arch-peace editorials

17 July 2008

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Unveiling the Jewels of the Built Environment in the Developing World

People including main stream professional architects sometimes wonder about the reason of or the need for architectural awards while questioning their validity: Are they necessary? I would say yes. Awards are critical; they validate the achievements of professional architects while making their contributions more widely acknowledged by the public, hence promoting excellence in architecture. Some awards recognise the extraordinary lifetime achievement of an architect
and others praise projects of virtues that offer guidance for changing the status quo toward a positive change. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) continues to centre its interest on these three areas.

In essence, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture-AKAA addresses contexts in which Muslim communities have substantial presence and, in my view, it has contributed at the physical intervention level and at the architectural thought level in the whole developing or non-Western world. The Award's concern and impact is not only expressed in the conservation of architectural heritage or revitalisation of deteriorated communities or stylistic and symbolic interventions. It is about the enduring values of architecture in creating physical and visual manifestations that speak to their communities, relate effectively to their users and their economic and societal realities. In this editorial, I reflect on selected aspects of Award and its contributions.

What is the Aga Khan Award for Architecture?
Established in 1977 the Award is not a typical architectural prize. It aims to identify and reward architectural concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of developing communities while addressing the multi-faceted aspects of the built environment; these range from contemporary innovative designs, to social housing and community developments, to adaptive re-use and conservation, landscape design and city re-development. The Award is presented in three-year cycles to multiple projects with prizes totalling up to US$500,000. A unique aspect here is that unlike other architectural awards, it recognises all parties involved including clients, design and planning teams, stakeholders and users.

While it is important to shed light on the process of how projects get awarded, I reflect on some themes under which the major contributions of the Award become more perceptible. These themes continue to represent explicit concerns of the Award while posing themselves on the worldwide map of architectural and urbanism discourse.

A Rigorous Review Process
The process of rewarding a built project is one that undergoes a rigorous jury and review procedures. A new committee is formed with each triennial cycle to establish issues of interest; thematic direction with reference to current concerns. The Steering Committee selects an independent Master Jury appointed for each Award cycle. As a result each cycle introduces fresh thinking for intervening in the environment. The appointed Master Jury selects the Award recipients from the projects it reviews.

Two important aspects of the selection process of Award winners are important to note. On the one hand, the jury is pluri-disciplinary and brings members from fields such as history, engineering, philosophy, architectural conservation and contemporary arts, as well as practicing architects, landscape architects and urban planners. Typically, the Jury reviews the submissions enrolled through the nomination program. They examine the documentation of each project and select approximately twenty-five to thirty projects. During the project short-listing process the boundaries between these disciplines are crossed through discussions and interpretation, thereby leading to advancing architectural discourse.

Secondly, a deep sense of vertical knowledge is involved. Technical reviewers conduct on site assessments to gain textual and visual information about the projects before presenting the results of their visits to the master jury over an intensive week to 10-days jury sessions in similitude to workshops and different from typical jury settings. This process is unique to the Award; no other award program in any part of the world appoints on-site reviewers. On-site technical reviewers bring their expertise to the table coupled with their first-hand observations about the practical realities of the built project and the context within which it was created. In essence, the typical norm in most other award juries rely heavily on photographic images of built works and their selection is based only on their collective vision-sometimes hallucination-of what architectural excellence is about.

Tending Architecture, Taming Urbanism and Enlightening Intellectual Discourse
Over the past three decades, 95 projects from the developing world have received the Award, with other credited projects. In its 10 triennial cycles, it has generated vibrant debates at all levels. The Awards' monographs, written and edited by thinkers, have had a great influence on architectural discourse. Over 25 conference and seminar proceedings were published pointing to how architecture makes the ideals, values, and beliefs of Muslims tangible, causing its input to how urbanism can be controlled to be more reactive to its socio-cultural context evident through upgrading, revitalisation, re-development, participation, and appropriate technology among others.

Not only has new architectural thought resulted from the Award's events and publications, the concerns it supports became integral components of worldwide debates on contemporary and historical architecture. At the international level, the architectural community has become more familiar with issues like social architecture, participation, squatter settlements, environmental and cultural impacts; these were neither celebrated and supported, nor respected and recognised by main-stream architectural practices. At the local level, a dialogue was fostered between professionals, academics and decision makers on crucial progress issues that have usually been of concern to one group but rarely to the other two.

The Chairman Award and the Enduring Values of Architecture between Hasan Fathy, Rifat Chadirji and Geoffrey Bawa
The fact that creating architecture is a complex process that requires talent and critical imagination coupled with a deep interpretation of people and their environments, necessitates a holistic understanding of six elements - people, technology, beauty, time, place and cost - and how they interrelate, to produce a meaningful environment. Such an understanding is reflected in the Chairman Award, which has been awarded on three occasions in 1980, 1986 and 2001.

Hassan Fathy, the Egyptian architect, artist and poet, received the 1st Chairman Award in recognition of his lifetime commitment to architecture in the Muslim world. He perceived that a connection could be made between the continuing viability of mud brick construction and the desperate need of Egypt's poor to be taught once again to build a shelter for themselves. Rifat Chadirji, the Iraqi architect, critic and teacher, received the 2nd Chairman Award. He was able to strike a balance between the givens of the time and heritage as is evident in his work in Baghdad, searching for an appropriate contemporary architectural expression that synthesises elements of the rich Islamic cultural heritage with key principles of 20th Century architecture

Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's most prolific and influential architect, received the 3rd Chairman Award in 2001. His work has had a remarkable impact upon architecture throughout Asia and has been praised by connoisseurs of architecture worldwide. Bawa was able to express the mixed influences that characterise Sri Lanka: Indian neighbours, Arab traders and European colonists. Thus, his architecture is a delicate blend of tradition and modernity, East and West, formal and picturesque while also addressing the dynamic tension between culture and nature.

Expanding the Scope of Architectural Practice
Right from the beginning, the Award set the stage for expanding the scope of architecture. Architecture went from being understood only as a built artefact to being viewed as a holistic intervention approach integral to development efforts. This is evident in Indonesia's Kampung Improvement Program and Citra Niaga Urban Development, both of which received the Award in 1989. Another example is the Indore Slum Program in India, which received the Award in 1998. Typically, these projects do not qualify for most architectural awards as, it is claimed, the issues they address are of little or no concern to architecture. This tunnel vision of architecture is opened up through an understanding of architecture and its role in the community by recognising the concepts adopted in these projects.

The Kampung Improvement Program is an excellent example of a government-assisted, self-help community-planning program that manifests a wider scope of architectural practice. It provides three levels of infrastructure: paved access roads, bridges and footpaths; water supply, sanitation and drainage canals; schools and health clinics. These improvements are threaded along existing rights-of-way, with little disturbance to the existing housing. The Master Jury of the first cycle argued that this program improved the living conditions, fostered the integration of the informal sector into the city's economy and encouraged individual initiatives to improve housing.

From Restoration to Sustainable Urban Conservation
Efforts for restoring or reusing old religious or cultural structures have been recognised by the Award, including a large number of projects such as Darb Qirmiz Quarter, Egypt (1983), Great Omari Mosque in Sidon, Lebanon (1989) and Al Abbas Mosque, Yemen (2007). These projects are noted for their sensitivity in treating buildings as living fabrics and in creating a partnership between local and outside skill. The idea of restoration has also been expanded to include sustainable urban conservation efforts, in projects like the conservation and /or rehabilitation of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia (1980), Mostar Old Town, Bosnia and Herzegovina (1986), Asila, Morocco (1989), Bukhara (1995), New Life for Old Structures, Iran (2001), Shibam, Yemen, and the Walled City, Nicosia, Cyprus (2007). These projects present strong messages on ways in which old cities should be reintegrated into new ways of life.

Although architectural and conservation efforts are in essence technical, they represent socio-cultural and socio-political acts. This is apparent in the rehabilitation of the Walled City of Nicosia, which saw close collaboration between the project's Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot participants. In this respect, the Award is promoting peace, tolerance, plurality and the fusion of cultures.

Sustainability and Ecological Architecture
Since the Rio summit in 1992 and the emergence of "sustainability", the award swiftly began to recognise projects with sustainable design strategies. The classic example is Menara Mesiniaga, the IBM headquarters, in Subang Jaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which received the Award in 1995. It is a high-tech, 15-storey corporate showcase on a convenient and visually prominent corner site. It is a result of Kenneth Yeang's ten-year study of bio-climatic principles in the design of medium-to-tall buildings. Its tri-partite structure consists of a raised "green" base, ten circular floors of office space with terraced garden balconies and external louvers for shade. It is roofed by a spectacular sun-roof, arching across the top-floor pool. The distinct columns that project above the pool floor support solar panels. Further reducing the energy use of a naturally cooled building are sun-screens and air-conditioning. The tower has become a landmark. Again, this is a powerful message that speaks to the developing world on the value of integrating sustainable design approaches to multi-story structures.

Sustainability has driven other projects like Datai Hotel, Malaysia (2001) and Moulmein Rise Residential Tower, Singapore (2007) to emphasise ecological approaches to architecture. While Datai Hotel is described by a successful reaction to nature, topography and vegetation, the Moulmein Rise Residential Tower adopts many forgotten low energy strategies like orientation, overhangs, shading and perforation and cross ventilation. Also, instead of treating users as identical, the design responds to the psychological needs of users, manifested in the modular system's flexibility to allow varied units to house diverse needs while simultaneously addressing personalisation and individuality.

Socio-Cultural Aspirations and Special Populations
Needs, wants and aspirations of local communities were addressed by many winning projects since the early eighties. These include the upgrading of Hafsia Quarter in Tunisia and Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre in Egypt (1983) to Demir Holiday Village in Turkey and East Wahdat upgrading in Jordan (1992). The significance of these projects lies in the cultural and socio-economic impacts they have had on their communities. It is unfortunate that these issues remain at the periphery of most architectural practices, which in turn may be seen as the reason why the Award persists in addressing them.

A wide spectrum of awarded projects offers lessons on how to treat specific segments of societies including children, the poor and the under-represented. School projects in poor communities like Gando Primary School, Burkina Faso (2004) and Rudrapur School, Bangladesh (2007) have been vital contributions recognised by the Award. They address local architectonic constraints, instill optimism, instigate delight and initiate learning and progress in unfortunate conditions. Projects like the Cultural Park for Children (1992) and SOS Village in Aqaba (2001) present other manifestations of pleasant and attractive settings amenable to children's needs. Hospitals serving under-represented populations, like KaƩdi Regional Hospital, Mauritania (1995) and Lepers' Hospital, Chopda Taluka, India (1998), have also been recognised by the Award for their efficient and effective use of local materials and traditional building technology while treating patients in a pleasant setting.

Between Exploratory Novelties and Multiple Modernities
The Award recognised two important facts; the first is that the Muslim world, occupying a large geographical area, enjoys unique wealth in its cultures and societies. Some projects were awarded not only for their social, cultural and environmental impact, but also for echoing a unique visual identity of a locality and a deep analysis of elements and symbols inherited from the past. These include the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh (1989) and Al Kindi Plaza in Saudi Arabia (1989). Also, The Nubia Museum in Egypt (2001) and Olbia Social Centre in Turkey (2001) embody conscious endeavours in this respect, exhibiting the multiple faces of modernity throughout the Muslim world.

Supporting innovation and fostering the blend of advanced technology in construction systems with local expressions continue to be a key aspect of the Award since its first cycle. The Award recognised projects such as the Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Centre, Makkah (1980) and Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1983) for their novel approaches in addressing the active link between the technology of the time and tradition. More striking is the credit for innovation at smaller scale manifestations including the B2 House in Ayvacik, Turkey, which embodies a sense of merit and a progressive approach in recognising its physical context, and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which consciously and poetically merges elements of Dutch architecture with its environs.

This look back at the Aga Khan Award's contributions to architecture and urbanism in the developing world has instilled certain aspects and issues that continue to be supported by the Award. There is still much to be learnt from these and other projects not mentioned here, a lot to be measured, explored,analysed and assessed. By analysing the Award's publications and the projects it has recognised with a critical eye, the lessons they contain will be revealed.

An expanded version of this editorial appeared this month in Issue 3 of MAGAZ magazine, Cairo, Egypt under the title of The Aga Khan Award for Architecture at a Glance: Glimpses of Three Decades of Contributions to Architecture and Urbanism in the Developing World.

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Farroukh Derakhshani, Director of Aga Khan Award Procedures for his insights in developing this article. My thanks go to Karen Stylianoudis for providing all the necessary materials for developing this article.

Ashraf M. Salama

Architects for Peace, July 2008


Beatriz Maturana said...

Thanks for this important perspective on the Aga Kahn Award for Architecture (AKAA). More than an account on the award, it also provides a blueprint for assessing the soundness of other architectural awards. Instead of perpetuating old practices, the Aga Kahn Award offers an example of a people’s focused award. The contribution of architecture to society (within this the ecology needed to survive), is a much more pertinent approach to today’s circumstances.

In discussing our social and environmental crisis, we often hear that architecture needs to ‘adapt’ to new challenges. Rather than ‘adapting’, a conscious reviewing of the criteria for the granting of awards could potentially offer a most needed change in the way we practice architecture and it could offer an opportunity for the actual assessing of social and environmental contribution.

Together with your other examples, the Indore Slum Project in India—which as you have said, ‘Typically, these projects do not qualify for most architectural awards’—provide a great illustration of how architecture can contribute to improve social and environmental conditions at a scale that really makes a difference (as opposed to a ‘sustainable’ house for an individual client or to a ready made cities that ignore people, their culture and aspirations).

It is a pity that architects who have been awarded the Aga Kahn Award are not as well known or promoted as they could be. Their work could provide the inspiration that many architecture faculties lack—often focusing instead in mere formalistic aspects. I agree with you that the recognition of good work is important—work that matters—and I hope to see many examples of this type of architecture in arch-peace website.

I have added a link to the AKAA here:

Thanks again Ashraf,


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