Aga Khan, the prince of architecture, was honoured for his work in a field that can 'improve the quality of life' and 'mirror the plurality of cultural traditions.'
The Great Hall of the National Building Museum is a breathtaking space. The ceiling rises 15 storeys above the floor at its tallest point, and its interior Corinthian columns are among the tallest in the world.
Bedecked with roses and candles, and buzzing with the conversation of a glittering and eclectic mix of people, this was the grand setting for a black tie gala last Tuesday to honour the Aga Khan for his contribution to architecture.
A spiritual leader, billionaire racehorse owner and generous philanthropist, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV promotes architecture as a way to improve the lives of some of the world's poorest people. He also sees it as a tool to bridge the gap of understanding between Western and Islamic cultures.
The National Building Museum's 2005 Vincent J. Scully Prize recognized his long-standing efforts to improve design and promote historic preservation and urban revitalization in the Islamic world.
Elegant and natural, His Highness, or HH as he is called by those in his entourage, wore a sober navy suit, and donned glasses to read a short acceptance speech in a Prince Charles-like English accent.
"I profoundly believe that architecture is not just about building," he said. "It is a means of improving people's quality of life. At its best it should mirror the plurality of cultural traditions and diverse needs of communities, both urban and rural, while at the same time employing modern technologies."
A Harvard-educated British citizen who lives in France, the Aga Khan is a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. He is the 49th hereditary spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, which has 20 million followers in about 25 countries, including 75,000 in Canada.
In 1977, the prince established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the world's largest architecture prize. Every three years, it recognizes not only architects for exemplary contemporary work, but also clients, builders, governments and planners involved in projects that address social needs in the Muslim world. Prize money totals $500,000 U.S.
"We have created a momentum that has become a self sustaining and unstoppable force for change in the human habitat of the Muslim world," he told the audience of about 350 people. "But there is still much to be done.
"Quality housing remains the most essential need for societies everywhere, both in rural and urban environments," he said. "Industrial facilities and workplaces are not at the level of excellence that makes them exceptional."
The Aga Khan expressed concern about "the relentless forces of urbanization." He lamented the lack of public parks and open urban spaces, the problems of transport, congestion and pollution and the continuing growth of slums.
"I am also concerned that there is still too little attention being paid to design for communities to protect residents from the effects of earthquakes," he said.
"The massive devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami has taught us a terrible lesson that the destructive power of earthquakes can reach far beyond the initial disturbance. It will no doubt lead to new thinking and new approaches toward seaside construction."
The gathering was a crosssection of Washington society, the Muslim community and the architectural elite. Ticket prices ranged from $500 U.S. per ticket to a sponsorship package of $40,000.
Among those enjoying the meal of lamb followed by chocolate mousse were Washington mayor Anthony Williams, CNN journalist Judy Woodruff, ambassadors of Germany, Finland, Italy and Afghanistan, as well as followers of the Aga Khan.
Also in attendance were distinguished architects such as Robert Venturi, Fumihiko Maki, and David Childs, who is codesigning the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site with Daniel Libeskind.
George Baird, dean of architecture, landscape and design at the University of Toronto was there, as was Ted Teshima, of Moriyama & Teshima Architects of Toronto.
The Aga Khan "is doing architecture as good works, but also as good business and to promote civil society, plurality, diversity and quality of life," said David Schwarz, the founding chairman of the Scully prize. "It is truly a remarkable approach. He provides a great model of providing aid that is sustainable."
Mr. Schwarz acknowledged that since Sept. 11, 2001, the need for cross-cultural communication is greater than ever. "The world really did change in 2001," he said. "There were no political considerations, but we certainly were aware of trying to foster dialogue."
Vincent Scully, the sterling professor emeritus of the history of art at Yale University, echoed that theme in his tribute, saying that the Aga Khan awards bring "the most beautiful buildings and the most humane urbanism of contemporary Islam forcibly to western consciousness and admiration.
"Everything they stand for shine as bright lights in a darkening world," said Scully. "They embody the hope of well-intentioned people everywhere for civilization, for mutual understanding, decent brotherhood and peace. We take this occasion to thank him and assure him that we share his faith in architecture's grand and healing role."
The 2004 Aga Khan awards included: the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, among the tallest buildings in the world; a library in Alexandria, Egypt, which resembles a giant tilting granite disc; and prototype emergency shelters made of sandbags, Velcro and barbed wire. The unifying theme set by the Aga Khan to the jury was experimentation.
The awards also recognized a weekend house on the Aegean coast of Turkey; a primary school in Burkina Faso; and two restoration projects - a 12thcentury Yemeni mosque and the rehabilitation of Palestinian housing in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Since 1977, about 90 projects have been honoured, ranging from housing, schools, and community centres to town plans and the restoration of cultural monuments. Sometimes, projects in cities not ostensibly Muslim are also considered. For instance, Jean Nouvel's extraordinary Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris won in 1989.
The next day, on Wednesday, the Aga Khan spoke at a public forum, titled Design in the Islamic World and Its Impact Beyond, at the National Building Museum. He recounted how he came to establish the award.
"I was concerned that much of the building that was taking place in the Islamic world had lost its sense of direction," he said.
"The Holy Koran says that man is God's noblest creation to whom he has entrusted the stewardship of all that is on Earth. Each generation must leave for its successors a wholesome and sustainable social and physical environment.
"For these reasons I began in 1977 working with leading architects, philosophers, artists, teachers, historians and thinkers from all religious faiths to examine issues in the built environment and to establish an award for architecture," he said.
"We sought to reshape and reposition knowledge and taste and to change the behaviour of those who have an impact on the built environment.
"We were interested in architectural achievement not just in design, but with how good design could help improve the daily lives of the users and beneficiaries. It was from this service perspective that the award parameters grew."
The Aga Khan added: "We have to be careful not to try to take the sense of taste of the past and stick it on an airport or stick it on a modern building. I think we have to live in our time and live in the future."
He participated in an onstage discussion with distinguished architect Charles Correa, from Bombay, India, architecture critic Martin Filler, and Robert Ivy, editor of Architectural Record.
During this discussion, he described how the award pushed the definition of architecture to include self-built structures, many of them in poor rural areas. The award organizers searched for best practices in realworld situations that could be shared with other communities.
Mr. Filler said he was encouraged that the Aga Khan prize does not play into the phenomenon of celebrity. "This is not an award going to star international architects, but to projects," he said. "One of the things that makes so much contemporary architecture so shallow is that it is focused so thinly on style. By promoting the idea of architecture as something integrated in social development, the works that emerge are more resonant."
Mr. Correa noted that North America is also in dire need of good housing. "The whole modern movement was fuelled by the issue of housing. Today the most important buildings are museums and airports. Housing is something developers do and we despise it. That's very sad.
"In much of the world, our cities are getting uglier and uglier and people adapt to that," said Mr. Correa. "They don't seem to notice and that's really scary because people are learning to live with very ugly things. Buildings are built meaninglessly."
The prince has also established the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, established in 1988, he has supported numerous conservation and urban revitalization projects in culturally significant sites of the Islamic world.
For example, in Mostar, Bosnia, war-torn buildings have been restored. In Cairo, Egypt, a massive urban revitalization project transformed a 500-yearold dump into a 74-acre park with lake, sports facilities and a restaurant.
Recently, he established the online Archnet resource, which supports global dialogue and research. An estimated 350,000 images of contemporary architecture from 1960 to the present will be included.
Born 1936 in Geneva, the Aga Khan spent his early childhood in Kenya before attending school in Switzerland. He graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a BA (honours) in Islamic history.
In 1957, at the age of 20, the Aga Khan succeeded his grandfather as the hereditary leader of the Ismaili Muslims. He bypassed his father, Prince Aly Khan, who was famous for having been married to film star Rita Hayworth.
The Aga Khan has been in the news lately because he is being sued for divorce by his wife of six years, a Germanborn former pop singer who also has a degree in international law. It has been reported that the Begum Inaara Aga Khan, 41, wants half the Aga Khan's fortune, estimated to be at least $2.4 billion U.S.
For 1,400 years his followers have given money to the Aga Khan on a voluntary basis to be used for philanthropy. The source of his personal wealth is inheritance and investment.
The Aga Khan is regarded as a progressive figure. He emphasizes the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man. He also emphasizes the need for education and encourages equality between men and women.
"He speaks about an Islam that is different from the one that is reported in the papers as a result of events that are drawn by politics or fanaticism," said Firoz Rasul, president of the Aga Khan Council for Canada.
"He sees his role as an ambassador of Islam, to project the image of an Islam practised by the majority of Muslims. One that is based on a set of values that embody compassion, generosity, peace and a sensitivity to the plight of others. By his actions, he's living and demonstrating that."
The Aga Khan has a soft spot for Canada, said Mr. Rasul. "He has said Canada's pluralism is a global asset, that Canada should share with the rest of the world for the benefit of humanity.
"He finds it fascinating that people of difference can live together with a common bond of being Canadian." That's why he announced a global centre for pluralism to be established in Ottawa. "He believes Canada has a much bigger role to play on the world stage."
It is one of two new buildings planned for Ottawa. Last fall, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada announced that Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki has designed a landmark Sussex Drive building for the Aga Khan Development Network. Construction is expected to start later this year.
It will be a secular facility that will provide information about the network, a series of agencies involved in international development, health, education and culture. Moriyama & Teshima are working with Maki on the project.
The Aga Khan Foundation Canada is a non-profit international development agency established in Canada in 1980. As part of the worldwide Aga Khan Development Network, the foundation supports social development projects designed to benefit the poor in Africa and Asia. Last year, $230 million U.S. was spent on 140 projects in 30 countries.
In 2002, the Aga Khan Development Network announced its intention to establish, in Toronto, a museum housing exceptional collections of Islamic art and heritage as well as an Ismaili community centre.
The Vincent Scully Prize was established in 1999 to recognize exemplary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design.
Past recipients have included architectural historian Vincent Scully, writer Jane Jacobs, architects and urban planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
The National Building Museum, created by an act of Congress in 1980, is a private, nonprofit institution whose mission is to examine architecture, planning, design, engineering and construction through exhibitions, educational programming and publications.
CHRISTIAN RICHTERS, AGA KHAN AWARD
The Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt, above, is an Aga Khan Award for Architecture winner. The building's exterior wall is carved with letters from alphabets of the world. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, below, is another winner. At 452 metres, when it was built it was the tallest building in the world. The Aga Khan himself, below, received an award Tuesday for his work in promoting design excellence and improving structures in the Muslim world.
REHA GUNAY, AGA KHAN AWARD
SHAUN HEASLEY, GETTY IMAGES