In 1970s, a group of intellectuals came together at Aiglemont, France, to bend their minds towards a pressing problem: how to arrest the decline of architectural traditions across the Muslim world and help these societies rediscover the confidence to shape their built environments in the image of their own values and identities? Journalist Ayesha Daya describes how the questions they raised, their deliberations and debates gave way to the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Part one: Purpose.

The twenty-first century has begun with a wave of new construction projects reshaping the landscape of many Muslim countries. From the shores of the Arabian Peninsula to the steppes of Kazakhstan, artificial islands, air-conditioned football stadiums and newly created capital cities are being built as countries use advances in modern technology and engineering to eliminate the constraints of their natural environment.

While these new projects expand the realm of possible interventions in the built environment, there is a concern that some architectural and technological ambitions may come at the detriment of sustainability.

“We live in a ‘society of the spectacle' – authenticity is less about quality and more about the visual appeal, the unfamiliar, the extraordinary,” says Amer Moustafa, Associate Professor of Architecture at the American University of Sharjah. “Entering into the Guinness Book of Records, for instance, is a most noteworthy achievement.”

“We are not creating good architecture or inspiring places,” he continues, “we are producing commodities and real estate properties that prize competitiveness in the materialistic and the exchange value of things, rather than in their quality or sustainability. Architecture by nature should be sustainable: good design minimises the impact on nature, on other people.”

It is precisely this question of “good design” that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has been grappling with since its establishment in 1977, and will continue to debate at this year's award that takes place in September in Lisbon. Given to projects that set new standards of excellence and address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence, the $1 000 000 prize looks for innovations that respond to the specific needs of a particular environment, economy and society – the fundamental tenets of sustainability. Over the years, it has celebrated projects that innovate within the constraints of their natural environment, from office towers to water towers, museums to market places, and across embassies, slum improvement projects, schools, and housing schemes.

The state of architecture in the 1970s

During much of the twentieth century, architectural practice in the industrialised world was dominated by Modernism. This movement was a reaction to the ostentation of the century before and called for buildings that were austere, simple to replicate and designed purely for functional use in a celebration of modern life's emphasis on practicality and the use of technology. The movement was synonymous with glass and steel structures, such as the Seagram Building in New York built in the 1950s by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Oscar Niemeyer's National Congress of Brazil, built in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the once resplendent architectural traditions of Muslim societies had waned with the onset of colonialism and the subsequent trends of modernisation and Westernisation. The paucity of architects from Muslim cultures and trained in those traditions meant that elaborate mosques, forts, gardens, and homes that once represented the grandeur of those societies – the Alhambra in Granada, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the Naqsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan – were no longer being built.

By the 1970s, Modernism's one-size-fits-all approach – where buildings in Cairo could be identical to those in Copenhagen – was under attack. Critics of modernism say the movement by and large ignored the uniqueness of places, and their different climates, building materials, and cultures. In reaction, the postmodern paradigm began to emerge.

“The postmodern movement, among many other revisions on modernism, was advocating a return to history as a means to re-insert architecture in the collective consciousness,” says Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The Islamic world, whose engagement with modernity in general has been spotty to say the least, found in postmodernism a way to reassert its autonomous architectural identity and to reconnect with its pre-colonial heritage.”

Fostering debate through an award

Ultimately, modern architecture was failing to meet the needs of very disparate societies. This became a concern for the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, who at that time was expanding the network of schools and hospitals established by his grandfather in the different geographies in which the Ismaili community had a presence.

As a result, His Highness the Aga Khan brought together a number of intellectuals – professors, architects, historians – to think of new ways of “providing a better thinking environment for architects to do less harm, and provide better models,” says Farrokh Derakhshani, Director of the Award.

“An award would showcase achievements, create knowledge, and share that knowledge,” explains Derakhshani. “The seminars held with each Award cycle would discuss the issues of the time, and monographs were published showcasing the winning projects and the debates by each cycle's master jury members. In those days, there was no literature of architecture from the eastern part of the world.”


Thus, in 1977, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture was born.

Together with the Imam, the group that designed the award became the first steering committee: Nader Ardalan, Garr Campbell, Sir Hugh Casson, Charles Correa, Hassan Fathy, Oleg Grabar, Dogan Kuban, and William Porter. Fathy, an Egyptian architect who reinstated in local house construction the use of traditional designs and materials known to provide natural ventilation, received the first Chairman's Award in acknowledgement of his lifelong commitment to architecture in the Muslim world.

The Aga Khan restated the objectives of the Award in his opening remarks at the inaugural seminar, held at Aiglemont, France in 1978.

“What is the future physical environment that Muslims should seek for themselves and future generations in their homelands, their institutions, their workplaces, their houses, their gardens and in their surroundings?” he asked.

“The establishment of an Award that would promote, encourage and recognise work and projects of exceptional quality and interest in the various aspects of our built environment is, I believe, a worthwhile and rewarding contribution towards solving the problem,” he continued. “Further, I hope many of these projects will reflect thought about the practical aspects of the economies, peoples and countries they serve by being built with the most cost-effective resources and with an eye to maintenance.”

Rigorous selection process

Azim Nanji, a professor of Islamic Studies who taught at Stanford University, served on both the steering committee, which establishes the eligibility criteria for project submissions and is responsible for the Award's programme of international seminars, lectures, exhibitions and publications, and on the master jury, which selects the winning projects. The steering committee and master jury change for each Award cycle, every three years.

“It's one of the most vigorous selection processes I've experienced,” says Nanji. “For me, a great learning experience was to see how architects moved between the built projects and their context – they wanted to see their contribution to the further development of that society. It shows that the Award is much more than just about buildings.”

Each cycle begins with a request for project submissions. Nominators must justify in detail their project choice and how it meets the criteria and themes for that particular cycle. Crucially, the project has to have been in operation for at least a year.

Several months later, once the initial nominations are in – numbering upward of some 400 projects – the independent master jury meets for about a week to decide on a shortlist of about 20. A separate team of experts visit the project to technically assess each of the shortlisted projects and respond to questions from the jury, compiling its assessment in a 5 000-word report. The master jury then meets a second time to make its final decision on Award winners.

The Award has completed eleven cycles of activity since 1977, with 105 winning projects to date. Documentation has been compiled on over 8 000 building projects throughout the world.

“It is more international than any other award as it covers the developed and the developing world, and it has been covering the developing world since the 1970s, which no other award has, so there's a great educational process that comes out of it,” says Hanif Kara, Professor in Practice of Architectural Technology at Harvard Graduate School of Design, who has been involved in the prize for almost a decade. “It reshapes the way you think about your own discipline. It opens up the mind to what architecture hasn't dealt with yet, what research needs to be done.”

This is the first of a two-part story written by journalist Ayesha Daya for AKDN and exploring the purpose and impact of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Read the conclusion here.