The Past and Future of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Reflections on the First Twenty Years

His Highness The Aga Khan in conversation with architectural
journalist Mildred F. Schmertz, Paris, August 25, 1998:

Mildred F. Schmertz: You founded the Award twenty years ago, and have sustained it without interruption right up to now. In today's architectural world, new ideas and agendas often have a very short life. At the beginning some observers thought that at best, your architectural award program would last about six years. Instead, in two decades it has become and remained the most outstanding in the world, and continues to hold that leadership. What were the goals that led you to establish the Award?

His Highness: I was primarily an architectural client at that time—building schools, hospitals, community centers, and commercial buildings in Muslim countries, or parts of the world with substantial Muslim minorities. As a student of history, I had been aware of the quality of architecture in Islamic societies historically, and I felt that I didn't know what terms of reference to give to architects for the buildings I was planning. Yes I could get a good architect who knew how build a hospital or school simply to accommodate the program. I was not confident, however, about finding an architect who could design in the cultural language of the societies in which these buildings were to be constructed.

Seeking help, I invited a small group of architects and historians to join me in the study of this issue. From whatever standpoint each of us began, we all came to the conclusion that none of us had a sense of confidence in the way the physical environment was being changed in Islamic societies. It was clear that Islamic communities had lost some of their extraordinary inheritance of competence and knowledge in the realm of architecture. The next question was what to do about it. We decided to study and question what was actually being built in Islamic societies—was it appropriate, were its art forms as powerful and creative as they had been historically.

MFS: How did you choose your advisors?

His Highness: I tried to find the widest spectrum of interests, competencies, and knowledge. My big worry was to make sure that the questions I was asking would be relevant to all the thinking people who were affecting the urban situation and the environment as a whole. I did not want to find myself asking only the questions framed by a narrow band of opinion or from a narrow band of professions. I wanted to involve as many people as possible in my questioning.

MFS: I know that your Master Jury is independent of the Award itself when it makes its decisions. Every three years, in each of the seven cycles, your juries, consisting of an international team of architects, philosophers and historians have faithfully addressed the philosophic, aesthetic and spiritual issues of the Award. Despite their diversity and range of critical opinion, the juries consistently make awards to tradition-based architecture as well as contemporary designs, and have always focused upon community, social, and environmental concerns. What would happen, if by some mischance, a jury's choices did not support the Award's themes?

His Highness: I would start by questioning the process of appointment of that particular jury, and ask if it were chosen in accordance with the philosophy of the Award. I would not disqualify that jury's decisions, but would request that the jury forming procedure be looked at again. The Master Juries have consisted of men and women of the highest intellectual merit, and I would be loath to challenge their views. In fact I would probably want to listen very carefully to such a contrary jury, and would want to take on board what I could without compromising the essence of the Award. But I would be unwilling to say today, that after seven cycles I think that any particular Master Jury took decisions not directly in line with the Award's general purpose.. There have been decisions about which the Steering Committees have not agreed with the Master Juries, but such debates are part of the strength of the Award.

MFS: Given your original goals, how close do you think you have come to reaching them?

His Highness: In the work we have been doing, and I hope will be doing in the future, there is nothing absolute. The built environment is changing every day, societies are changing, tastes are changing, knowledge is changing, needs are changing, nothing is definitive and final. I think that what the Award has succeeded in doing, at least I hope it has, is to launch and legitimize a process of questioning, of inquiry—what do we know, what are the inherited competencies, what are the new competencies we need in order to manage this process of change as effectively as possible. I believe that the idea of questioning is much more widespread now in Islamic societies than it was twenty years ago. One of the roles of the Award is to premiate projects that embody good answers to the questions of the time and place.

MFS: In the seven Award cycles, including the one that is current, what premiations come to your mind as particularly significant in a symbolic or educational way?

His Highness: Your question applies better to categories of architecture and planning rather than to specific projects. For example, the Award made a significant impact when it defined restoration and renewal not only as a requisite for cultural continuity, which was how at the time it was popularly thought of, but to redirect the goals towards a process primarily of social and economic development. In another area, I believe that the Award's premiations for buildings that speak and respond to modern needs—universities, airports, hotels and other buildings connected with the leisure industry—have also been significant as models, worldwide.

In recent cycles, some very good buildings have been premiated which have to do with local art, local traditions, local forms of expression. Small rural projects have received awards. A large percentage of the Islamic communities which we are interested in live in rural environments, and one of the concerns that the Award must have is to understand how change in these environments occurs. To me it seems very important indeed to influence this change so that it improves the quality of life and the quality of building in these communities.

MFS: Of the building types and processes that you believe the Award has yet to fully address, are there any in particular that you would like to see paid more attention to in the next few cycles?

His Highness: Yes, there are a number of them. I would start with the categories of landscape architecture, public spaces, parks, the use of the natural environment. In Islam, concern for the natural world derives from the Faith, which in itself speaks extensively of God's gift to man of the environment, and of the responsibility we have toward it. I believe that this is an area that needs a lot more work today than has been done in the past. I am hoping that The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, of which the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is a part, will be able to harness a number of new resources to educate in this field.

A second area which really worries me considerably are the consequences of the liberalization of the economies of the developing world, where more and more initiative for economic change will be driven by individual entrepreneurs. These men and women are usually not particularly concerned with damage to the environment around them, and therefore I am worried about how we can help make this process of change occur in an appropriate manner. That means premiating good industrial buildings, good commercial buildings, it means looking at how to rehabilitate depreciated areas of cities, or areas of cities that have lost their economic existence. Among other potentially disruptive changes, many commercial harbors are going out of business, and airports are being relocated. How clients, architects and planners will respond to the challenges of economic change is an area of real concern. I think we have to do more in this category.

MFS: So far the Award has found few industrial or commercial buildings to premiate.

His Highness: True, and I am not sure how the Award will respond to this. We can encourage nominators to look at these categories, but this, by itself, will not produce useful responses. If good industrial and commercial buildings are out there, we must find them and pass them on to the Master Jury for review, but we can't do much if such good work does not exist. Without good models to premiate, we must address the issue by starting with education, bringing in new areas of knowledge. We must discover for example what development agencies will accept as being promising processes of change, learning from them, before the Award puts forward and premiates its own ideas. Today, the World Bank applies to all its projects of real substance an environmental evaluation process—an encouraging move in the right direction.

MFS: All of your premiations to date have been for projects generated within an Islamic context. As the Award begins to pay more attention to the built projects of the global economy, do you hope to continue your basic Islamic focus, and if so does this seem feasible?

His Highness: It is feasible in the sense that projects for Muslims in parts of the world where they live will be influenced by the spiritual life of the persons that are determining the outcome of the project, what it looks like, what it intends to do, what it wishes to say. I would also make the point that the Islamic world itself consists of over 800 million people. The probability of any project, apart from religious buildings, being totally unique to that community or any part of its world almost doesn't exist. The Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, constructed specifically for Muslims who perform the Hajj, is one of the few buildings premiated, other of course than mosques, that is specifically for those of the Islamic faith. Most of the other buildings that have received awards are those that address issues and respond to needs or problems that occur in other societies.

One of my objectives in establishing an international Master Jury for the first cycle, and continuing with such juries to the present, has been to assure that the premiated projects will be viewed as having world meaning, as well as beneficial consequence to Islamic communities. So the answer is yes. I think the Award will continue to be driven by the needs of Islamic societies. Our historical inheritance is recognized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The issues the Award is studying, and some of the responses that are being produced and premiated, are far more universal than they are specific to the Muslim world.

MFS: The Award has had twenty years in which to make its philosophy and agenda widely known in architectural and planning circles, and at the highest political and administrative levels around the world. This has been done by means of a major publication program, which for this cycle includes the publication for the first time of the full debate of the Master Jury. Just as importantly the Award has held seminars in many countries. There have been fewer seminars in recent years, even though, as you have said, there are new issues to address such as the global economic challenge. Do you plan to hold such symposia again, perhaps under the auspices of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture?

His Highness: I think the seminars were very important, particularly in the early years of the Award, when we were trying to bring together a large spectrum of the people—architects, planners, entrepreneurs, legislators, financiers—who produce the projects that affect the environment. What has happened since those early big seminars is that the specificity of issues is better defined. Smaller seminars focused upon a narrower band of issues, and organized on a regional basis were often more effective in moving the Award message forward than a single major seminar gathering people from around the world in one city.

Today, of course with the Internet, the whole issue of communications has changed—a phenomenon that we must study very carefully indeed. I don't think that I am letting any cats out of any bags to say that the Award and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may collaborate with Harvard's Graduate School of Design, to share the focus on issues of public space, landscape architecture, and environmental studies, while MIT will come in with a new computer-based communications system for the Award. Since the Award's archive has a collection of more than 1,500 monographs of submitted projects and 300,000 slides and other visual material, our projected web site on the Internet will make all this information available in a quick, cost efficient manner.

MFS: Do you foresee other uses for the Internet?

His Highness: We do not expect that the constituencies that the Award tries to address will continue to use only premiated projects as models to learn from. In most cycles, three or four times the number of projects that are actually premiated are reviewed in depth by the technical reviewers. I think that our audience may learn just as much if not more, in specific areas of knowledge, from good projects that have not been premiated, and we will soon be making this new information available through the Internet. By means of the technical reviews and Master Jury assessments, we have an enormous compendium of information about this work—the evolution and the viability of a project over time, the degree of its client satisfaction, and other issues.

MFS: A singular aspect of the Award, with which no other architectural prize program is comparable, is your practice of sharing the premiation and purse with a collection of responsible people and institutions—not just the architect. In the very first Award cycle, the master mason of a private summer house in Agamy, Egypt received commendation and a share of the prize money, along with the architect, the plasterer, and the carpenter. The Italian architectural magazine Domus was so amazed that it put the mason on its cover. In each cycle that has followed, honor and money if appropriate, is shared among the public agencies, preservation societies, various specialists as well as the architect. I think that this is one of the most intelligent and generous policies of the Award. Has it had some good effects?

His Highness: I hope it has. People still ask why an award for architecture honors artisans and craftsmen. But architecture is an art for which a large number of people contribute, and I believe that it is important to give credit to as many as we can.

MFS: The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been implementing historic cities projects in Cairo, Samarkand, Karimabad and Zanzibar. How do you see the future of the Trust in these areas?

His Highness: In these historic cities are a concentration of social, economic, and cultural issues that the Trust is trying to address. Such cities can only be revitalized and survive if they become centers of economic well being. They must be self-sustaining, and that can't be done just by investing in the restoration of one or two buildings.

In Cairo we have made a major investment in a public park and are studying its impact on the peripheral population, in the hope that we can cause a well-directed, beneficial ripple effect. Samarkand is a city with all the problems that stem from its gradual return to viability, through the liberalization and privatization of its economy. The central issue there is the preservation of its magnificent historic architecture. Karimabad is on the Silk Route. It possesses one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, with a number of historic buildings around it. The economy is changing, tourism is coming in, agriculture is improving, trade will be substantially enlarged. How can this historic core change without being degraded? The Trust is helping to find the answers. Zanzibar possesses an extraordinarily beautiful stone town, which requires the resourceful attention the Trust and others are giving it.

MFS: You first conceived of the Award because of your interest in architecture as a client. You have remained a major client in the Islamic world for the past twenty years. Has the influence of the Award substantially changed the way you build?

His Highness: The spectrum of people that I can work with today is infinitely greater than it was twenty years ago. When I am putting together a team for a university, a hospital, or a hotel, I have many more choices than I would have had before. I find a much greater understanding of regional architecture, materials, efficiency in building. Twenty years ago I would not have been able to find people who could build a good hospital in a language that was culturally appropriate. At that time, the conception of a western dominated "universal" architecture was the driving one. I feel a great deal more knowledgeable and comfortable as a client than I did twenty years ago. Nevertheless, all of us who build for Islamic societies still have much to learn and do.

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