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  • The Hassan II Bridge links the cities of Rabat and Salé in Morocco across the Bouregreg River. Shortlisted for the 2013 Award, it is an example of new infrastructure being built to address the changing needs of a growing urban population.
    AKAA / Marc Mimram
Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Sustainability over spectacle: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture (Part 2)

Written by Ayesha Daya, journalist writing for AKDN and TheIsmaili.org

Part two: Impact

During the 36 years since its establishment, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has become a forum for a professional and academic discussion of developments affecting the built environment. The debates that take place during the seminars, the breadth of articles published, and the variety of projects honoured point at the real purpose of the award, which is a commitment to seek out the best solutions for architecture to improve the world Muslim communities live in, rather than simply recognising a job well done.

“The Award is not narrowly focused on architecture, but looks at architectural excellence in the context of the development of structures and infrastructure of social life,” says Homi K. Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English at Harvard University and a member of the Award’s steering committee since 2008. “One of its great strengths is the way in which it focuses on the role the urban environment plays in the creation of civil society as well as the architectural interests of planning and civil infrastructure.”

Impact on people

The Award seeks out a full range of architectural interventions. Each project has a distinctive story, and knowing the stories helps understand why the projects have been selected, whether they are an eco-friendly school in Burkina Faso, a park in Cairo, or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. 

A number of towers have been prize recipients. The Petronas Towers, built to house the offices of the national petroleum company, won the Award in 2004 for incorporating traditional Islamic designs from Malaysia’s heritage as well as the inclusion of an art gallery, a concert hall and a shopping centre to meet the needs of the local society. The Moulmein Rise Residential Building won in 2007 for recognising that the climate becomes gentler higher up and for designing the windows in a way that allows the breeze in without rain. The Met Tower in Bankok has been nominated for this year’s award because of its natural cross-ventilation that eliminates the need for air conditioning and its adoption of aspects of low-rise tropical housing such as open-air terraces.

Various housing developments have won. For example, the Khuda-ki-Basti housing scheme in Hyderabad, Pakistan, winner of the award in 1995, broke away from the usual low-income housing template. The traditional schemes had proved ineffective in meeting the needs of families who, often unable to meet repayments, left the plots and houses in the hands of speculators. Khuda-ki-Basti instead implemented an incremental development scheme, reaching the poorest people by allocating land and allowing people to build on it gradually based on their means.

Meanwhile the Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, won in 1989 for a housing scheme it started in various locations in Bangladesh following its successful offer of loans without collateral for the rural poor to start income-generating endeavours. The bank offered credit and materials for houses to its shelterless members, of which 84 per cent were women. In the first five years of the programme 44 500 houses were built, and 98 per cent of the participants had paid back their loans.

The Award has equally recognised restoration projects, incorporating changes to suit current needs when necessary. These
range from a nomination this year for reconstructing the sprawling 60-year-old Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon that was almost all destroyed in the 2007 war, building upwards to house the 27 000 residents and free up the limited land; using original materials to restore the sixteenth century Amiriya school and mosque complex in Rada, Yemen and opening it to the public by turning the ground floor into a museum — a 2007 winner; and the restoration of the 2 500 year old Bukhara old city, which won in 1995 for the project’s creativity in finding new functions for rehabilitated madrasas and mausoleums or returning old trading domes to their original purpose as active marketplaces.

“Restoration projects have generated a ripple effect within the country, creating a consciousness within the larger community and within government that if we don’t look after our heritage, we’re going to lose it,” says Azim Nanji a professor of Islamic Studies who taught at Stanford University and has served on both the steering committee and master jury of the Award. “Focusing on rural projects as well as urban has created an awareness of marginalised people in society, motivating community leaders, governments and local architects to build projects that meet the needs of the very poor but in a way that is architecturally and also socially innovative.”

Some projects’ attractiveness is in their radical innovations. The arch-shaped sandbag shelters in Iran provided emergency housing for refugees in Ahwaz. A 2004 winner, they measure 14 square metres, are seismically safe, impervious to weather conditions, and have been built using war materials. And, they only cost $4 each. Or the Ipekyol textile factory in Edirne, northwest Turkey, which won in 2010. It integrated production goals with the wellbeing of employees by creating a single workspace that breaks down divisions between blue and white collar workers and – in an industry usually characterised by a female workforce and male managers – between male and female. It also incorporated floor-to-ceiling windows so workers have access to natural light and views of nature.

“The award has been given to water towers, to slum upgrading, and by this was able to show that any intervention in the built environment is architecture, and any step to improve it should be recognised,” says Farrokh Derakhshani, Director of the Award. “It has broadened the international architectural discourse by including new issues such as conservation, infrastructure, social issues, that weren’t considered architectural issues before.”

What all the winners have in common is that they show how architecture can be a means to improving societies. One Award winner in 2010 was a school in China that was also a bridge, linking two parts of the Xiashi village in Fujian province that lay on either side of a creek. The entire structure, including a walkway for pedestrians underneath the school and walls at either end that open out for performances, has provided a social space for Xiashi and become a physical and spiritual centre for the once declining village.

Another project was the rehabilitation of Hanifa valley in Saudi Arabia, the longest and most important valley near the capital city Riyadh, and a natural water drainage course for the city. Having been aggressively exploited through the course of urbanisation until it became litter strewn and dangerous, the valley is being restored to create a rare public space for the people of Riyadh to gather. Agricultural land is being enhanced, and a wastewater treatment facility is being built to provide extra water for the dry region.

“The social and political matters of everyday life are things architecture can address,” says Farshid Moussavi, principal of London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture. “Buildings are not treaties; they do not solve all of the world’s problems. But they can become a powerful instrument of change in everyday life, whether it is addressing processes of change needed relative to the environment, the use of materials, social habits. The Award is an embracement of such processes.”

Impact on architecture

The Award is seeing its geographical remit expand as Muslim communities develop all around the world. As well as projects from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, awards have been given to the Institut du Monde Arabe in France, the rehabilitation of the Walled City in Cyprus, and the Madinat al Zahra Museum in Spain. This year’s shortlist includes a Muslim cemetery in Austria.

“The most important impact is to invigorate the search for excellence in the architecture in the Islamic world,” says Rabbat. “Competition does have positive aspects, sometimes. It also brought Islamic architecture to the attention of the world architectural community, a process that was bolstered later on by the establishment of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.”

As important as the architecture itself, is the intellectual discourse surrounding it. Over the past four decades, the Award has witnessed an evolution in the discussion about infusing the built environment of Muslim societies with an “Islamic” identity. This issue was hotly debated during the 1970s and 1980s, amid the petrodollar-fuelled construction boom in many countries of the Muslim world that led people to start thinking more seriously about the cultural significances of what they were building, and due to the postmodern movement, which addressed issues such as the role of the past in the built environment of the present.

With time, this interest in modernity and tradition, and in developing “Islamic” architectural identities, has waned, according to Mohammad al-Asad, the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment in Amman, Jordan.

“Although there continues to be considerable debate about these issues in the Islamic world, which sometimes has expressed itself in violent forms, architecture and the built environment are no longer a part of that debate,” says al-Asad, who has been involved with the Award for over two decades. “The interest in the built environment has moved on to issues such as the use of technology, sustainability, and addressing the various changing and increasing needs of cities that are growing at incredibly rapid rates.”

The Ummah – the Muslim community throughout the world – has expanded into a complex, diverse, decentred region that is international and multicultural, and as such, there is no single style of infrastructure or planning, says Bhabha, who is also a cultural theoretician. New sectors for the Award to consider should include industrial areas, as well as built environments at the intersection of the rural-urban divide.

“Given the global spread of capital, we want to see how this affects societies,” Bhabha says. “New industries, the digital world, as well as large-scale industrial buildings. Also, signs of the equitable distribution of resources: if there is little sign of this in the developing world, one should ask why.”

Sometimes the rural world is forgotten as people look more at cities, Bhabha says. As rural populations move into the urban sector during boom times, they live in favelas, in slums, in places where they have few rights and they are not very well settled — essentially living a rural life in the city. It is very important to see this area as a form of development in itself, he says. On the one hand you have large-scale development, and on the other, these settlements that are neither urban nor rural, that have started creating new relationships with the urban classes by providing services such as laundries or Internet cafes.

“There’s been a shift in the architecture for Muslim societies from being only interested in heritage and preservation to one that embraces the contemporary too,” says Moussavi. “The Award still embraces initiatives to preserve historic cities and buildings, but it also recognises the need to make the future. At some point, these old structures were new, providing people with new ways to engage with their built environment, and we need to extend those visions by celebrating initiatives that embrace current and future needs.”

The future of the Award

It has been a generation since the Award was established.

“Much has happened since then,” says al-Asad. “Populations throughout the Islamic world have grown tremendously, and the need to develop built environments that suitably address their requirements — housing, institutional structures, infrastructure services, public open spaces, transportation networks — are becoming more urgent and important than ever.”

To address these new developments, the Award has expanded the range of projects that can be nominated. One can now nominate infrastructure projects, for example. It has also begun to publish the very detailed reports undertaken on each project, which can be used by students and professors to provoke and aid research.

“If societies are to build architecture that has emerged from the area itself, there’s a need to encourage local architects not to just imitate what is presumed to be modern architecture so countries don’t end up looking flat,” says Nanji.

“Not everything that is modern is necessarily relevant. For example, at one point two Soviet-style towers were built in Zanzibar, an island that has its own unique style of architecture. These eventually fell into disuse: no one wanted to live in them because there was no sense of community, no sense of belonging. Examples like this often happen because projects are simply not thought through. So education is very important.”

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture has achieved a number of milestones over the years. It has transformed the way architects, clients and users in Muslim communities think about architecture, tying it firmly to the soil on which it is built and its inhabitants. Equally importantly, it has brought to prominence cutting edge solutions to countries’ economic, social and environmental challenges, providing models that can inspire architects and users elsewhere. Today, as Muslim communities in the east and west go through rapid and sometimes violent changes, the continuous intellectual debate and practical investigation that the Award insists upon, about what the built environment should look like and how it can serve the people in it, is as crucial as ever.

“When you think about what it is that makes a difference to people’s wellbeing, health and happiness, you realise that shelter constitutes a fundamental part,” says Hanif Kara, Professor in Practice of Architectural Technology at Harvard Graduate School of Design, who has been involved in the prize for almost a decade. “This Award — and the consciousness it develops at a time when countries are building at rapid speed without thinking about sustainability, and we are consuming information through images rather than in-depth critique — can teach us to stop and question why.”

“Ultimately, the Award is a people’s award.”


This is the conclusion of a two-part story written by journalist Ayesha Daya for AKDN and TheIsmaili.org , exploring the purpose and impact of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Read the first part here.