The Washington Times
January 22, 2005

Award giver gets his due

By Deborah K. Dietsch

Royalty has a knack for putting architecture in the spotlight. Denmark's Queen Margrethe II is known for bestowing a triennial prize, underwritten by the Carlsberg brewery, on leading architects from Europe and Japan. In Britain, Prince Charles is famous for criticizing modern buildings and starting an architecture school dedicated to neo-traditional design.

Even more influential in the world of architecture is Prince Karim Aga Khan. A direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, the 68-year-old multimillionaire is the 49th hereditary imam, or spiritual leader, of Shia Ismaili Muslims around the globe. He directs a Geneva-based network of private foundations dedicated to improving living conditions and expanding opportunities in the Islamic world.

Creating architecture that benefits Muslims is high on his agenda. Presented every three years, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture focuses attention on new structures and renovations all over the globe that uphold and preserve Islamic culture. To win, architects don't have to be Muslim, and their designs can be built in the West so long as they are used by Muslim communities.

Past awards have honored French architect Jean Nouvel's Arab Institute in Paris; the tented hajj airport terminal in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, by New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and the National Assembly building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by the late Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn. Now the Aga Khan is receiving an award of his own.

The National Building Museum is recognizing his efforts with this year's Vincent Scully Prize, named after the distinguished Yale University architectural history professor. The $25,000 prize will be awarded at a black-tie dinner Tuesday. According to the museum, the Aga Khan will donate his winnings to charity.

Chase Rynd, the museum's executive director, says the decision to honor the spiritual leader is "timely" but not based on political reasons. "This is a wonderful moment for this institution to help educate the public about the Muslim world," he says. "The Aga Khan's interest in architecture is clearly more than a passion. It's a career." The Muslim leader's involvement in architecture began with concern over modern buildings insensitive to local culture. "Islamic architecture seemed to have lost its identity ... and its inspiration," the Aga Khan said in a speech to last year's Khan Award winners. "Occasionally, construction tended to repeat previous Islamic styles, but much more often, it simply absorbed imported architectural forms, language and materials."

In 1977, he established his awards program to recognize architecture that imitated neither Western design nor Islam's past but instead offered a fresh interpretation of Muslim traditions. Unlike Prince Charles, the Aga Kahn sees boldly inventive architecture as a positive force in society. It can both symbolize the aspirations of Muslims in the developing world and foster appreciation of Islamic culture in the West.

In contrast to the Hyatt Foundation's Pritzker Prize, touted as architecture's Nobel, the Aga Khan Awards single out the achievements of projects, not an individual's career. The value of the Khan prize $500,000 is also bigger than the Pritzker's $100,000.

Humanitarianism often trumps glitzy design. In addition to aesthetic merit, the judges evaluate a project's social, environmental, economic and urban impact. They make visits and conduct extensive research. Over the past three decades, 2,661 projects in 88 countries have been assessed, leading to 97 award winners in 25 countries.

The seven 2004 winners, announced last fall at a ceremony in Delhi, India, exemplify the global sweep of the awards and their focus on design excellence and social betterment. Several reflect the Aga Khan's commitment to progressive contemporary design. One of the most dramatic projects is a library in Alexandria, Egypt, that resembles a giant angled disc. Responsible for its design is Snohetta, a Norwegian firm recently selected to design a museum complex at the World Trade Center site in New York.

Another of the winners is among the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Star-shaped in plan, the paired skyscrapers were devised by Cesar Pelli, an Argentine-born architect based in New Haven, Conn.

On the coast of Turkey, a spare, terraced house won praise for embracing both local and modern traditions. Modest, though no less imaginative, projects also have won awards. Villagers used bricks made of compressed earth to build a primary school in West Africa's Burkina Faso. An Iranian-born California architect who once advised NASA developed a prototype for an emergency shelter from sandbags. A winning pair of preservation projects pay homage to history: restoration of the 12th-century Al-Abbas Mosque in Yemen and revitalization of Palestinian housing in the old city of Jerusalem.

The Aga Khan also has spent the past three decades expanding his advocacy of Islamic culture. Recent initiatives include the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an online architectural library. More significant is a program begun in 1991 to preserve the oldest cities in the Muslim world. Completed last summer was the revitalization of the 74-acre Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, which transformed a garbage dump into a garden oasis with sports facilities and a restaurant.

Other efforts have funded revitalization of war-torn areas. The historic core of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina, destroyed during the Yugoslavian civil war, is being rebuilt around a reconstructed 16th-century bridge. Similar repairs to gardens, shrines and housing will be carried out in Kabul, Afghanistan. As yet, no plans are under way to restore historic sites damaged in the Iraqi war, according to a spokeswoman for the Aga Khan Cultural Trust. However, given the type of urban preservation projects already under way, that effort may come eventually.

Clearly, the National Building Museum made the right decision in honoring the Aga Khan with its top prize. Museum visitors have the opportunity to hear him speak at a public program at 6 p.m. Wednesday. For more information, go to or call 202/272-2448.

Sadly, the museum hasn't mounted an exhibit to tell the story of this Muslim leader and his efforts to bridge the divide between Western and Islamic cultures. Such a display could have reinforced the Aga Khan's important message that architecture can be a symbol of healing and positive change throughout the world.