkable painted and gilded coffered ceiling. In the darkened interior filled with props, the French archeologist Marylène Barret found a kufic inscription giving the precise date for the completion of the mosque — 519, or 1125AD. “When I put the last piece of wood back I was told it was the same day of the same month that the mosque was completed,” she says.

The award given to the Old City of Jerusalem recognises a valiant programme of more than 160 renovations in an extraordinary nether world of winding alleys and sunken courtyards where vaulted chambers had been transformed in attractive places to live and work, overcoming immense difficulties faced by Palestinians in bringing building materials into the city.

The iconic landmark chosen was the new library at Alexandria, replacing one of the lost wonders of the ancient world. The Norwegian architects, Snøhetta designed this in the form of a giant tilting disc with four storeys sunk into the ground so that the building rose no more than 33 metres, the building height line on the city’s corniche. The circular form was intended to avoid blocking views from university buildings behind. Even so, there were evidently those who questioned whether the distinctive, jostling Alex seafront needed “improving” in this way.

Lively debate was also sparked by an award to a simple cube house on the Aegean coast in Turkey, which appeared to set a precedent for yet more random building. The award was given because the weekend house used local materials and craftsmen and was sensitively set in traditional terraces. “As people get richer the design of the individual house has to be addressed,” says the Aga Khan simply.

His vast programme is growing exponentially. It works because he is that rare thing among princes, a gifted administrator taking close interest in detail, and pressing forward on all fronts.

Architecture and Polyphony: Building in the Islamic World Today (Thames & Hudson £16.95); visit