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Faith in the future: an architecture of pluralism

Suzdal, Russia, 31 July 2000 -- As Jerusalem's fate was debated thousands of miles away, architects of different faiths and nationalities last week stood amidst the churches, convents and monasteries of this medieval city that survived its Tatar conquerors, exchanging ideas for revitalising each other's spaces of gathering.

Remarkable anywhere, if not more so in the former Soviet Union, an international seminar in Moscow organised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the International Association of the Unions of Architects (IAUA) concluded with architects and planners sharing advice and experiences on designing places of worship of different faiths.

The seminar occurs at a time when the attention directed towards the creation and revival of religious buildings in the Commonwealth of Independent States is at a level unprecedented in living memory.

"Our questions have been as much about our connections to history as they have about how we are to project our future," said Mr. Igor Voskresenski, Executive Secretary of IAUA, recognising the diversity represented by distinguished architects from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Joining them were a multidisciplinary group of academics and professionals from Egypt, France, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

"We did not inherit the future from our parents, we have simply borrowed it from our children," warned Ismaïl Serageldin, immediate past Vice President of the World Bank, reminding participants of the destructive consequences of cultural intolerance and disrespect for the environment in the face of accelerating forces of social change and globalisation.

From the churches of the Kremlin to the mosques of Indonesia and the synagogues of North Africa, a variety of images and conceptions of religious space and their societal roles animated the discussion. New and old ethnic and national identities, historical memory, the symbolism of faith, demography and urban development: these and other pervasive influences were examined as architects and planners debated how, why, for whom and by whom would spaces of gathering need to be designed for the future.

Designing and planning cities in the Commonwealth of Independent States today and tomorrow, the seminar concluded, would require sensitive integration of new space into an expanding urban fabric. It would also, however, mean a more pluralistic and harmonious outlook towards people of other faiths and their needs as well as towards the multiple and varied forms that those faiths had of expressing themselves in buildings and spaces. Above all, architects and planners would need to be guided by a new vision that would incorporate the essence of the cultures of those for whom they designed.

The International Association of the Unions of Architects was established in 1992 to preserve cultural space and further develop creative communication amongst architectural professionals and educators of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1977 to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence. Prizes totalling up to US$ 500,000 - the largest architectural award in the world - are presented every three years to projects selected by an independent Master Jury.

The selection process emphasises architecture that not only provides for people's physical, social, and economic needs, but that also stimulates and responds to their cultural and spiritual expectations. Particular attention is given to building schemes that use local resources and appropriate technology in an innovative way, and to projects likely to inspire similar efforts elsewhere.

The Award is administered by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture which co-ordinates the cultural activities of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of international agencies working to improve living conditions and opportunities in specific regions of the developing world. The Trust's activities include the conservation and re-use of buildings and spaces in historic cities through projects in Bosnia, Egypt, Pakistan, Spain, Syria, Uzbekistan and Zanzibar, support for the Aga Khan Programme in Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the operation, in collaboration with MIT, of ArchNet, an interactive global Internet-based cyberspatial network that links architects, planners and universities around the world.

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