The Aga Khan Award for Architecture: Impression and Comments

The Last Award Cycle

The Steering Committee meetings have been of great educational value to me. They have helped me to relate my work to larger philosophical and historical issues which has already resulted in certain changes in it – for the better I hope! As I have said earlier, I feel that the gist of these discussions should be recorded in an appropriate manner. Over years they would make interesting reading and tell a fascinating story, and perhaps form the subject of a Ph.D dissertation.

The current cycle, however, does not have many seminars, workshops etc to its credit. Nor has the Award really involved itself in relevant activities of other organisations (such as those which have led to the Rio Summit) although it can play an important and decisive role in matters related to architecture and planning. Hopefully, such opportunities will not be missed in the future.

In my opinion the Award results of this cycle are the most impressive to- date. They are socially relevant, address many of the concerns of previous Award seminars and those expressed in the deliberations of the current Steering Committee; they are of a relatively high quality; and they are the work of Third World architects. However, as observed by His Highness, there were almost no nominations for work places and utilitarian buildings such as factories and warehouses. ‘This discrepancy needs to be addressed. The message that the winning projects of this cycle are collectively conveying to the profession not only in the Islamic World, hut to the profession at large, is very important in the context of a world currently involved in assessing the immense environmental damage that conventional development models have created, The Steering Committee must discuss in its Samarkand session how this message should be conveyed to the architectural profession and the environmental lobby the World over.

Future Cycles

We live in times of massive social and economic change in Islamic societies. Old artisanal and social systems and the power structures that made them function have been destroyed. Large scale urbanisation has eroded the culture and form of our cities. The major clients of the architect, if he is to have an impact on our physical environment, are the poor. Environmental degradation, inequity, exploitation and an absence of relevant institutions to deal with issues related to haphazard growth have created horizontal and vertical polarisation in many of our cities and we have lost all senses of historic continuity. Architects today are not educated to understand these issues or to relate their work to them. Nor are they educated to relate their work to disciplines related to humanities and social sciences. The most important function of the Award, I feel, is to create an understanding of these issues and to develop in the future architects the tools with which to tackle them. To do this the Award should

  1. Give priority to the development of an appropriate system of architectural education. This can only be effective if it is done at the under-graduate level. The student must clearly understand the factors and processes that are creating the built environment around him before he applies the architects “traditional tools” to deal with them. This cannot be done by proxy hut only through direct contact, association and osmosis with the environment he needs to understand. If such an understanding can be inculcated at the under-graduate, level, it will completely change the nature of the graduate level education for design, conservation, restoration, planning etc. An appropriate and relevant system of graduate studies cannot possibly be achieved without major changes in the basic approach to under-graduate education and an understanding of social, economic and political issues. The means to achieve this end needs to be discussed and worked out, for present day architectural education in the Islamic World is completely inadequate to deal with the problems Islamic societies are beset with. In the absence of teachers to impart such an education, a modest beginning is the only possibility; and
  2. Ways and means of activating professional institutions to discuss the social, economic and environmental issues in Islamic societies and relate them to the work of architects through constructive criticism and evaluations, must he studied. This should be the thrust of future seminars and workshops and presentation of and discussion on case studies of successful projects and noble failures, which clearly establish the context of the projects, are the best tools of achieving this end.

As has been noted earlier, the design of utilitarian buildings and factories is not given due importance by the profession and its clients in Islamic societies. In Pakistan, teaching institutions also ignore this aspect of architecture. During the next Award cycle the Award should

  1. Hold a seminar on factories and utilitarian buildings to which heads of important academic institutions in the Islamic World are invited; and
  2. Encourage professional institutions in the Islamic World to hold design competitions for such buildings and complexes. May be the Award could sponsor two or three such competitions.

In Pakistan, and I am sure in other Islamic countries as well, there are organisations and individuals trying to raise awareness levels of communities and groups regarding their environment, and/or trying to improve building and related skills so as to make them responsive to the needs of present day society. Some of these initiatives are having a major effect on housing and environment. To begin with it is important that they know about the Award and that the Award knows about them. In the future it would be worthwhile to see if and how the Award can improve their operations and help create links between them and the profession. The most obvious way of doing this is to arrange for an exchange programme between such institutions and individual in different countries.

For making it possible for the Award to adopt the above directions, it is essential that at least two members of the next Steering Committee and the next Master Jury should be persons who are well acquainted with the “grassroots” situation in Islamic societies, and whose work is of relevance to it. In addition, at least two architects whose work consciously seeks to relate tradition with contemporary requirements and technology should also form part of the Steering Committee and the Master Jury.

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