AGA KHAN AWARD

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established in 1977 by His Highness the Aga
Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, to enhance the
understanding of Islamic culture and its architecture. The program, administered by the
Aga Khan Trust for Culture, recognizes and awards architectural excellence, with special
concern for contemporary design, social housing, community development, restoration,
conservation, and environmentalism. One of the principles of the Aga Khan Foundation
has been to encourage sustainability whereby recipients of the Aga Khan’s largesse
would themselves be able to reinvest in the future of their own communities. The Aga
Khan’s influence is widespread and includes the establishment in the United States of the
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (1979), jointly run by the Massachusetts
Institute for Technology and Harvard University, and the creation of the Aga Khan
Award for Architecture.
In 1976 the Aga Khan announced that he would establish an architectural award as a
means of fostering the growth of a modern and vibrant Islamic architecture within the
context of rich and valuable traditions. In spanning political and geographical boundaries,
a major objective of the award was to create an overarching sense of unity for the Muslim
world, in spite of distinctive and sometimes disparate cultures. “Excellence in
architecture” was attributed not only to examples of finely designed architecture, but also
to community projects, such as housing for the poor and civil engineering works, clearly
demonstrating the future direction of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
In 1988, the Aga Khan reorganized his network of philanthropic institutions. The Aga
Khan Award for Architecture was transferred from the Aga Khan Foundation to the
newly established Aga Khan Trust for Culture, also responsible for the Historic Cities
Support Programme and the Education and Culture Programme. The goals of these
cultural agencies were aligned with the Aga Khan’s original list of challenges for the
Islamic world—pursuit of excellence in architecture and related disci-plines, conservation
and re-use of historic buildings and spaces, and education for architects and urban
planners. A fourth objective of the Trust for Culture was to encourage the interchange of
ideas to enhance awareness of the relationship between historic and contemporary
Muslim cultures and their built environments.
On occasion, the Aga Khan has bestowed a special Chairman’s Award to recognize
outstanding achievement in Muslim architecture. In 1980 the first was presented to
Egypt’s Hassan Fathy, architect, artist, and poet, particularly acknowledging his
encouragement of vernacular building systems and his work improving the built
environment of impoverished peoples. Others have followed and include Rifat Chadirji of
Iraq and Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka.
Recipients of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture have now totalled 80, and they
have been as diverse as the cultures they represent. One of the most prevalent themes
throughout the history of the award has been the social responsibility of architecture. This
was reflected in the 1980 award to the Kampung Improvement Programme in Jakarta, the
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 46
Grameen Bank Housing Programme in Bangladesh (1989 award), and the multiphased
Hafsia Quarter project in Tunis (1983 and 1995 awards). Such humanitarian
considerations were also evident in awards given for educational and medical facilities,
such as the Medical Centre in Mopti, Mali (1980 award) and the Lepers Hospital,
Maharashtra Province, India (1998 award). Another major award theme was heritage
preservation, as evidenced by the awards for restoration of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque
(1986 award), conservation of Old Sana’a in Yemen (1995 award), and restoration of
Bukhara Old City, Uzbekistan (1995 award). Juries concerned with self-sustainability
often appreciated projects demonstrating the viability of vernacular construction
techniques and traditional building forms or the use of locally available materials. This
priority is evident in the Yaama Mosque in Tahoua, Niger (1986 award) and the Stone
Building System employed in Dar’a Province, Syria (1992 award).
Despite the fact that the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture have so far been
principally bestowed on projects in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (the only
central European recipient was the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris), the international
architectural community has steadily developed an interest in the awards. Because
cultural, religious, and economic conditions in most Muslim countries differ so much
from Western societies, a lack of sympathy for the priorities of the award program
persists, although the expanding cadre of skilled Islamic architects and planners is
helping to alleviate this.
This awards program has significantly inspired the architectural representation of
Islamic culture during the past 25 years. At a time when many of these cultures were
threatened by Western influence, by economic failure, and by political violence, the Aga
Khan’s initiative reminded everyone of the quality of this cultural heritage. At the same
time, the award’s broad scope, with its emphasis on alleviating living conditions of the
poor, on sustainability, and on the environment, has encouraged innovative solutions to
rapidly worsening societal problems. Although this award does not fit the mold of
Western architectural perceptions, its initial priorities were clearly established and are
constantly evolving to meet the needs of many cultural communities. Emphasizing not
only contemporary architecture, but also historic architectural traditions threatened by
reconstruction and development, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has helped to
create a means of expressing Islamic ideals in a modern context. The award promotes a
sense of pride in Muslim culture, and the vast number of submissions has facilitated
documentation of over 6,000 works of modern Islamic architecture, providing inspiration
for future generations.

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