Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, Cairo

His Highness the Aga Khan addressing the audience at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) 1989 ceremony. AKDN / Gary Otte

Madame Mubarak,
Your Excellencies,
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished Guests.

It is with gratitude, leavened by awe, that I open in the city of Cairo, this Fourth Prize Giving Ceremony of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. No setting could press upon us more vividly the power of the Islamic tradition or architecture, than this magnificent citadel rising above us this evening. Madame Mubarak, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests – I thank you sincerely for the understanding and warmth that you and the city of Cairo have demonstrated in welcoming this prize giving ceremony. Many of you have come from far away and I thank you for having journeyed to share with us this important occasion.

Twelve years ago I asked, “is the built environment of Muslims ‘ours’, or is it threateningly, and increasingly not ‘ours’?”. No doubt this concern had been in me, unarticulated, much longer than that, perhaps since my childhood when I first learnt about the glories of Bagdad, Damascus and so many other Islamic cities of light and fame. I was joined, and have been sustained since, by thoughtful men and women in pummelling the question, bullying it, challenging, dividing, multiplying and expanding it, until it had taken so many facets that it became an aspiration, rather than an enquiry, a vision, not just a hope.

As it began to be embodied as the Award for Architecture, this vision sought to encourage all those concerned with the built environment of Muslim societies, clients, architects, builders and users, to protect, learn from and add to this heritage. It includes the modest wisdom of a vernacular architecture organically linked to a site and a way of life, and the soaring, awe-inspiring achievements of unique architects which have shaped our understanding of elegance, harmony and form. It includes the unique cityscape of the Medina and its individual and collective approaches to the articulation of private and public space.

It includes the diverse structures and styles produced by the genius of Muslim societies from Morocco to Indonesia, from the Soviet Union to Sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond to the more recent creations of Muslim communities now established and growing in the industrial societies of the West. This rich tapestry of human endeavours, despite the tremendous diversity of its forms and manifestations, is linked by the faith and ethic of Islam.

But the scope of the Award, spanning the globe, looking to the future while protecting the past, seeking to broaden the participation and involvement of all those concerned with the built environment, has required that it adopt an approach that is intellectually and ethically demanding. It eschews the simplistic promotion of a simple viewpoint. It seeks instead to create a space of freedom where patient, motivated searches for innovative and culturally adapted solutions to the problems of the built environment of Muslims can be pursued. The Award is determined to premiate excellence wherever it finds it. It holds up as exemplars, efforts deemed worthy of encouragement in this ongoing search.

We strive for appropriate solutions to the problems of today’s Muslim societies. Firmly anchored in the present, the best architectural efforts are those that dare to innovate, to start from what we have, and actively invent the future in practical, empowering terms, thereby creating a heritage for the future. Invariably, such efforts do not copy the past, or import solutions developed for other problems and other cultures. What the Muslim word needs today, I suggest, is more of those innovative architects that can navigate between the twin dangers of slavishly copying the architecture of the past and of foolishly ignoring its rich legacy. It needs those who can thoroughly internalise the collective wisdom of bygone generations, the eternal Message and ethic with which we live, and then reinforce them in the language of tomorrow.

Now, in the shadow of the great monuments of the Citadel, we can reflect on some of the Award’s lessons of the last twelve years. Three strong “themes of concern” have emerged:

First: protection, restoration and skilful re-use of the heritage of the past, at a time when that heritage the anchor of our identity and a source of our inspiration, is being threatened with destruction, by war and environmental degradation or by the inexorable demographic and economic pressures of exploding urban growth.

Second: addressing the pressing needs for social development and community buildings in a Muslim world all too beset by mass poverty.

Third: identifying contemporary architectural expression of quality, the best efforts at capturing the opportunities of the present and defining our dreams for tomorrow.

These three themes of concern having been defined, in the first twelve years of the Award’s life, many are those who will ask what remains to be done?

Where does the Award perceive to be the greatest need and use of its years of accumulated knowledge and its enquiring curiosity?

First, let me comment on what needs to continue to be done: in other words, to reflect with you on areas of knowledge which we have explored in some depth but in which the search must go on.

We have premiated a number of very high quality restoration projects, but we know they are complex and costly. Most of the Islamic world does not have the resources to devote to restoration, and to the upkeep of historic buildings thereafter. Consequently, an extension, or acceleration, of the restoration process can only take place if it can be made economically viable. This means, in effect, that much future restoration, unless we want to multiply empty and expensive museums, must be foreseen as restoration for economically viable reutilisation.

By what criteria must we judge the acceptability, or otherwise, of reutilisation of historic buildings? The answer is central to any extensive, rational, long-term restoration endeavour in most Islamic countries and societies.

We have premiated a number of high technology buildings addressing programmatic needs that have no historical precedent from which we could draw guidance. I have sensed difficulty in most of our juries in making well-founded value judgements on these buildings. Clearly we touch here on the ongoing process of translating the increasingly sophisticated programmatic needs of our times into appropriate and pleasing buildings. Our criteria for making judgements need to be developed further, but perhaps this can only be achieved as our knowledge, understanding and taste with regard to modern buildings becomes rooted in more and more of them.

While these are areas where the Award has made progress, and they should proceed further, there are others where we have not even a sense of direction.

A large part of the Islamic world is striving courageously to develop the economic resources it needs to offer its people an improving, assured quality of life. This endeavour, all the more essential for those economies which are still strongly monoculture, translates incontrovertibly into a need for industrialisation. And yet, in its first twelve years of life, and having reviewed over 2500 nominated projects, not more than a handful – perhaps ten at the very most, have been industrial buildings.

This I believe to be a very serious situation: does it mean that we do not consider industrial buildings worthy of recognition, because they are often not architect-designed? We have received, and indeed have premiated a number of non-architect-designed buildings in the past! Or does it mean that our societies do not believe an industrial building as capable of such quality as to deserve recognition? Or do we believe that the pollution that manufacturing has wrought in the industrial world will somehow, by some miracle, spare the Islamic world, even if we pay no attention whatsoever to it

Here, Distinguished Guests, is a critical area of building which will affect, ever more aggressively, the lives of future generations of Muslims and to which attention, I believe, needs to be turned urgently.

Other transformations also need careful thought. In recent journeys I have been struck how urban land-use concepts, such as the small individual built-up lot, are being transferred to the countryside. Compact villages are being replaced by peri-urban sprawl damaging both the existing social context, as well as agricultural output. Transformation in the rural habitat, where some 70% of the world’s Muslims live, is clearly another area of change where the Award will need to make serious progress.

Distinguished Guests, we are here today to recognise a series of outstanding buildings and to express our admiration and gratitude to those who have brought them into being. Honouring these achievements is important, but it is enough. We need to understand why, and how, these buildings and area developments “work” for the communities that brought them into being. Hence architectural consciousness and criticism are a modern pre-requisite for intelligent action.

Stimulating the development of a new architectural conscience is the ultimate hope of the Award. It is why behind the programme that has culminated in this evening of celebration, there is a complex process of discussion and discovery that goes well beyond this competition.

You will remember the 1984 Seminar in Cairo, which approached the phenomenon of the expanding metropolis, specifically the urban growth of Cairo. This gathering of able, committed minds was an important statement of the Award. The meeting consciously recognised that, in addressing the challenges facing Cairo, it was addressing the problems that would afflict the fifty cities of the world expected, by the year 2000, to have populations of more than fifteen million people.

Similarly, in Malta, in 1987, the Award sponsored a seminar on architectural criticism. It addressed the vital business of developing a vocabulary and a conceptual framework that would enable Muslim people to criticise, appreciate and think creatively about architecture and its role in creating a modern, human environment. A year later, in 1988, the Award sponsored another seminar in Zanzibar. It considered the problem of housing, and the strategies that communities and governments could adopt to address what I believe will be one of the world’s greatest problems in the twenty-first century : refurbishment and expansion of the world’s stock of human dwellings.

I cite these activities to suggest that the Award – the competition and its seminars – now constitutes a worldwide intellectual network of thinkers and professionals to whom architecture is a vivid, vital instrument in the struggle for human development. Located in universities, architectural firms and agencies of government and development, Muslim and non-Muslim, in the Islamic world and beyond it, such talented, sympathetic minds could not but expand the vision of the Award.

Madame Mubarak, Distinguished Guests, I mention these examples of fresh insights and problems to suggest the vitality and productivity of those who have, in the twelve years of its existence, helped to make the Award a force for creativity and new standards in the architecture of the Islamic world.

Exciting as all this is, it does not yet, however, in my view, measure up to the challenge, unique in recent world history, which lies ahead. We are living in a new and stimulating time of change in East-West relations. It is with eagerness, and immense anticipation, that I visualise the day when the Award will enter into contact with those extraordinary Islamic people, cultures and buildings which till recently have been inaccessible.

How absolutely challenging is the possibility that one day Muslims living in other parts of the world could, as they build their future, draw upon the knowledge, the taste, the traditions, the symbolism, even the materials which have characterised centuries of building history in the East, and which are still so little known to us today. And, in turn, how encouraging is the thought that one day the Award might become, to those Muslims in the East, as it has been to those in other parts of the world, a resource upon which they can draw as they build for their own future. Yes, truly we have only begun our journey toward this end.

Madame Mubarak, Distinguished Guests, again my deepest thanks for joining us this evening.