arch-peace editorials

17 January 2011

The Quest for Architectural Excellence in non-Western Societies: Reflections on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in its 11th Cycle

Repeatedly, in non-Western societies, successes and failures of designed environments go un-noticed. Opportunities for discussing lessons learned from intervening in natural or built environments are missed. Initiating change in the physical environment takes place in many cases as if there was no history or past to learn from. Frequently, gaps in knowledge transmission do exist because of the lack of rigorous documentation, especially give that assessment studies and critical writings have not matured in many parts of those societies. One way to bridge knowledge transmission gaps is to unveil merits of best practices through critical assessment of projects with the ultimate goal of creating a sharper public awareness of the role of architecture in enhancing and celebrating human activities, of its socio-cultural, environmental, and aesthetic qualities. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture-AKAA (1) continues to represent such a way. In this editorial, I reflect on selected projects of the Award’s 11th cycle, which were awarded or shortlisted.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Brief
Since its establishment over three decades ago, the Award has established a select network of architects, planners, social scientists, historians, and cultural theorists, to debate and examine a wide spectrum of recently completed projects to be awarded with the aim of fostering dialogue and establishing intellectual discourse on successful interventions in the physical environment of non-Western societies. “Successful,” is seen within terms of sustaining 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 (2). Unlike the typical misconception, the Award in not only concerning itself with issues related to the conservation of architectural and urban heritage or revitalization of deteriorated communities or stylistic and symbolic interventions, it goes beyond this and contributes to conserve the values embedded in design professions. The Award is about promoting excellence in creating livable environments. Therefore it rewards completed projects with concepts and thoughtful planning that successfully address the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies in the fields of contemporary design, social housing, community development and improvement, restoration, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design and environmental planning and development.

Outline of the 11th Cycle of the Award
The 11th Cycle of the Award was concluded in November 2010. In this cycle, 401 projects representing a wide spectrum of project types were presented to the independent Master Jury of the Award, from which the Master Jury team (3) selected a shortlist of 19 projects for-in-depth review. Notably, the Award’s Steering Committee—that sets priorities for each triennial cycle-- placed emphasis on achieving a higher level of transparency and thus the shortlist was made available to the public (4). Partially, the aim was to foster the creation of public discourse on the latest developments in architecture and urbanism in non-Western societies, before the selection of the final Awards. On-site technical reviews and assessment studies and in-depth analysis were undertaken by a team of reviewers who have reported to the Master Jury team who finally selected the Awarded projects.

Five projects selected for the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture were announced at a ceremony that was held at the Museum of Islamic Art on 24th November. His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani the Emir of the State of Qatar and Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser joined His Highness the Aga Khan (5) in presiding over the ceremony. The five projects selected by the 2010 Master Jury are:
Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Revitalization of the Hyper-centre of Tunis, Tunisia; Madinat Al-Zahra Museum, Cordoba, Spain; Ipekyol Textile Factory, Edirne, Turkey; and Bridge School, Xiashi, Fujian, China.

The Ceremony event was followed by a full day international seminar jointly organized by the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning-College of Engineering at Qatar University and The Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The seminar offered a venue for debating current discourses in architecture and urbanism in countries and communities where Muslims have substantial presence. The event included keynote lectures of distinguished professors of architecture from Harvard University and of Islamic Art and Architecture in Princeton University. It involved films and roundtable discussions moderated by academics and professional architects. Stemming from the structure of the Award’s book which presented the 19 shortlisted projects (6 ), sessions were centered on three main themes that included: 1) Institution, Dwelling, and Industry, 2) Conservation and Environment, and 3) Knowledge and Education. Interestingly, the event was multi-disciplinary in nature where participants included academics, professionals, and students in the fields of architecture, art, design, culture, social and environmental development, to name a few.

From the Statement of the Master Jury of the 11th Cycle
With deep concern for identity, plurality and inclusivity, as they relate to the built environment, the Master Jury stated that: “The intersection of identity and pluralism in a globalised world, where memory, heritage and belonging are threatened, emerged as central concerns during the jury debates. Since its inception, the Award has striven to explore new frontiers while maintaining a generous and pluralistic perspective, engaging projects that contribute to the transformation and improvement of the quality of the built environment. It has considered projects of significance both to the Islamic world and to multicultural societies in which Muslims represent a minority or an expansion of new or historic diasporas.”

The problems associated with over simplifying environmental issues, rapid uncontrolled growth, and overlooking rural development, were some of the critical issues upon which the Jury developed the criteria for selection of projects: “We understood our task as being to engage those projects which respond to the mounting challenges facing Muslim societies or societies where Muslims have a significant presence, ranging from environmental issues, neglect of rural communities, rapid industrialization and deterioration of urban infrastructure to concerns about heritage and memory in the broadest sense. As a jury, we remained mindful of promoting the most successful interventions in the built environment, while ensuring that they set the highest standards of excellence.”

It appears that while acting as drivers for the initial selection, more focused criteria emerged as the jury process progressed. Evidently, five areas of concern representing different project types seem to have been of interest to the jury, these included: 1) ecologically sound projects which demonstrate sensitivity to environmental issues, 2) preservation of recent heritage which represents the role and impact of urban centers in former European colonies, 3) innovative designs that react to the emerging process of industrialization, 4) institutional environments that aim at preserving cultural heritage with high sensitivity to contextual issues, and the rethinking of identity in the Western context, and 5) innovative infill small scale projects in rural or traditional settings.

A Five Key-words Discourse on Architecture and Urbanism
The preceding project types and the structure of the book can be seen as generators for what I could title as a “five-keywords discourse on architecture and urbanism.” While these can be regarded as very simple in terminology, they reflect extremely powerful physical interventions (7). The following is a brief discussion that starts with an important thematic question followed by an example that juxtaposes the question.

The question of developing large territories that address environmental needs is emerging to show how, through careful planning, livable environments can be created. The Wadi Hanifa or Valley Hanifa is one of the awarded projects that responds to this question. It proposes a green, safe and healthy environment while providing continuous parkland that connects the wadi to the city of Riyadh—capital of Saudi Arabia. Integrating residential development, farming, recreation, and cultural activities, a man made oasis was created. In essence, the project’s ecological strategy incorporates a wide range of architectural interventions: from master planning to landscaping and from building to signage and urban furniture.

Figure 1: The Bio-remediation Facility is one of the most impressive features of the project. (Wadi Hanifa, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). (AKAA)

Looking at the jury citation on Wadi Hanifa, the true merits of the project can be revealed “The project reverses the tide of rapid urban development, which has seen public space in many cities within the Muslim world fall victim of expropriation and other practices that deprive the population of its resources.” This tells us much about the way in which the project offered an inclusive public space for the inhabitants of the city of Riyadh. In addition to the overarching concern for the environment, the premise of the project, in adopting the notion of providing ecological infrastructure and experiencing the spatial qualities of the environment, is evident in the jury citation “Using landscape as an ecological infrastructure, the project has restored and enhanced natural systems’ capacity to provide multiple services, including cleaning the contaminated water, mediating the natural forces of flood, providing habitats for biodiversity, and creating opportunities for educational and aesthetic experiences.”

Figure 2: Interpretative trails that wind their way throughout the Wadi allowing the public to access the area easily and to direct them to places of interest. (Wadi Hanifa, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). (AKAA)

The question of how institutions can symbolize societal aspirations, wills, and achievements is rising in recent discussions in the fields of cultural politics, social psychology, and architecture and urbanism. The Madinat al-Zahra Museum in Cordoba, Spain, and the Bridge School in Xiashi, China are two awarded projects that represent manifestations which react to such a question. Inspired by the agriculture countryside, the architects of the Madinat al-Zahra Museum buried the building in the earth to be seen as part of the landscape. This goes along the imperative that architectural forms should not compete with nature but should complement it. Utilizing a modular pavilion system, the project is conceived within a series of rectangular pavilions, with each housing a program area peculiar to the pavilion, while allowing for future expansion. The intent here is to create a coarse building that echoes the retaining walls and temporary structures of archaeological digs.

Figure 3: Aerial view of the Madinate al-Zahra Museum—Blending with the landscape. (Madinat al-Zahra, Cordoba, Spain). (AKAA)

Remarkably, unlike the typical museum architecture of star architects, Madinat al-Zahra Museum humbly blends into the landscape. These qualities are evident in the jury statement “The project is a unique celebration of the link between museology and archaeology … This humility only adds to the powerful message it represents, one that is of particular significance in and for our times.”

Figure 4: View of main patio from the lobby. (Madinat al-Zahra, Cordoba, Spain). (AKAA)

The Bridge School is another example that reacts to social aspirations of villagers. It is located in Xiashi, a small, 450-year old village in a hilly area. The village is home to 300 families with a total population of 700, whose main occupation is grapefruit farming. The villagers were interested in building a school yet no site was designated for it. The architect saw an opportunity in the presence of a creek and the village history of social division and stagnation. The idea of a bridge emerged with the notion of a school building to act as a catalyst that physically and metaphorically unifies the community. The design of the building is small and modern and very sensitive to the village scale and the site limitations. While the building does not make reference to traditional building styles found in the village, it offers a peaceful and signified presence. In its statement, the jury team confirms that the project “…achieves unity at many levels: temporal unity between past and present, formal unity between tradition and modern, spatial unity between the two riverbanks, social unity between one time rival communities---as well as unity with the future.”

Figure 5a: Bridge School, Xiashi, China: View of 'Bridge' (AKAA)

Figure 5b: Bridge School, Xiashi, China: Paying box—one of the main features of the school (AKAA)

The question of how workplaces can impact the productivity of a community is of one of the rising concerns in contemporary discussion about workplace psychology and the issues of health, well-being, and productivity of employees or factory workers. The awarded Ipekyol Textile Factory project in Edirne, Turkey is a direct response to this question. Articulated in a single volume that offers a sense of community, the project blurs the hierarchy between administrative staff, maintenance staff, and factory workers. It adopts a U-shaped system of manufacturing which flows smoothly through production, packaging, and dispatch of each garment type. A water pool running along the full length of a southern glazed façade provides cooling effects through evaporation during the summer season, while dramatically welcoming visitors with its reflection on the wall. The pool absorbs storm-water runoff. Notably, the presence of gardens is an important quality, which are treated with controlled drainage systems to prevent flooding.

Figure 6: View from the upper gallery towards the production area.
(Ipekyol Textile Factory, Edirne, Turkey) (AKAA)

The question of how should we live alone and how should we live with others continues to pose itself in the field of environmental psychology or environment-behavior studies as it relates to buildings as physical manifestations that accommodate related human activities. Houses, homes, and dwellings are important types of domestic architecture that keep presenting themselves on the map of current discussions on the relationship between culture, human behavior, climate and environment, and the overall contexts within which they exist. While there was no awarded project underlying this category, it appears that it has occupied a central position within the jury deliberations. While a number of projects were shortlisted and scrutinized, none of them made it to the final list of awardees. These shortlisted projects generate important debates on the issues of identity, community, lifestyle theories, affordability, and human preferences, among others.

The question of conserving urban heritage and the way in which it should adapt to emerging circumstances continues to offer insights into the understanding of transcending the scale of individual buildings. The issue of how the best examples of architectural, landscape, and urban heritages can be made to endure over time is manifested in a number of shortlisted projects that adopt effective urban conservation strategies. Such interventions re-create or re-generate inner cities as sustainable mechanisms for unconventional forms of socio-economic and cultural development. Two projects appear to effectively respond to the question of conservation, the awarded project Revitalization of the Hyper Center of Tunis, Tunisia, and Souk Waqif in Doha, Qatar.

The nineteenth and early twentieth-century architectural heritage of many north African cities manifests an important cultural exchange across the north and south of the Mediterranean basin. This heritage commonly lies on the peripheries of the old medinas, and has often been neglected in the drive to revitalize the historic centers of cities in this region. The Ville Nouvelle of Tunis, which was built when Tunisia was a French Protectorate, reflected a move from the urban patterns of the old medina to a grid plan that dramatically changed the character of the city. The urban revitalization plan, conceived by the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis (ASM), has restructured the public spaces of the area around Avenue Bourguiba and Avenue de France and made them chiefly pedestrian. It has also listed and restored key monuments, that are now once again in effective use.

Souq Wakif, or the “Standing Market” is another example that manifests the preservation of the memory of society while repositioning old areas to match contemporary use. The origins of the Souk Waqif date from the time when Doha was a village and its inhabitants gathered on the banks of the wadi to buy and sell goods. The revitalization project, a unique architectural revival of one of the most important heritage sites in Doha, was based on a thorough study of the history of the market and its buildings, and aimed to reverse the dilapidated historic structures and remove inappropriate alterations and additions. An attempt to rejuvenate the memory of the place: modern buildings were demolished; metal sheeting on roofs was replaced with traditionally built roofs of dangeal wood and bamboo with a binding layer of clay and straw; and traditional strategies to insulate the buildings against extreme heat were re-introduced.

A Concluding Argument: Implicate-Explicate / Receptacle-Spectacle
In his introductory article of the Award’s Book (6), Mohsen Mostafavi refers to David Bohm’s writings of the 1970s and 1980s, who challenged the conventional way of seeing the world, as a series of separate invisible particles, by proposing the undivided whole or what can be conceived as the implicate and explicate. Analogically, Mostafavi argues that what architects and design professionals do is explicate demonstrations exemplified by buildings which manifest the “Visible.” Yet, they operate in relation to an implicate order which manifests the “Invisible.” In relation to the Award, the link between the visible order of shortlisted and awarded projects and the less visible situational conditions are critical aspects which have a strong impact on the way in which buildings and built environments are formed, performed, and received. In this context one would refer to other complementary ideas generated in the sixties by Chris Alexander on how systems generate systems through repeated patterns of use and the forms that accommodate them, which may relate to how the “implicate” impacts the “explicate” in other words. While research indicates that 87% of people’s perceptions are derived through the sense of sight, if we scratch the surfaces of images the word “image” may reveal a sense of integrity and true identity. A positive image of the built environment goes beyond appearance to include a complete fit into the landscape and the local environment. The projects discussed in this editorial show how architecture as an “elegant receptacle” can be integrated into a “spectacle” in and of itself.

The value of this cycle of the Award lies in the fact that integrates the implicate and the explicate, the receptacle and the spectacle, in selecting projects that speak to their communities, while at the same time validating some humbled yet powerful interventions in the built environment. Evidently, the Award process stands against the habit of simple architecture criticism, which leads to highly superficial judgments about the built environment. The awarded and shortlisted projects offer guidance for going beyond the traditional and changing the status quo for positive change.

References – Notes.
1. Please see an earlier editorial on Architects for Peace: Salama, A. M. (2008). Editorial: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Unveiling the Jewels of the Built Environment in the Developing World. Architects for Peace, July 2008, Melbourne, Australia.

2. A comprehensive review of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is published in a bilingual article, click here>> Salama, A. M. (2008). Recognizing Architecture of the Other. MAGAZ Magazine, Issue 103, Ashraf M. Salama Issue 103, MAGAZ Magazine, Cairo, Egypt, PP. 50-65. August 2008.

3. The Master Jury team of the Award’s 11th Cycle was composed of Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Professor, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University, USA); Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj (Architect; Chief Executive Officer, Syria Trust for Development, Syria); Salah M. Hassan (Art historian and curator; director of Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, USA); Faryar Javaherian (Architect and curator; co-founder of Gamma Consultants, Iran); Anish Kapoor (Artist, UK) Kongjian Yu (Landscape architect and urbanist; founder and dean of Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Peking University, China); Jean Nouvel (Architect; founding partner, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, France); Alice Rawsthorn (Design critic, International Herald Tribune, UK); and Basem Al Shihabi (Architect; Managing Partner, Omrania & Associates, Saudi Arabia).

4. See Foreword to the 11th Cycle Award’s book by Farrokh Derakhshani on the Award process.

5. His Highness the Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He succeeded his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, as Imam on 11 July 1957 at the age of 20. The Aga Khan was born on 13 December 1936, in Geneva, Switzerland, as the eldest son of Prince Aly Khan and Princess Tajuddawlah Aly Khan. He spent his early childhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and then attended Le Rosey School in Switzerland. He graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a BA Honors Degree in Islamic history. For more Information, please visit the Aga Khan Development Network here >>

6. Mostafavi, M. (2010). Implicate and Explicate-The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Lars Muller Publishers, Baden, Switzerland. An important feature of each cycle of the Award is the associated book or monograph. The book title of this cycle is Implicate and Explicate—Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The book is structured in seven different preceded by the introductory chapter and concluded by a series of essays which represent reflections on the projects or on the jury process. The five chapters in the middle adopt five different themes: Environment, Institution, Industry, Dwelling, and Conservation.

7. The five projects selected by the 2010 Master Jury are:
• Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
• Revitalisation of the Hypercentre of Tunis, Tunisia
• Madinat Al-Zahra Museum, Cordoba, Spain
• Ipekyol Textile Factory, Edirne, Turkey
• Bridge School, Xiashi, Fujian, China
(For a full on-line press kit including high-resolution images and video, please see

Images from 1 to 8 are credited to Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 2010 Award Cycle, Press Materials. These images are being used non-commercially for the purposes of review and discussion. Copyright holders are welcome to contact the site to request removal of an image.

Ashraf M. Salama
Architects for Peace, January 2011

Dr. Ashraf M. Salama is member of the editorial board of Architects for Peace. He is an architect, scholar, and academic, He is Full Professor of Architecture and the Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University, holds the Dohaland Chair in Architecture at Qatar University (jointly with Prof. Tim Makower of Allies and Morrison Architects). He has held permanent, tenured, and visiting positions in Egypt, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. He is the chief editor of Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, collaborating editor of Open House International-OHI, editorial board member of Time-Based Architecture International, and sets on the international boards of UIA International Competitions.


Beatriz Maturana said...

It is reassuring to see that these projects—and the selection by the Aga Khan Award—celebrate features that are too often overlooked by the traditional standards with which architecture is measured, such as “humility only adds to the powerful message it represents”.
It is also reassuring that most, if not all these projects have a clear purpose (they satisfy a need), which makes them significant to their social/environmental context. In this regard the introduction to each of the categories reinforces the role that architecture has/should have in society. Here I am referring to what you have highlighted in red, for instance, in the institutional category, “The question of how institutions can symbolize societal aspirations, wills, and achievements is rising in recent discussions in the fields of cultural politics, social psychology, and architecture and urbanism.”
It is in a way a pity (although I understand the reasons) that the Aga Khan Award celebrates only Islamic architecture. However, I see no reason why other nations should not follow suit and based on the Aga Khan experience, celebrate their own achievements—architecture would be so much richer for it. This is perhaps something to think about and an area of great interest for Architects for Peace (and part of the aims). Thanks again Ashraf! Is there any possibility to feature each, or some of these projects here?

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