The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was conceptualised with the hope of creating a platform to cultivate conversation and debate about the built environment and provide direction for the betterment of human life through its enhancement. Award-winning architect and Steering Committee member Marina Tabassum spoke to The Ismaili to continue the conversation.

“The Aga Khan Award for Architecture recognises projects that celebrate humane values through a language of architecture strongly rooted to its place and culture ,” says Marina Tabassum, winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2016.

The Award is based on a conviction, that Architecture has the capacity to transform life, the pursuit of which makes the Award unique amongst the growing landscape of architectural awards and prizes. Winners must prove that their project improves the quality of life of the end users of the building or public space.

The projects are subjected to a rigorous process of selection and this, Marina believes is the reason that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is the most coveted architectural prize in the world. As a Member of the Steering Committee for the Award’s most recent cycle, Marina has had the chance to be closely involved in the Award process. “The Steering Committee, invited and led by His Highness, selects the Master Jury and sets recommendations and themes for the award cycle emphasising the agendas that are relevant of our time. The Master Jury goes through the projects that are nominated by experts from around the world and prepares a shortlist. An independent reviewer is sent from the Award Secretariat for an On-Site review of the shortlisted projects. Based on the reviewers' extensive reports the Master Jury finalises the winners,” she says.

The methodical on-site investigation of each project, its programme, design, and execution, forms an important component of the Master Jury’s decision-making process. The post-occupancy evaluation of each project is equally vital, including its conditions of construction and use, along with responsive and innovative use of materials and technology. The On-Site visits by the reviewers provide indispensable evidence of the broader physical impact of the project, how the community is using it and how it   benefits them. It is much more than merely looking at six or seven beautiful pictures.

While the process of selection for the Award has remained constant since its inception, the emphasis of the award along with its concerns has evolved, reflecting the human, societal, and environmental challenges of the day. Mawlana Hazar Imam, in his speech at the 2016 Award Ceremony, mentioned a few of the qualities of architecture that the Award seeks to promote and honour: the ability of great architecture to integrate inherited tradition and changing needs; its inclination to integrate the Gifts of Nature and the potential of the human mind  to engage with Nature respectfully and not by subduing or conquering it; and the quality to find a balance between aesthetic inspiration and practical utility; and the propensity to highlight the Spirit of Pluralism – an approach to life that welcomes difference and diversity.

“The emphasis on pluralism is quite evident if the shortlisted projects are studied carefully. Projects quite often directly address the context of a multicultural environment and respond through the creation of spaces and programs that are inclusive and celebrate diversity,” adds Marina. This emphasis is evident at the award-winning Bjarke Ingels Group designed Superkilen in Copenhagen, which  creates a public space for diverse identities, highlighting its plural nature  and addressing political conflicts and social controversies by using bold creativity and participatory design.

“For the current cycle, His Highness particularly emphasised on the pressing issues of climate change and projects that focused on the environment and there were a significant number of projects that dealt with adaptive re-use and conservation were nominated,” points out Marina. The Master Jury too, in its deliberation, considered the conditions in which the vast majority of the world’s population lives in today: climate change, rising economic and digital inequalities, epidemics, greater restrictions on liberties, growing polarisation, raging wars, large waves of population displacements and the difficulty of living in dignity. As such, the dominant themes that emerged, and which define the winners of the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture Cycle, are three-fold: living heritage, ecological resiliency and recovery, and thriving and inclusive commons. These themes are integrated across six projects that span three continents. They include an urban heritage intervention, a national museum, a floating school, a university’s classrooms and halls, an ecological centre, and an ambitious programme to introduce public spaces across hundreds of localities.

To gauge the impact of the Awards on the Architectural scene of the subcontinent, one  does not have to look further than Marina herself. “Prior to 2016, there were several other cycles where projects from the sub-continent were awarded. In fact, I claim to be of a generation where we were inspired by the values of the Award. So, I would think the impact is affirmation and inspiration to the younger generation of architects to focus on projects that contribute meaningfully to our societies and environment. 

“Moreover, the award has accumulated information on large number of projects that is part of research keeping pedagogy in mind ,” she continued.  This focus on pedagogy is evident in the establishment of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the architectural database Archnet, both which are testaments to how the Award has always had, as an important part of its activities, the objective of educating young architects. 

Another aspect of the Award was highlighted by Marina Tabassum: “The Aga Khan Trust for Culture also collaborates with many educational institutions around the world for workshops and seminars -- keeping the award in focus.” In September 2018, the Bengal Institute, with the involvement of Marina and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, hosted a month-long lecture series called “Learning from the Aga Khan Award for Architecture”.  The workshop  included former AKAA Secretary General Suha Ozkan, Moroccan architect and writer Hassan Radoine, and past winners of the Award. Similar attempts to bring the discourse of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture to architecture schools and the younger generation of architects are being carried out in other parts of the world.

Incredibly, the impact of the Award is not limited to the architecture community. As Marina puts it, “The Award is given to a project for its impact on community and society at large. It is not only celebrating the architect but also everyone associated with the project, including the users. Architecture shapes human lives and has the power to suggest change in human perceptions and living conditions.”