Later this week, Mawlana Hazar Imam will preside over the 14th cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. To mark this occasion, we explore some of the important questions surrounding the theme of architecture and the built environment.

In society today, building projects are often seen in terms of cost and return on investment. But the implication of this narrow view of architecture can have lasting consequences on the quality of our lives.

Great architecture has been referred to as a symphony of art and science. Such orchestration requires a balance between form and function. “Architecture is not just to fulfil Man's need for shelter but also to fulfil Man's belief in the nobility of his existence on earth,” wrote Eero Saarinen, architect of the iconic TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York City. 

What is architecture?

Architecture is the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings and spaces. It refers to the activity of enclosing space for a particular purpose. In the process, it connects us to our physical environment, and organises empty space according to the requirements of a particular community or individual. It may be purely functional or may also have an aesthetic purpose. Most people in the world spend at least half of their lives inside a building, whether it be a home or a workspace, and this environment affects our senses, emotions, and general quality of life. 

At various times in history, architecture has been used as a means to represent or legitimate authority, from the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman Coliseum, and the Vatican, which was built to symbolise the power of the Catholic Church.

But architecture is also a medium of communication about what is significant to a society, and is reflective of its identity. Thus, it represents a group’s collective history and memory, portraying its values within a particular framework. “Architecture begins to matter,” writes architect Paul Goldberger, “when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe, along with a roof over our heads.”

In Islamic tradition, architecture has served as an exploration of the relationship between faith, culture, and identity, illustrating the diversity of expression in Muslim cultures and how each of these approach the needs of modern society. The late Professor Mohammed Arkoun had said that architecture is a “totalising activity,” in that it encompasses issues of art, culture, history, urbanism, tradition, modernity, and how all of these elements come to be expressed in physical form.

Memory and Modernity

The debate between tradition and modernity has been a source of tension amongst architects and critics for many decades, no less so in the Muslim world. Every architectural design results from a choice - to emulate and reflect the past; to reformulate the past in a contemporary vision of society;  navigating an in-between course, combining modern technology, materials and styles, with cultural symbols of the past; or to deliberately create a disjunction, to resist or reject the past in an attempt to embrace a future vision for society.

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness,”  said world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, whose designs, such as the Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, while heralded and labeled as contemporary masterpieces, are considered by some as too futuristic, with little reflection of the past or its environs.

In contrast, famed Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy expressed traditional Arab architecture in a modern vocabulary, saying that “If you want to design for the people, you have to go and understand their way of life.” Reference to local traditions, materials, climate, and culture, were paramount for him, especially in his native Egypt, and he said, “Tradition is not necessarily old fashioned, and it is not synonymous with stagnation.”

It is this journey, of choosing the direction between past, present, and future, of retaining a tradition or discarding it, of expressing continuity or advocating change, that confronts each architect when formulating a new design.

Architecture Redefined

It was this tension between traditional design and the impetus to modernise, hence westernise, in the Muslim world, that concerned Mawlana Hazar Imam when he came to building his own institutions. It was also evident that the great Islamic monuments and historic sites had been neglected and were deteriorating; a sad reflection of their past significance and symbolism. The overly-Western styles of many contemporary buildings in parts of the Muslim world was unfortunate, and indigestible to those familiar with, and who appreciated the history and legacy of Islamic architecture.

In response, Hazar Imam established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977, with the purpose of renewing the rich and diverse traditions of Islamic architecture. The Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.

In the second part of this article, we explore how the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has created a positive impact in the contemporary architectural community in the Muslim world and further afield.