Interviews - Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Aga Khan Development Network
 

A Quarter Century of Change: Interview with Suha Özkan, Secretary General of the AKAA

Geneva, July 2004 - Interview conducted by Mr. Stuart Klawans, Kreisberg Group Ltd., New York City

Question: Much has changed in the Islamic world and in architecture since 1977, when the Aga Khan established the Award for Architecture, and since 1980, when the first group of winning projects was announced. How has the Award kept up? Is this ninth cycle of the Award significantly different from what came before?

Suha Özkan: It is different. Because the Award is given only to completed projects, in recognition of proven accomplishment, the decisions of the Master Juries over the years have established a cumulative standard of what’s good and what’s important. And the emphasis has in fact shifted several times, both to respond to changes in the field and to encourage change. We have gone through another such transformation in this cycle.

Q: What have been some of the past emphases, and how, in particular, is this cycle different?

SO: When the Award began, it was still common for people to distinguish between mere buildings on the one hand and works of architecture on the other. The emphasis, whether in teaching or in criticism, was on the important individual structure, whose appearance stands out from the great mass of ordinary buildings. Then the first Master Jury cited a project to improve urban conditions in Jakarta. That was an eye-opener for many, many people - because perhaps ninety percent of the world’s buildings are designed by non-architects. How, then, do we introduce architectural know-how and quality into people’s lives? The solutions may not be very striking visually, but they, too, are important as architecture. So, right at the start, the Award helped to expand the definition of architecture.

In the fourth cycle, the 1989 Master Jury signalled a new direction by citing a tremendous spectrum of projects - from Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building in Dhaka and Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris on one end to a little mosque in Jeddah on the other. The message of pluralism was clear. The fifth cycle established the social responsibility of architecture as a core concern of the Award, largely through the influence of Frank Gehry, who served on the 1992 Master Jury. Then, with the 1995 Award, which cited a reforestation project in Turkey, the Master Jury announced a broader concern with urban ecology and how the built environment is shaped.

Running through all of these decisions, from the beginning until the 2001 Award, was a strong thread of regionalism. By that, I mean a way of practicing modern architecture within a specific cultural, historical and geographic context. Alvar Aalto, for example, defined modernism in Scandinavia, Luis Barragán in Mexico and Latin America, Charles Correa in South Asia. The striking change in the 2004 Award is that you don’t have any regionalist projects. The Master Jury this time looked beyond regionalism, and this is a major departure.

Q: Something else must be happening in the field, then, that the Master Jury wanted to recognize as important. What new emphasis do you find in the 2004 Award?

SO: Out of seven winning projects, at least three might be seen as experimental - as test cases for appropriate architecture under different conditions. These projects are a private house in Turkey, a school building in rural Burkina Faso and a prototype for sandbag structures. Another two of the projects, which are very large in scale and institutional in nature, are also highly innovative in terms of design and construction, while nevertheless relying on local know-how.

So, perhaps at the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that this Award highlights experimentation. It is not only a fresh departure, it is about fresh departures in architecture all through the Islamic world, from West Africa to Malaysia.

Q: How did this change come about? Was there a deliberate decision to shake up the Award?

SO: Yes - and that decision originated with His Highness the Aga Khan.
It is important to know that even though the jurors make their judgments autonomously, the process does not begin with them. The Award is governed by a Steering Committee chaired by His Highness, who appoints a new committee for each three-year cycle. One of the main responsibilities of each Steering Committee is to identify the members of the Master Jury and give them a brief for their work.

Now in the past, the composition of the Steering Committee has changed incrementally from cycle to cycle. Many of the previous members were retained, and only a few new members were added. This time, though, our office proposed that we bring in new blood, and His Highness, who makes the decisions, readily agreed. He is always in favour of a newer, fresher, more progressive spirit in all our committees.

For the ninth cycle, then, we had more or less a completely new Steering Committee, whose members had a different perspective on the field of architecture and a different body of knowledge. When you bring in new people, you know, they come not only with their intellects but also with their relationships, and that can lend tremendous dynamism to the programme.

As a result, the Master Jury this time was also different. Usually, our office proposes some 300 names to the Steering Committee as potential members of the Master Jury. This time, more than half of the people who served on the Master Jury were not on our initial list. They were suggested directly by the Steering Committee, and this gave the 2004 Master Jury a fresh character of its own. The Master Jury this cycle included a visual artist, two philosophers and a structural engineer, in addition to an international group of five remarkable architects.

Q: Do you think the way you organized the process for this cycle helped to open the jurors’ eyes to the experimentation that has been happening?

SO: Perhaps. For this cycle, the Steering Committee gave the jurors three “threshold criteria” to consider when they reviewed the nominated projects. The first was social and ethical responsibility. The second was intelligent use of available resources and materials and sensitivity toward the environment. The third was a contribution to known ways of doing things, or to extending the known boundaries. The jurors seem to me to have placed special emphasis on extending the known boundaries.
Perhaps another of our organizational changes helped open the way toward their doing so. When the Award began, we used to present the nominated projects to the Master Jury in groups, categorized by country or region. Then we began to group them by building type. For this cycle, we deliberately avoided all ready-made categories. We presented the projects in alphabetical order, by designer - and that, too, may have encouraged the Master Jury to think freely.

Q: Did the Steering Committee give the Master Jury any substantive issues to consider beyond those you’ve mentioned?

SO: The Steering Committee directed the jurors’ attention toward a constellation of important factors in contemporary architectural practice in the Muslim world, including: the symbolization of power and authority; the articulation of public and private spaces; the representation of cultural identity; the recognition of pluralism; and the encouragement of constructive aspirations for individuals and societies. No one would expect each winning project to be exemplary about all of these matters, but the Steering Committee clearly hoped that some combination of them would be addressed.

Q: In 1980, the first Master Jury gave fifteen projects the Award. This year, the Master Jury has cited seven projects. Is this the fewest number of Awards ever given?

SO: Yes. We gave six Awards in 1986, but there were also five honourable mentions, which brought the total for that cycle to eleven. This cycle is unusually concentrated. At the same time, the winners are geographically diverse and fully convey another quality that the Steering Committee particularly emphasized in its brief, which is pluralism.

Q: Let’s talk about that criterion. How does pluralism figure in the Award?

SO: Pluralism has always been present, if only through the variety of building types and project functions that receive the Award. Beyond that, however, we must wrestle with this issue because of the way the Award defines its goals.

When His Highness established the Award, he did not make it the Aga Khan Award for Islamic Architecture, or Southern Architecture, or Contextual Architecture. It’s simply for architecture, but with the qualifying criterion that a population of Muslims should benefit from the project, though not necessarily as the exclusive constituency or even as the target group. Muslims live in different concentrations all over the world, including Europe and the Americas, and so this criterion presents a very meaningful challenge to the Master Juries.

In 1998, for example, the Master Jury gave the Award to a lepers’ hospital in India in which, at the time, there was not a single doctor or patient who was Muslim. Nor did the building have anything to do directly with Muslim architecture; the architects were Norwegian, and the client was an evangelical church. But everyone at the hospital is treated in the same way, and the mission of the project is to eradicate a disease that for centuries put people into lifelong quarantine. We were faced with the question, “What does this have to do with Islam?” We said that, like any other faith, Islam addresses the human heart, the human body and the human mind.

I think we did something really wonderful for humanity with that decision, when there are antagonisms and oppositions among so many ethnic and religious groups. Pluralism is always there for us. It is a mosaic that is getting richer with every cycle.

Q: How are this cycle’s winners pluralistic?

SO: The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is clearly a project that is deeply involved with Muslim history and with the prestige and heritage of Egypt; but at the same time, it was designed by a Norwegian firm selected through an international competition, and it serves anyone who seeks knowledge. Another project designed by a non-Muslim is the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. While the building contributes to the vitality of Malaysia, it does so by serving a global business clientele.

The project to restore Al-Abbas Mosque in Yemen is of course concerned with a specifically Muslim cultural heritage. But the restoration was carried out with tremendous persistence and expertise by the French Centre for Yemeni Studies; and though the building can be dated precisely to 1125-1126, when it was constructed as a mosque, it almost certainly has its origins in a pre-Islamic shrine on that site. We have a second historic preservation project in this cycle, the Old City of Jerusalem Revitalization Programme, whose purpose is clearly pluralistic. It enables a mixture of populations to continue to reside in the Old City by ensuring that the housing stock remains viable, while being restored to the very highest standards.

By contrast, the B2 House on the Aegean coast of Turkey is an utterly contemporary example of residential architecture: a summer vacation home designed with minimalist rigour, for people who want to undertake an experiment in living. The Sandbag Shelter Prototypes - another experiment - is designed by an Iranian-born architect who lives in California and has worked for the United Nations and NASA. Again, this is a project that may benefit people of many different backgrounds, Muslims included.

Finally, there is the primary school in rural Burkina Faso - a building constructed by the entire village, but under the leadership of the village chief’s son, who is the first member of this community to receive higher education. He started the project after studying architecture in Berlin, and you can see the modernist sensibility and inventive spirit he brought to the design.

Pluralism may be more or less explicit as a value in these seven projects, but there is no question that it plays a role in all of them.

Q: The Steering Committee for this cycle also recommended that the Master Jury consider how the projects embody power and authority. Could you talk about how that issue is played out in these projects?

SO: The authority, in the case of the Yemeni mosque, is history - that, and the spiritual qualities that people associate with the site. I think it is significant that when the preservation team dismantled the very beautiful ceiling and brought it to the National Museum for restoration, the local residents demanded its return, and their protests helped to speed along the work.

In Jerusalem, the authority is basically a private foundation established in Switzerland, which is dedicated to helping people solve their problems. The foundation provides technical know-how and legal and practical support, but the residents have to participate actively - that is, to share in the authority.

In the Burkina Faso school, the authority is what made the project happen. We were excited to see people participate in the construction of the school - but we also know that it was the cultural and political clout of the architect, who is the son of the village chief, that moved the people.

In the little house in Turkey, the authority basically depends upon the personal choice of the clients, who are two brothers. They found an architect who proposed a certain lifestyle, radically simple and without clutter, and the clients agreed to try it.

The two large-scale buildings are pure reflections of authority. Bibliotheca Alexandrina reflects the political authority of Egypt, which wants to revive the most important Islamic intellectual institution of the past. Petronas Towers is a product of corporate authority - although the decision to make those skyscrapers the tallest in the world is also in part a matter of political authority. That choice serves no functional purpose but is entirely a matter of symbolism for Malaysia.

The Sandbag Structures project is intended - initially but not exclusively - to help people who have been displaced by war or disaster, so they can build their own housing cheaply and quickly. But the effectiveness of the design will depend to a great extent on how it is implemented, under whose direction. So you might say this is a design that is waiting for an authority.

What is important in all these projects, of course, is the architectural value that has been brought to bear on the problem. All architecture deals with authority, one way or the other. Here, we have seven exemplary design solutions to seven very different conditions of authority.

Q: In the case of the Jerusalem project, though, is another dimension of power also being addressed? Some people may see the project as a challenge to Israeli political authority.

SO: That would be a misunderstanding of the decision of the Master Jury, which as always was very clear that it was not making a political statement with this Award. I would view the authority embodied in the Jerusalem project as humanitarian rather than political. The foundation responsible, which is based in Geneva, works to benefit the Palestinian population of the Old City - there is no question about that. But in the end, what they do is to bring better living conditions to people. In order to assure ourselves that this project would be impartially assessed, we appointed as on-site reviewer a very well-informed and widely respected expert who is not a Muslim. He praised the project as architecture, and the Master Jury unanimously agreed.

Q: Does the Award always avoid politics?

SO: Absolutely. When His Highness established this Award, he chose to promote an art form that is very abstract. Unlike literature, it does not need to be translated. Unlike painting and sculpture, it can dispense fairly easily with iconography. And for the same reason, there is a strong social component to architecture that can be utterly independent of politics. The Award recognizes architecture that serves communities.

Architecture brings solutions, regardless of Muslim or non-Muslim. There is a strong component of Islamic use in all of the projects we recognize. But for any architect or decision-maker, the body of Award winners is a collection of solutions they can benefit from, because architecture is abstract. That is why we have been able to address people from the East and the West alike, and why we have been able from the start to involve the very best architects in the world.

Q: You just spoke of the Award winners as a collection, which has been built up over the past quarter century. This raises a question: What has been the cumulative effect of the Award over the years?

SO: Years ago, Charles Jencks remarked that the Award is structured like British common law, rather than Roman law. In Roman law, there is a list of crimes and a corresponding list of punishments, and justice is distributed accordingly. In British common law, the court takes a case and evaluates it contextually, and the decision becomes a precedent for judging future cases. It is a cumulative memory of justice.

In abstract terms, the Aga Khan Award works like that. We have reached the mark of ninety-two Awards and three Chairman’s Awards. That is a body of validated decisions on what is good in architecture, spanning a quarter of a century. Those decisions, as a whole, inform the international architectural community, and the community’s responses come back to us in turn.

Q: By what means do you bring a knowledge of the Award to the architectural community?

SO: We could have worked like many other award programmes, which operate more or less like journals. They receive the material, they sort through it, they publish or reward what they like and then they go on. Ours is the only award with a memory.

We explore to find nominators and to keep them involved from cycle to cycle. We explore to generate nominations. And whatever comes to us through the nominating process, we retain. We keep every single nominating document in our archive. When a nominated project is short-listed, we subject it to intense on-site review - which again is something unique among architecture awards - and that adds another level of information. Someone with a high level of competence fully documents the project; a professional photographer records it. We bring all of this data to an archival level of quality and then transfer it to our educational arm: the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and M.I.T. and the educational web site, ArchNet.org. Now we are in the process of digitalizing the entire archive, including more than 350,000 images of contemporary architecture throughout the world, from the 1960s to the present. It used to be that people had to come to our office in Geneva to consult the archive. Now we make this information accessible to everyone.
This is the largest body of information about contemporary architecture as it is practiced in the Muslim world. If you’re talking about historic architecture, then there are many important archives. But when you talk about contemporary architecture, then I believe we are unique. And if the Aga Khan Award for Architecture did not exist, we would not have this information. No one would.

Q: Since you mention the Harvard-M.I.T. programme and ArchNet, it’s worth noting that the Award for Architecture is only one component of the The Aga Khan Trust for Culture. How is the Award related to the other arms of the Trust?

SO: The departments of the Trust have grown more diversified over the years. In addition to the educational programmes, His Highness has established an Historic Cities Programme, Museums Project, an Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia, a Humanities Project for Central Asia; and it is fair to say that they have all come out of the cultural melting pot that is the Award for Architecture.

The Harvard-M.I.T. programme, for example, developed quite logically out of the series of major seminars that we held in various places around the world in conjunction with the Award. The Historic Cities Programme is also in large measure an outgrowth of these seminars. His Highness’s experience with our seminar in Cairo in 1984 led to his desire to undertake a project to reclaim a garbage dump in the middle of the city and to transform it into green space. This became the Azhar Park project, which entailed His Highness’s working to establish legal structures to protect the park, sociological studies, archaeological studies, a training project for local crafts people, a financing scheme so that local residents would not be bought out of their homes when real-estate values began to rise. The socio-economic and community-building aspects became so complex that His Highness eventually founded a separate Historic Cities Programme, for this and other sites where he undertook projects.

The Music Initiative is one of the more recent components of the Trust, which shares with architecture the benefit of dealing with an abstract art form that needs no translation. It is a very powerful programme, since it literally voices people’s sentiments. The decision to develop music as another line of engagement seems to me to have arisen very naturally from the Trust’s experiences with architecture.

I would say that the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is essentially based on architecture, including its history, teaching, and professional practice.

Q: Do you feel that the Award has had an impact beyond the architectural community - that it has influenced clients, or potential clients?

SO: We know the Award has influenced clients. One of the wisest decisions, which was made at the very beginning, was to give the Award to the project. In this way, we honour not only architects but also clients, decision-makers, financers, whoever has contributed to the project.

We want to change the world by means of architecture - but architecture cannot be done on its own. So we recognize these other forces, and that has had a real effect in the field.

Q: Could you cite some examples?

SO: For instance, in the Hafsia Quarter of Tunis, when the whole area was about to be demolished, we gave the Award to a project to reinstate the old urban structure. Not only was the demolition stopped, but people then undertook many other projects in the Medina, one of which subsequently received another Award. We definitely changed the way the ex-Soviets addressed the problem of conservation. Their approach was basically to rebuild, using contemporary materials such as steel. By giving an Award in Bukhara, we opened a new avenue.

And when it comes to new buildings, the existence of the Award definitely has an effect on clients. We hear that many architects now tell their potential clients, “If you give me this job, I’ll get you the Aga Khan Award.” Of course this is a pledge they can’t keep - but it speaks to the success we’ve had in raising people’s standards. The Award has even influenced financing structures. We were the first people to give an award to microcredit mechanisms. We did it in 1986, when we gave an Award to a housing programme in Bangladesh. Prior to receiving the Award, the programme had already financed 60,000 houses through microcredit, but nobody knew about it. After they got the Award, they were known. Now microcredit is talked about everywhere, as one of the most positive instruments for change in the world. Another example is the project to conserve Mostar, which has always been a self-financing project. The model, which was really applied there for the first time, became known through the Award.

Q: This is not what people think of as architecture.

SO: The Award has expanded the definition of architecture, not just in predominantly Islamic societies but throughout the world. It has been able to do so only because the Master Juries are very keen to ensure that the architecture that comes out of these schemes is good enough. That is the key.

Q: Do you feel the Award has had an impact on building in the non-Islamic world?

SO: There, the determining factor is the contemporaneity of our projects. We recognize solutions that others can emulate, which is why so many important Western architects have been involved in - and remain committed to - our Award, from Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman to Billie Tsien in this year’s cycle. The Award reflects a mix of East and West, both in the way it is organized and in the projects it recognizes.

Q: What does the Award do to help or influence younger architects?

SO: We have given the Award to projects by architects who were 26, 28, 30 years old, but this, frankly, is an anomaly. When the Award recognizes younger people, it does so by chance. The reason is that the Award recognizes only completed projects that are in use. So consider what that means. You cannot finish architecture school before the age of 25. Your first job will probably be a kind of apprenticeship, taking you to 30. Then, in order to get a commission, you have to have achieved some sort of a profile, so that the client will trust you. That would bring you to 35 or 40. After you get the commission, it will take you 10 to 15 years to finish the building, especially in our part of the world. Now you’re 55. In order for it to be nominated for the Award, it has to have been in use for a year, and the Award cycle takes place every 3 years - so now you’re 60.

Q: You’re making this sound improbably discouraging.

SO: We don’t want to discourage anyone. But now you understand why we have tended to recognize mature talent, which is in fact a strength of the Award.

I would say that other mechanisms should engage younger architects - for example, ideas competitions, which can be carried out in journals. That is the sort of activity that could perhaps be carried out by the Trust’s education arm, rather than by the Award. There also could be a mechanism for recognizing and encouraging scholarship, especially among younger professionals. There are more than 300 schools of architecture throughout the Muslim world, and the academics in them are not idle. What happens to the hundreds and hundreds of theses and field reports that they produce? Who is validating the research and the thinking? The Award cannot do these things unless there is a desire for them in the field and a conviction on the part of the Steering Committee. But these issues are being discussed.

Beyond that, I can tell you that the Award has definitely instilled a sense of pride in young Muslim architects - a sense that they are in no way underprivileged or backward. That is certainly one of the major achievements of the Award, and a very meaningful way in which it has engaged the young.

Q: The Award ceremony for the ninth cycle will take place in India. What does it mean that the ceremony will be held at Agra Fort?

SO: Every cycle, the Steering Committee considers ten to twelve sites for the ceremony. The site has to be a world-class monument, and we have to celebrate in such a way that we contribute something to the site.
With that in mind, Agra Fort is a perfect choice. It is a very large, entirely Muslim monument, which contains many extraordinary palaces and two mosques. It’s impeccable as a work of architecture. And of course it is part of the larger fabric of the city of Agra, which includes the Taj Mahal and other important Mughal monuments.

Q: Your work as Secretary General of the Award has given you a unique overview of architecture throughout the Muslim world. How has the field changed over the past quarter century?

SO: The field has changed tremendously, in large part due to tourism. Many of the countries we work in are magnets for tourists. And tourism is a sector that can engage good architecture. It’s not so much a matter of the tourist industry building good hotels and airports, although there is that component. The tourist industry is the cultural presenter of each country to newcomers - it is a base of information and experiences - and so good architecture matters to it. For that reason, His Highness has been involved in many important architectural projects that involve tourism - in Zanzibar, for example.

The second major change is that the aggressively uniform architecture of the Modern movement has fallen out of favour. Peter Blake’s famous book Form Follows Fiasco was published in 1977, the same year the Award was established. Most of the discourse that demands homogeneity in architecture has collapsed since then. Post-modernity has collapsed, too - it was too shallow to last. But regionalism took hold, and we contributed a lot to it by promotion, by exploration, and by engaging the discourse. That is something we have changed.

Q: And now, in 2004, the Master Jury has passed over the regionalist projects to recognize other achievements. Might we read this Award as a message that regionalism may be good in and of itself, but that we also need something more?

SO: No. What we need is for certain building types to be designed more thoughtfully. For example, we don’t have a good hospital. The only exception is the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi, which is not eligible for this Award. Everywhere else, the hospitals are disasters of architecture. The programmes are so complex that very few architects can handle them efficiently, let alone well. The Award has not identified one single industrial building. When you go to Mexico, you find many good factories, designed by people such as Ricardo Legorreta. This time, we presented more than a dozen industrial buildings to the Master Jury, but they didn’t think any of them was of high enough quality. We don’t have many housing projects. But we have amassed a very good collection of urban conservation projects, big public buildings, landscapes, regionalist architecture, and now experimental projects, and these collectively convey the message of the Award.

Q: As you look back over this quarter century of the Award, do you have any regrets?

SO: I believe what we leave out is often as important as what we promote. We often shed tears over projects that are eliminated - because here, in our office, we know these projects better than anyone. Not that all of the 378 projects that were nominated for this cycle are worthy of an Award, because they’re not. But we know that many, many exemplary projects are being done. My regret is that, in practical terms, we can recognize only so many of them.