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Speech by Oleg Grabar, Recipient of the 2010 Chairman’s Award, at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2010 Award Presentation Ceremony (Doha, Qatar)

24 November 2010

 

Please also see: Recipients of the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture (Press Section)

It is with much pride and gratitude that I have accepted the Chairman’s Award from the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, following Hassan Fathy, Rifat Chaderji, and Sir Geoffrey Bawa. It is an honor to join such a distinguished company and, even more so, to be the first one who is not an architect nor a planner, not even a decision-maker at the level at which I remember the term being used in the deliberations of the Steering Committee many years ago (and a term to which I shall return), but an academic scholar and teacher who has spent his life in universities and research institutes learning and then transmitting to others, in lectures, seminars, and writing whatever I had learned and understood. And it is with these two themes of knowledge and of education that my remarks will deal.

But, first, let me add that my acceptance contains also a sprinkling of somewhat sentimental memories and I want to begin with a few of these, because they have a bearing on the achievements of the past 35 years, on the subject of my talk, and on the expectations we can have for the future.

Some thirty-five years ago, when I was a member of the first Steering Committee gathered to help His Highness the Aga Khan design what was then simply the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and which is now an enormous enterprise operating on five continents, his dream and vision for the growth and development of the environment of Muslims, wherever they live and work, were already fully present in his spirit, but neither, with all due respect, His Highness nor any of the six or seven people gathered to help him out had any clear idea of what to do and how to translate his vision into a reality. The story of how it eventually happened will never be told, because a dozen separate memories are involved, some of the key participants are no longer alive, and, to my recollection, no coherent record was kept of the inventive and creative discussions among a dozen or so imaginative, hard-working, and witty men and one woman, who bear the responsibility of what happened.

Two questions dominated our discussions then. One was: is there an abstract cultural phenomenon to be called Islamic architecture that is not simply whatever architecture is or was used by Muslims, and that could be defined as different from whatever was done elsewhere or for other human groups ? And how do we find out what it is? The other question was: once we find what it is, how do we let the world in general and Muslim communities in particular know what it is or was? The aim, or one of the aims, of the Award was to help maintain the quality and presumed uniqueness of this architecture, while bringing it up to the most effective economic, technical, and cultural practices of our own day. There was something simple-minded in our feelings then that the local past was almost always genuine and good and that contemporary universal ways were usually meaningless. We were clearly wrong then, mostly because of ignorance of what was really going on and because we were ourselves the victims of very narrow prejudices. We all felt that weakness. And one of the main objectives of our meetings was to acquire a knowledge of planning and constructional practice and to provide a program of creative education. We were not to be restricted by arbitrary opinions nor by presumably established doctrines.

In a sense, our task of many years back was justified by an often quoted Tradition (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that knowledge must be sought wherever it is found, even in China. China in the seventh century of the common era and the first century of the hijrah was a way to identify a remote world known to exist and to be important, but hardly an accessible one. The point of the Tradition is that there is knowledge everywhere, none of which should be rejected without being tested. Both of these implications are still pertinent today. Knowledge is indeed created everywhere and China has become a central actor in the cultural as well as economic realms of today’s world. What has changed dramatically since the time of the Prophet and what keeps changing in ways which are almost impossible to predict are the nature of knowledge and the means in our possession to deal with it.

Such contemporary comments on the hadith as are known to me do not talk about education. At the time of the Prophet, transmission of practical or philosophical knowledge was relatively simple, through writing, copying and reading books, through oral arguments kept in the memories of participants, and through the continuing practice of artisanal procedures carried from father to son, from master to apprentice, and from region to region. Any capable and intelligent person was then able to master most of what was known. The breadth of knowledge within the minds of many talented individual before the seventeenth century can at times be truly stunning, even if such individuals were rare. Education was one with information and knowledge and it took place wherever there was a library and a few literate and concerned individuals, or within ateliers of artisans.

Today’s scene is dramatically different. There are as many centers producing information as there are countries with universities, technical schools, archaeological institutes, hospitals, architectural firms, or museums. Much of this information is available in what I once counted as twenty-six different languages (I am sure it is many more now). It exists in millions of books, hundreds of journals, thousands of reports, and now, thanks to the Internet and to Google, this knowledge is accessible, in theory at least, almost everywhere in the world. Museum collections have been photographed and recorded, exhibitions kept forever on DVD’s. And I suppose that architectural firms and excavators preserve whatever they find and do on masses of disks. In short, the quantity of available information is enormous, so large that it cannot be mastered and it is easy to forget whatever one has just found out. No one can say anymore that he knows all about Islamic art, about the architectural projects of today, about excavations or about objects from any one period of history, or about anything but a narrow strip of constantly changing information.

And I can even go a step further. As I discovered recently while listening to a lecture on Physics by a Nobel Prize winner of recent vintage, what we see and can describe as a variety of people in this original building is only one reality, one truth. Both people and architecture or any space can also be defined as an infinite number of quarks and electrons in constant motion. This particular reality is invisible and can only be measured in mathematical terms. In fact, it is rather curious that this fact of an invisible reality (to contemporary physicists, I gather, there are several such parallel realities) of everything coincides in many ways with the theory of atomism developed in Ancient Greece and then transformed in ninth century Baghdad. This theory acknowledged the existence of an invisible reality of all things, a reality which was or could be modified, but God alone was empowered to modify these constructions – that is, us as people or everything around us, including what we think we have created– or to keep them as they were. Within this traditional scheme, truth was always one and invisible; our own science today assumes the existence of several parallel truths, in addition to the one we see with our eyes. It is often the case that transcendental and laboratory-defined explanations come close to each other, but they can never meet for one is ultimately based on beliefs and the other one on experiments. This is altogether an area of concern I shall not touch on today, except perhaps a little bit in conclusion, but it is an important one. How do we separate what we know from what we believe? Or do we? Should we?
This contemporary explosion of data has by necessity created two paths in dealing with it. One way is to narrow one’s competence and to claim total or near total knowledge only in narrowly defined spheres, the Ottoman world of the eighteenth century, the ceramics of Iran, the construction of minarets, or the contribution of Hassan Fathy to contemporary architecture in the Islamic world. Specialization becomes the order given to knowledge and it tends to be determined by the narrow restrictions provided by limited linguistic competence or limited area awareness, or even limited mental capacities. Specialization tends to become national and linguistically limited, but it presumes thoroughness and completeness in dealing with its subjects. It also requires large numbers of equally competent specialists, properly distributed everywhere and well versed in other languages and in other histories, who may or may not find ways of communicating with each other. Ultimately, however, this successful specialization is impossible to achieve and this way of proceeding compels one to lie about what one knows or to project arbitrarily a limited experience to other areas of knowledge.

I will give you just one example taken from history, although contemporary politics provides many such examples. Traditional architectural decoration of Andalus in Spain, or Egypt, Iraq, Central Asia, is dominated after the tenth century by a complex geometry. It is easy to argue that this is the result of Islamic religious and philosophical thought that rejected or avoided resemblances to natural creations and found in geometry an abstract truth which could be given esthetic values. But it is also possible to show that rather different mathematical theories had developed in Central Asia and in Andalus and that the practice of artisanship was quite different in the two regions. The existing designs did not reflect the same principles of thought and different social and cultural interpretations must be provided for motifs that are strikingly similar and especially for a similar transfer of abstract thought to architectural forms. It is easy to provide a universal or pan-Islamic interpretation because external, political or cultural, forces today require such an interpretation, while in fact, for a scholar or a student aware of the details of several separate histories, very different social, ethnic, pious, and intellectual factors were involved. But what is more important, the historian’s search for and eventual knowledge of the truth or the contemporary political or social leader’s need to satisfy contemporary emotional needs? Any answer bears heavy political and ideological implications. Here is, however, an instance without deep political implications. Many years ago, as I shared a panel in Indonesia with Hassan Fathy, the latter made a very eloquent speech on the necessity to save water in an Islamic society and gave appropriate Arabian or Egyptian examples. But his Indonesian audience replied that in Java, water is a danger against which you need protection and that the principles of the faith have nothing to do with it. Which position is more “Islamic,” the one that preaches saving water or its opposite, getting rid of it as efficiently as possible?
The other direction proposed by the explosion of information was outlined to me some years ago by an early Internet activist with much experience in the physical and natural sciences, who was installing a new computer in my office. He wanted to let me know what a wonderful progress was being made available for my research. Just as happened, apparently, with chemistry, he argued that every week I could receive automatically, as in a newsletter or, today, by email, a summary in English and with illustrations of every publication about the history of Islamic art or the practice of contemporary architects, or both. This survey would include a judgement as to the significance and value of that information, wherever it appeared and in whatever language it had been originally written. Even if one grants that his hyperbolic enthusiasm for weekly accounts gives more credit than deserved to the activities of the few who deal with the arts of the Muslim world, his basic point was simple. The explosion of information is, first of all, a vehicle in which it is all gathered together and it requires the formation of a class of intermediary handlers –I suppose we could call them consultants today or executive assistants-- who channel information and evaluate it for the use of others. They would be collectively competent in all appropriate languages, they would have a literate command of English, and they would undergo a type of training that would guarantee the accuracy of what they relate and its appropriateness to whatever we need and already know.

In chemistry, as in the political thought of our own times, this accuracy is a variable and many of the reasons for the failures of contemporary political leadership is that the experts cannot manage to keep up with change. Things are probably a bit simpler in architecture related matters. To some degree, for our broad area of the man-made environment of the Islamic world, this consulting function is partly fulfilled by ArchNet, the creation of the Aga Khan Program at Harvard and MIT. This is more or less true with respect to information. But I am not sure that ArchNet possesses well developed critical abilities and that it is capable of reacting rapidly and intelligently to new knowledge and of distributing its awareness to all of its constituents, whether they asked for it or not. Part of my uncertainty derives not so much from failures in the operation of ArchNet, but in the absence of broad categories for the understanding of architecture that would automatically be known to all and consistently included in all new information. We cannot expect something as direct and universal as mathematical formulas are, but we should be able to develop standard categories of description and interpretation which would be expressed in any language.

A simple example of such a category is the material of construction: stone, wood, brick, concrete. We think we know what these terms mean, but it is enough to pick up any book in Russian or Uzbek on architecture in Khorasan and Transoxiana to become totally confused about the terms used for different types of mud bricks which seem to have been used. But there are much more complex categories of understanding which are either, like style, impossible to define, or, like design, too difficult to explain in theory, if not in practice. Finally, while the means exist to make knowledge of architecture available, this is not true of the other arts, where utter disorder of knowledge is still the rule and where very few categories of identification and description exist. And here is another example. All museums exhibit their treasures as closed collections tied to a donor or to a space, but all historians always jump from one collection to the other in search of comparative material or in order to explain complete series of artefacts, the Fatimid ceramics of Egypt or Mughal miniatures. Very different basic information is required by each of these procedures.

I may add, without suggesting it as an immediate possibility, that is may be possible to express these categories of understanding as drawings or charts and models, as visual symbols, usually easy to store and to understand and available in the one language every practitioner, the scholar or the urbanist, would have to learn. But, then, as I reflect on the inane conclusions our governments draw so often from statistics and models made by economists, I am afraid of even suggesting this approach. Someone else will eventually do it better.

Let me sum up then this first part of my talk. The explosion of knowledge of architecture, the built environment in general, and all other arts from the areas in which, now or in the past, Muslims are or were present and active, this explosion consists of two components. There is information, the immense body of documents, from individual buildings to aggregates of buidings creating spaces to a written documentation that ranges from descriptive accounts of the built environment to the legal restrictions attached to them (I am thinking of the thousands of remaining waqfiyahs dealing with the urban environment of most Muslim cities), to the multiple ways in which they were or are used, to the critical record of how they were received, even to philosophical or literary considerations on architecture, although we have few of these, at least to my knowledge. But to know how to find our way in this mass of information, we need knowledge, codes and protocols, ways of access to information that has already been processed for easy use. These codes still have to be generated if we hope to make the mass of existing information usable in an intellectually or morally acceptable way. This is where my way of presenting the evidence leads me to those who rule the architectural and artistic universe, the patrons of art and of museums and the users of works of art, the decision makers to whom we owe so much of what is around us. It is, I believe, their responsibility, I was going to say obligation, to sponsor the creation of such a system for access to information and to support for several years the teams of young men and women who could develop and handle it. It may initially be an expensive task, because errors will be made, and I could tell you more than one pathetic or comic story of our own expensive mistakes of over thirty years ago while building up the Aga Khan Award and then ArchNet. But ultimately information can be tamed and made accessible to all who need it in an acceptable form.

Yet it is not simply a matter of establishing categories of description and of understanding. It is also a matter of making these categories enter the intelligence of people and groups. To do so is how I understand the purposes and requirements of education and I would like to turn now to some remarks on what it is and how it operates.

Education can and should be understood at three different levels.

The first level is the scholarly one, the level of the learned practitioner. It is the highest one because its aim extends beyond existing knowledge to the creation of further knowledge and because it is –or should be-- equipped to communicate with all scholarship in all fields of the humanities and the social sciences. I insist on this point, as I feel very strongly that comparative understanding is a key feature of learned scholarship. Among other things, it permits to avoid the dominance by western paradigms. Over the years I profited a great deal from whatever I learned from contemporary theories of structuralism and linguistics and I owe a great deal of my understanding of Islamic art to the more developed methods of dealing with western art. But this use did not mean that works of Islamic art were like works of western art; it did, however imply the existence of broad, universal, principles behind our understanding of the arts and a good specialist in Islamic art should easily be ready to handle Christian or classical art.

This learned level is also the easiest one to handle and to understand. Naturally and professionally it is centered on maximum information and on the development of ideas. It is only restricted by the linguistic and intellectual limitations of its practitioners and by the time available to deal with it. The development of consultants or assistants as outlined earlier and the improvements in the operation of the Internet should lead to a scholarship that would improve individual learning and that would be made available through the usual mechanisms of higher education like seminars with students, colloquia with colleagues, publication in books with a, by necessity, limited public or through often obscure periodicals. But this level will always remain a relatively restricted one, because it requires not only many technical, especially linguistic, competencies, but because it also demands a passion for learning which is time and mind consuming and which exists only in a few people.

The second level can be called the level of social leadership. It involves those people and institutions that are running governments and financial or industrial enterprises and defining the cultural context of their actions. They make decisions about school curricula and university programs, they sponsor films and television programs, they publish newspapers and magazines they patronize new projects. The form of the governments in which they operate varies a great deal and in their hands lies something even more important than the sponsorship of buildings or the interplay of social and political activities. They provide rewards and awards, they accept or reject the implications of new investments, whether an airport, a university, or the restoration of a historic building. They decide whether something is going to be called Islamic, Arab, or Egyptian, and they define the features to be used in preparing urban developments. They accept or change symbols –flags, occasionally clothes or simply colors– credibly associated with a land or a culture. The power of this level is enormous and so are its responsibilities, but it is far less clear to whom they are responsible. It is easy enough to identify the aims and ambitions of this level of education, but it is more difficult to describe the ways in which it can be influenced and improved. One should avoid policing of thought or the proclamation of compulsory national, ethnic, or religious sets of forms and doctrines. But how does one maintain a climate of openness to many available forms of knowledge which would insure that whatever one sponsors reflects traditions when needed, without becoming absurdly self-centric or entirely transformed by foreign imports? When can one abandon one’s obligation to the past and endorse a present in conflict with that past? These are not easy questions to answer, but they must be dealt with by those who advise leaders, if not by the leaders themselves. And they require a very broad education as well as some passion.

The third level of education lies with the general public. There are many myths and falsehoods in the collective memory of large and small groups of people. Such misconceptions can be dangerous, especially when picked up by ignorant news media; they can lead to the destruction of monuments or of sites, to the assassination of opponents, or, on a less upsetting level, to the broadcasting of false slogans or the sponsorship of dubious causes and unacceptable opinions. The recent often tragic, at times merely ludicrous, events surrounding the portraits of the Prophet or the wearing of the burqa have shown how easy it is to inspire actions through ignorance and to whip up destruction instead of discussion. Here I am thinking about a topic removed from my area of knowledge and competence, but I would argue that public education must concentrate on the media shared by all, such as radio, film, and television, and on the primary and secondary schools attended by all boys and girls. The enlightenment and training of primary and secondary school teachers seems to me essential, because they ultimately fashion the beliefs, attitudes, and eventually passions of all men and women. In the case of teachers, it should be relatively easy to develop adequate programs, because most teachers are dedicated to the task of educating the young, even when they are not properly informed of what to teach them. Matters are much less clear when one deals with the media, so often responsible for the dramas of today. But this is yet another area where I have little factual knowledge and whose discussion must be left to others.

On my first level, that of scholarly knowledge and education, the needs are fairly clear and require only important technical components to be successful. The profession of university level academics, teachers and thinkers in professoinal schools, and well-established practitioners can be reached with a minimum of effort, once certain mechanisms of information and judgement are developed and the gap lessened between wealthy and poor countries. Matters are more complicated when we deal with education for leaders and for the general public. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture and its several side developments are, to my knowledge, the only organizations which have tried to reach publics that are so different from the professionals of architecture. But I am not aware of any formal depiction of its efforts or of any professional evaluation of its impact beyond the moment of pride and of joy that accompanies any award.

I would like to conclude my remarks by repeating, first of all, that much has been accomplished in the practice of architecture in Islamic societies and in the awareness by the rest of the world of the quality of that architecture and of the talents of those who execute it. Thirty five years ago our experience had been that students in professional schools sought their models exclusively in Europe and America, not in their own backyards; and Hassan Fathy was more honored as a person than as a model. This is no longer true today, when a knowledge of the vernacular and sometimes even pride in it are present to architects in the Muslim world and Muslim architects are practicing successfully all over the world. Furthermore, information is relatively easily available everywhere, although not systematically enough and with often dubious interpretations. In general, the levels of knowledge and of practice have changed considerably and can meet the lofty ideals sketched out thirty-five years ago. Other things have changed as well. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought seven new countries within our collective awareness and, more significantly, liberated a high level of technical knowhow, still poorly exploited because of linguistic barriers. Muslim Africa and Malaysia are no longer the unknown visual experiences they were then. And the complexities of the Muslim presence in non-Muslim lands have affected the minds of all men and women, unfortunately not always for the good.

These are all developments that could have made all of us richer and more sophisticated in our understanding of the vast Muslim world. But have they done so? Not always. In a paradoxical way, they have strengthened parochialism, because few thinkers, practitioners or generalists are really involved in imagining what Morocco, Uzbekistan, or Malaysia have in common. It has become easier to firm up one’s own rather than to drown it with too much parallel information. This development is clearly tied to the rise of local nationalisms of all sorts and may not subside, but national passions are so tragically inbred in men and women that I can only hope that the global humanism I wish to preach is not a dream. Then, the rise of violent extremism among Muslims and a destructive and senseless response among non-Muslims have led, for our academic and practical purposes, to an almost paranoiac concern for security and to restrictions on travel or on exchanges of all sorts which are harmful to the growth, even the maintenance, of learned connections and of a fruitful knowledge. Behind both extremism and the response to it lies a profound ignorance of everything, from the interpretation of religious texts and awareness of history to the beliefs and motivations of others than ourselves.

These are all rather frightening prospects, especially when it is so easy to draw a vision of a rich and productive future, in which local creativity can enhance the lives of all men and women and become known to all of them, from financial or political leaders to schoolchildren. People of my age will not know whether this vision will ever become real, but we all know that those here and elsewhere who are under fifty have an exciting challenge ahead of them, and, thanks to the Aga Khan Award and to a number of parallel institutions, one or more vehicle to meet that challenge.

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