First of all can you describe your role as General Manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and as the person who is in charge of the Award? We understand that the process of selection is a rigorous one and that this is probably one of the reasons why it is considered so highly in international design circles; the awards are also already in their 10th cycle, having started in 1977.
As General Manager, I oversee a variety of programmes, not just the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Our Historic Cities Programme has large direct interventions involving restoration and urban revitalisation in Cairo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Zanzibar, Mali and India. We also have a Museums Programme which is building three museums, in Toronto, Zanzibar and Cairo, to highlight Muslim culture and art. Our Music Initiative in Central Asia is helping to preserve and promote the traditional music of the region. Starting in October musicians from Central Asia will be touring the United States and Canada and we are releasing the fourth, fifth and sixth volumes of a 10-part CD-DVD collection on Central Asian music in collaboration with the Smithsonian Folkways recordings.
As for the rigour of the Award, I believe no other Award actually sends highly-qualified technical reviewers to the short-listed projects before a Master Jury makes a final selection. The criteria are not limited to architectural excellence, but also the impact on quality of life, making the Award unique. Perhaps that is why it is so highly regarded, particularly among architects.
Can you also tell us more about His Highness’s vision for the Award? Actually, maybe we need to learn more about his role as the Imam [Spiritual Leader] of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims…
The imperative is that we “honour excellence”. However, this could be misleading, if our definition of architectural enterprise remains narrow. What we spotlight through this award is an all-encompassing contribution of human endeavour, shaping an infinite variety of human spaces. The spaces we had in mind in establishing this Award were broadly defined, encompassing places both public and private, enclosed and open, urban and rural, residential and commercial, cultural and industrial, intimate and grand, religious and secular.
And the categories of people we had in mind also were broadly inclusive. We recognise with enormous respect those who initially dream about inspiring combinations of shape and scale, pattern and colour, texture and volume, line and light. But we also honour those who express those dreams in tangible designs, or through inspired on-site articulations, as well as those who finance these projects, and those whose skills as managers and builders convert abstract ideas into physical realities. In short, our definition of the words ‘architects’ and ‘architecture’ is very comprehensive.
The Aga Khan has emphasised the view of Islam as a thinking, spiritual faith, one that teaches compassion and tolerance and that upholds the dignity of man, Allah’s noblest creation. In the Shia tradition of Islam, it is the mandate of the Imam of the time to safeguard the individual’s right to personal intellectual search and to give practical expression to the ethical vision of society that the Islamic message inspires. Addressing, the International Conference on the Example [Seerat] of the Prophet Muhammad in Karachi in 1976, the Aga Khan said that the wisdom of Allah’s final Prophet in seeking new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, provides the inspiration for Muslims to conceive a truly modern and dynamic society, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam.
During the course of history, the Ismailis have, under the guidance of their Imams, made contributions to the growth of Islamic civilisation. Al-Azhar University and the Academy of Science, Dar al-Ilm, in Cairo and indeed the city of Cairo itself, exemplify their contributions to the cultural, religious and intellectual life of Muslims. Among the renowned philosophers, jurists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists of the past who flourished under the patronage of Ismaili Imams are Qadi al-Numan, al-Kirmani, Ibn al-Haytham [al-Hazen], Nasir e-Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.
Turkish architect Suha Ozkan, then Deputy Secretary General of the Awards, wrote in 1985 in Regionalism in Architecture [the proceeds of the regional seminar in the series Exploring Architecture in Islamic Cultures, sponsored by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture]: “With the all-obliterating spread of Modernism, the efforts which were made to highlight regional and local concerns were left without enough support to survive… the polarity is between internationalism which demands a global relevance for its existence, and regionalism which seeks meaning and content under specific local conditions. To achieve the goals of the latter, modernism provides tools and techniques to cope with the problems. Additionally it also offers a code of ethics and categories of aesthetics by means which the achievements can be assessed.”
At the time there was a lot of debate and interest in Henning Larsen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Building in Riyadh and SOM’s National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, with the fortress-like exterior of the former and the re-interpreted courtyard in a high rise building of the latter.
This year’s awards include the University of Technology Petronas with its emblematic high-tech architecture which was deemed to provide an inspiring structure for progressive education in rapidly developing Malaysia. The Award was presented to Foster +Partners and GDP Architects, and the Petronas Corporation. Is the award acknowledging the contribution that the project is giving to education or the design quality of the building itself? What is the validity of Ozkan’s comments today?
I believe it rewards both. His Highness has emphasised that architects have a responsibility for the use of the spaces they create – to the people who use these spaces. Design excellence is of course an important criterion, but another is how these spaces improve the quality of life. All buildings should have a civic purpose in that they improve conditions for the people they serve, whether it is an airport terminal, a school or a hospital. The quality of a space can impact the quality of life in powerful ways that go beyond aesthetic terms.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture engages in a wide range of activities aimed at the preservation and promotion of the material and spiritual heritage of Muslim societies. As the cultural agency of the Aga Khan Development Network, the Trust leverages cultural heritage as a means of supporting and encouraging positive development. Its programmes include the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, which contributes to the revitalisation of historic cities in the Muslim world, both from cultural and socio-economical perspectives.
One of this year’s awards went to the Rehabilitation of the Walled City of Nicosia.
In 1979, the representatives of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities held a historic meeting under United Nations auspices to create a master plan for Nicosia. A collaborative and sustained effort, the project has been successful in reversing the city’s physical and economic decline, using architectural restoration and reuse as the catalyst for improvement to the quality of life on both sides of this divided city. Representatives of both communities shared the Award with the Nicosia Master Plan team. This is an excellent reflection of the remarks of His Highness the Aga Khan, “Our attempt and aspiration is to try to have the humility, but also the competence, to understand what is happening and to seek to influence it so that future generations can live in a better environment.”
Can you tell us more about this project, which is of great relevance not only to Islamic societies but also to several realities facing historic cities in the Mediterranean?
The representatives of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities of Nicosia decided to transcend a tense political situation and take the first steps towards reversing the city’s physical decay and economic decline through the catalyst of restoring the historic walled city. Out of this initiative, started under United Nations auspices, grew a rehabilitation programme that would ultimately enhance the wellbeing of all the inhabitants of the city.
The Nicosia Master Plan project treats the city as a united entity, implementing works in both parts of the city. It has maintained a high standard of workmanship and skills in urban restoration and renewal, and involved the close cooperation of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot members of the project team. The preservation of the cultural and architectural legacy of the historic centre has provided an impetus for private investment, attracted new residents, encouraged tourism and strengthened economic activity. In addition, the rehabilitated buildings are breathing life into the divided city, and new cafés, restaurants, cultural centres and public spaces abound.
A bold and forward-thinking project, the Nicosia Master Plan has brought together opposing communities by identifying what unites rather than divides them. It has used the shared space of a historic urban core as the motivating factor to develop a relationship of cooperation and positive coexistence that has continued to evolve over quarter of a century.
Nine projects were selected for awards by the 2007 Master Jury, the majority of which appear to have been design led by western architects or firms. The Master Jury commented positively about the meaningful collaborations and exchange of ideas – between architects, craftsmen, governments, international development agencies, clients and users – that were a defining feature of the winning projects. But what is the state of architectural education in the countries featured? Is architecture in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Malaysia still the realm of international firms?
At a seminar we just held in Kuala Lumpur, over 200 students from architectural and engineering schools throughout the region attended. His Highness spoke to them about the importance of continuing to ask questions. I do believe that education is improving in some countries, such as Malaysia, while it is not doing so well in others. There are renowned architects from these countries – Kenneth Yeang from Malaysia, for example – and we are hopeful that the upcoming generation will produce an even larger number of good architects and master planners. We are also targeting the municipalities which commission much of this work. As you might know, we have set up two programmes to help address the issue of teaching resources and the quality of teaching in schools of architecture and engineering in the developing world – an on-line architectural community and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and MIT. We believe the creation of slide libraries at ArchNet that combine the image banks of Harvard, MIT and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, for example, allow underfunded architectural departments to download, without cost, the visual materials they require.