The Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Impression and Comments

Impressions Regarding the Award

Before I express my thoughts on the current award cycle and talk of my concerns for the future cycles, I would like to confess, that until I attended the sessions of the Steering Committee, I did not really understand what the Award was all about. This was in spite of the fact that my work had been nominated for the Award, that I was asked to be a nominator for it, and that in the last cycle I was a technical reviewer. For me, and for the young architects who work with me, the Award was something far away. It was something that was unrelated to our daily work and to the struggle of the people of the settlements we worked in, for improving their homes and environment. The literature produced by the Award was impressive, and I have learnt a lot from it, but from the Orangi squatter settlements, the graffiti covered walls of Dawood College, and the civic strife of Karachi, it sometimes appeared rhetorical and pre-occupied with symbolism and images. My students, most of whom can hardly read English, also viewed the award as something distant, and many of those who showed an interest in it, considered it as an attempt to resurrect “Islamic” architecture in stylistic terms.

Sitting through the discussions of the Steering Committee these not-too-positive impressions regarding the Award were completely changed and I came to realise the potential that the Award possesses for positively effecting the physical environment of our cities and rural areas.

The reasons for these “not-to-positive” impressions, which most professionals and students have regarding the Award in Pakistan, are:

  1. The professional institutions in Pakistan, through which the Award has to operate, have major divisions in them between qualified and non-qualified architects, and between local and foreign qualified ones, in addition to serious class divisions. At least 2 out of 5 academic institutions also suffer from similar divisions. The Award normally deals with the leadership in these institutions which almost invariably belong to a single grouping. With the setting up of the Pakistan Council of Architects & Town Planners (PCATP) these divisions will hopefully diminish over time.
  2. The issues discussed by the Steering Committee, especially the manner and spirit in which they are discussed, do not reach the students, teachers and professionals, and often get lost in the published seminar proceedings.
  3. As the vast majority of students and professionals have a poor knowledge of English, they are automatically excluded from Award related activities and from the literature produced by it, even though their awareness levels and design ability may be above average.

The long-term solutions to these problems are:

  1. The Award should deal with the office bearers of the most representative of professional bodies and should also send first literature to other professional groups, NGO’s and community groups dealing with the physical environment and try and involve them in its activities.
  2. The Award should explore the possibility of locally translating its literature, or pact of it, into Urdu. This should not be a major expense.
  3. Is it possible to bring out a Steering Committee newsletter dealing with the concerns and issues raised at the meetings and reflecting the spirit in which they are discussed?

In short I feel that the Award needs to be easily accessible to all those who are shaping the physical environment in Islamic societies, which in the case of Pakistan, it certainly is not.

Award Procedures

The Award procedures are very thorough and one can only compliment the Award staff on the way they are implemented. However, I feel that the Award needs to involve itself in workshops and seminars of agencies (such as TJNCRD, UNESCAP, Habitat International Coalition, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres, etc.) dealing with social sector issues, so as to take the knowledge gained through this exercise to academic institutions and professionals in the Islamic World and to incorporate this knowledge in its own perspective of things. Individuals from these organizations, who are not necessarily architects, should also be appointed as nominators to the Award. This will certainly add to the number and quality of social sector projects nominated to the Award.

The Technical Reviews as an Educational Tool

I have read a number of technical reviews prepared for the current cycle and I feel that many of them contain a wealth of information and valuable insights from which students, teachers and professionals can benefit. However, the manner in which they are presented at present does not make them the best of educational tools. If selected reviews, of this cycle and previous cycles, could be put together subject-wise, each group with an appropriate introduction, they would be of immense benefit to the architectural profession, much more so than the Award books and the seminar proceedings. Some method of initiating discussions and seminars built around these reviews must he considered and schools of architecture and professional institutions encouraged to undertake this exercise. May be the Award could send a speaker or contribute material and/or a very small grant
for such seminars. In the Award archives the reviews are of limited value. Unless what they teach us can he made easily accessible to the profession and academic institutions in the Islamic World, their immense teaching potential is lost.

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