The Aga Khan Award encourages Islamic architecture to dare to be different
Shelters built from earth-filled plastic sacks joined together with barbed wire and plaster would hardly be the obvious choice to win an Islamic architecture prize. But for the judges of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture - as rooky architects at the American University of Sharjah learned this week - there is a lot more to Muslim monuments than minarets.
Last year's winners of the triennial award included the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, a primary school in Burkina Faso and the earthquake-proof sandbag shelters of US-based Nader Khalili.
On Thursday night, the organisation's education and culture programme officer, Shiraz Allibhai, met trainee architects at the UAE university to discuss the criteria for judging the 2007 awards.
"The award is a prize for architecture in the Islamic world," Allibhai tells Emirates Today."The rules are simply that the building has to be for Muslims or built in a primarily Muslim country." As opposed to insisting that modern Islamic architecture reflect Muslim styles, jurors pay little heed to designs that hark back to historic identities.
"People say to me that we need to define what Islamic architecture is," says Allibhai. "But I disagree. If you try and standardise Islamic architecture, you quickly get caught up in a very dogmatic and theological argument." FULFILLING MUSLIM NEEDS Instead, those vying for a piece of the prize, a Dh1.84 million fund, are advised to create structures that address the needs of, and issues faced by, modern Muslim communities.
"Globalisation is all around us," says Allibhai, a Canadian citizen who lives in the American city of Boston. "We can face up to that fact or we can let it wash over us.
"We have to be able to address it in ways that are in keeping with our values and traditions." The sandbag shelters of Khalili, an Iranian working in California, were judged to be a useful, modern solution for victims of natural disasters from the developing world.
The earth-filled sacks are sandwiched around barbed wires into time-tested arch, dome and vault patterns to create curved shell structures that are able to resist the forces of nature.
"While these load-bearing compression forms refer to the ancient mud-brick architecture of the Middle East, the use of barbed wire as a tensile element alludes to the portable structures of nomadic cultures," an Aga Khan report says.
The hurricane, earthquake and flood-resistant structures can be built by their occupants with minimal training and have already been used to house Iraqi refugees at Baninajar Camp in Iran, and at other locations around the world.
At the other end of the spectrum of winners are the Petronas Towers, the 452-metre-high landmark of Kuala Lumpur, where an "Islamic pattern" of "interlocking squares that form an eight-pointed star" have become an "icon that expresses the sophistication of contemporary Malaysian society", according to a jury statement.
On his tour of the world's Islamic architecture students, Allibhai has already visited Toronto, Karachi, Cairo and Beirut, where he debated the standards by which the winners of the 2007 award will be judged.
Students of the Sharjah college met in the Masrah Al Qanat Hall to exchange ideas about the themes of individual expression, the private sector and state authority, and how they relate to architecture in the Islamic world.
"The award has a vitality that underpins the projects that the jury select," says Allibhai. "This vitality is really the intellectual debate that the jury brings to the table in addressing the concerns of today's Middle East.
"I wanted to give the students a chance to enter the intellectual debate - creating a panel to discuss the issues in a local context. They can talk about what is happening in Dubai and the UAE.
"This serves two purposes: it gives the award and the trust a sense of what is happening here, and what the regional issues and concerns are. At the same time, it brings the students into a larger debate about what is happening in the Middle East." Despite the UAE's rapid pace of construction and landmarks like Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel and the new Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi, no building in the Emirates has yet won an Aga Khan prize. DUBAI'S DISTINCT STYLE "I like Dubai because it is creating something, and it is unapologetic about it," says Allibhai.
"They are trying to build distinct skyscrapers that give a brand identity rather than an Islamic identity, and that's a good move.
"The Burj Al Arab is an iconic building - as much the symbol of Dubai as the opera house is of Sydney. It is extremely lavish.
"But it is not open to the public, unless those members of the public have a huge amount of money to spend.
"This would probably be an issue. If I was looking at the Burj as a jury member, these would be the issues I would raise." Nevertheless, an Aga Khan body is in the process of building the Middle East's first cultural centre for the Shiite Ismaili Muslim sect, of which Prince Karim Aga Khan is the 49th spiritual leader.
The Dh66m Ismaili Centre and garden is being constructed on 13,200 square metres of land gifted by Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Members of the UAE's 2,500 Ismaili population attended the December 2003 groundbreaking ceremony in which the Aga Khan declared the centre would be "a symbol of the confluence between the spiritual and the secular in Islam".
"The centre will provide... a learning centre where the Aga Khan Education Service will draw on its extensive experience in many parts of the world to offer broad, holistic, early childhood education," he said.
The centre, in Oud Metha, is expected to open towards the end of next year and will host exhibitions, recitals and debates associated with Ismaili Muslims.
The organisation's Genevabased directors believe it will be comparable in scope to existing Ismaili centres in London, Vancouver and Lisbon.
After Thursday's debate in Sharjah, Allibhai headed to the Jordanian capital Amman to continue his series of debates across the Middle East, in preparation for the 2007 awards.
A panel will use the international feedback to create criteria for the 10th round of awards, which had their genesis in 1977 and their first prize-giving ceremony in 1980.