The Aga Khan Award for Architecture Winners’ Seminar took place earlier today in Muscat, Oman. The event brought together recipients of this year’s Award alongside architecture theorists and practitioners on a distinguished panel to discuss learnings for the future of architecture in Oman and beyond.

Prince Amyn, Princess Zahra, and Prince Hussain participated in the event hosted at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Oman’s capital, along with members of the Award steering committee and master jury.

Steering Committee member Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa warmly welcomed guests to the Winners’ Seminar, which is traditionally held during each Award cycle in parallel with the Prize-giving Ceremony. It provides a platform for architects, clients, designers, and patrons to discuss each of the award-winning projects, and the resulting positive impact on their social and natural environments, along with broader trends in the field of architecture and the built environment.

This year’s six winning projects offer creative responses to contemporary issues, including community participation, sustainability, imagining new realities, and the refugee crisis, as discussed by the panel at the seminar.

Professor Kazi Khaleed Ashraf, Director-General of the Bengal Institute for Architecture and a member of the master jury, remarked particularly on three winning projects: the Community Spaces in the Rohingya Refugee Response, the Urban River Spaces, and the CEM Kamanar School projects. He explained that community participation and agency was critical to the success of the architectural process.

He also stressed the importance of having the wisdom to know when to intervene, and when to step aside for the community to take over a project and flourish. He identified trust, friendship, and ethical generosity as key ingredients. These values are synonymous with the teachings of Islam, and are among those which Mawlana Hazar Imam often reminds us to integrate within our own lives. These projects therefore can be seen as inspirational beacons that invite us to reflect on our own multifaceted contributions to society. 

In his opening remarks at this year’s event, architecture professor Soumyen Bandyopadhyay highlighted the significance of architecture not only as a finished product, form, or expression of final piece, but rather as a process. He elaborated that architecture has a temporal role and that even with permanent materials, it has a transient nature due to changing environments and needs of the communities it seeks to serve. 

For example, in the case of the Argo Contemporary Art Museum and Cultural Centre, a carefully restored more-than-100-year-old former brewery, the architects explained that they remained emotionally unattached to its original role, which gave them freedom to explore a reinterpretation of what the building could mean to the community in its new lease of life.  

Drawing comparisons with the design ethos and sustainable credentials of the winning Banyuwangi International airport, Professor Bandyopadhyay emphasised Oman’s commitment to sustainability, infrastructure, and patronage, highlighting that the recently completed Outward Bound Oman Centre, making substantial use of solar energy – whilst treating and reusing all water on site – was an inspiration for all to learn from.  

Professor Sarah M. Whiting, Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, and a member of the steering committee commented that the winning projects engaged with their communities in such diverse yet respectful ways providing “a reimagined way of working architecture,” whereby though the aesthetics in many cases were considered simple, the ongoing negotiations and collaborations were evidently complex. 

Architect Nicolas Fayad, responsible for the renovation of Niemeyer Guest House in Tripoli, highlighted the considerable effort invested in research and findings to understand the DNA of a building, before allowing the mind to imagine a new reality. Nader Tehrani, dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture in New York and a member of the master jury, shared the sentiment and suggested that doubling up of the mullions in this project, reinforcing the thinness, delicacy, and fragility of the structure, contributed to “not merely solving a problem, [but also] transcending it.” 

The conversation later moved to the social impact of architecture and its ability to serve, bringing togetherness, joy, and connection to all those involved – not only in the process of delivering a project, but also in its inhabitation and future use. For example, Khwaja Fatmi, architect of the Community Spaces in the Rohingya Refugee Response project, explained how this series of interventions resulted from a wide-ranging collective response to the Rohingya community’s needs. She spoke about facilitating participation of the community, empowering them to design and build these structures, and articulated her hope for this award to inspire other professionals to also tackle the ongoing global refugee crisis in similar ways, in other parts of the world. 

Discussing the Urban River Spaces project, architect Khondaker Hasibul Kabir spoke of how being useful to many people sparked the start of their journey. He explained that as architects “we don’t invite people to work in our projects, we work in people’s projects,” placing agency and authority firmly among the people these spaces seek to serve. In a similar vein, referencing the CEM Kamanar School project’s local community, architect David García spoke about a dream to “help them through architecture” by being a ‘local’ in the process, through architectural design, techniques, and craftsmanship, as well as through engagement with the community. 

In her concluding remarks at the event, Marina Tabassum, an architect and member of the steering committee, highlighted that the committee’s recommendation to the master jury was “to seek out excellent architecture that reimagines reality, charting new directions, new possibilities – new realities.” In doing so, the winning projects have demonstrated exemplary and transformative practices, contributing to the ongoing conversation of how architecture and the built environment has a profound impact on the way in which we all live our lives. 

Faisal Ali is a principal chartered architect at a London-based design studio specialising in both high end residential and historic restoration projects internationally. He also serves as a Jamati educator based in the UK.