Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, Lahore

Ranjit Sabikhi (left) Indian architect and Ramesh Khosla (right), Canadian designer, posing with His Highness the Aga Khan after receiving the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for their design of the Sheraton Mughal Hotel at Agra, India. AKDN / Christopher Little

Within life’s span, there are days of special happiness, days of pride and days of humility. This is such a day for me. It represents the culmination of a vigorous effort, hope, and deep conviction that a significant change can be achieved in the environment in which Muslims live.

This is also a day of gratitude and I express my heartfelt thanks to the President, and the Government of Pakistan, for their encouragement in this endeavour, for offering us one of Pakistan’s great national monuments for this occasion. The presence of Mr. M’Bow, the Director of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the world’s largest agency for the preservation and support of man’s culture, is also a source of strong encouragement. I express my thanks to him for participating with us in this important effort. To the Governor of the Punjab and the people of Lahore, I extend greetings and gratitude for their welcome and hospitality.

We are gathered here today to recognise the work of men and women who, we believe and hope, will have a profound impact on the environment of Muslims in the years ahead.

The first series of Awards in Architecture within the vast Community of Muslims are about to be given. It is well to ponder at this time about what they mean, what questions they raise, what implications they may have for the future as well as for our deeper collective concern for the continuous integrity of Islamic architecture and, through architecture, for the whole of Islamic culture. I trust and hope that over the years scholars, architects, planners, officials at all levels, and users will discuss among themselves the significance of the choices made by the Jury and the Selection Committee among some 180 submitted buildings and architectural ensembles. Many, at time even contradictory, conclusions could and should be drawn from the Jury’s decisions and, at the very outset, I would like to share with you some impressions, some thoughts, some queries, perhaps a few worries, about the results of these choices.

First, let me recall that it was here in Pakistan that the idea of this Award was made public, some four years ago. It is in part for this reason that the first recipients of the Award are gathered here to be recognised for their achievements. It is also in Pakistan that this event takes place because, located roughly in the geographical centre of Islam, Pakistan possesses some of the wonders of classical Islamic architecture, like the gardens which surrounds us, some of the most genuine vernacular traditions, as was amply demonstrated in the exhibitions opened yesterday, and some of the most important contemporary efforts within the Muslim world. It is only fitting that this microcosm of Islamic traditions serve as a host for the contemporary achievements within the Muslim world, from the arid shores of the Atlantic ocean to the tropical splendour of Indonesian islands. Here, better perhaps than anywhere else, the richness and glory of the past and the creations of today can be seen in the context of a vibrant and exciting concern for the environment. For it is indeed this concern that we have come to celebrate, and we must recognise that we are not permeating a country, a city, or a building, but the whole Muslim world as it enters into its fifteenth century of existence.

Second, we may well ask whether the permeated projects truly correspond to the great traditions of Islamic architecture. There are no mosques among them, no madrasah, no palace, no garden, no mausoleum, hardly any of the monuments which are visited by millions of tourists, cherished by those who live near them, and utilised by historians to define the Muslims’ past. The paradox, however, is more apparent than real. For, great though the celebrated monuments of the past are as works of art, they were only part of the built environment of the past. They were the creations of great and wealthy patrons, often made no doubt for the use and the pleasure of the masses, but rarely lacking in personal or dynastic vanity. All too frequently the settings developed by the masses themselves have been lost or changed beyond recognition. In the contemporary world, the Awards have recognised that other part, perhaps now much more important than in the past, the part of the common man creating for himself and his neighbours a setting for life and for health, preserving and utilising what nature has created, developing ways to maintain his identity rather than accepting the elephantine massiveness of so much of today’s world.

This recognition of a human scale, of local decisions (even if they required outside expertise), of local needs and concerns is, I believe, a profoundly Muslim requirement. It is the expression of that social concern for thousands of separate communities within the whole Ummah which is so uniquely a central part of the Muslim message. We have recognised an architecture for men, women, and children, not yet an architecture for history books and tourists. Through architecture we are recognising the quality of life within the Muslim world today. And, by recognising a housing project developed by a whole community or a medical centre, we are preserving for all times the memory of this quality of life.

There is a deeper and more intriguing side to this recognition which forms my third observation. These Awards may indeed illustrate or sharpen an issue which has been side-tracked over the past four hundred years, as scholars and patrons became fascinated with the personalities of architects as artistic and formal creators. The issue is: what architecture are we recognising? Is it the planning and design of master architects? Is it the architecture of the craftsmen, artisans, and specialists of all sorts who put a building together? Is it the architecture of users? Is it the architecture of certain lands with their peculiar physical characteristics? Is it the architecture of a faith which transcends national, geographic, social, or technological limits?

It is easy enough to answer “yes” to all questions and to identify the merits of any one project according to each one of these criteria. In part, the decisions of the Jury have done that. But, in a deeper sense, the important points is precisely that none of these criteria has taken precedence over the others.

The implication is that we are recognising as unique a creative and generative process in which the imagination of one architect or the expectation of Muslim patrons and users interact constantly. Within this continuum no single moment or decision can be isolated like the element of a chemical compound, because its creative life itself, it is the elusive process of human existence which is the winner, not merely a monument.

A fourth observation is that the Jury used the word “search” for nearly all of the projects it recognised. What does this mean? It could mean, no doubt, that no building, no ensemble, no reconstruction or re-use has quite been able to meet some abstract criteria of architectural excellence. This is not surprising. The Alhambra would have probably been received with very mixed reviews by architectural critics and many a source from ancient times is critical of architectural projects which enthral contemporary historians. For, quite often, while historians can, centuries later, understand architectural quality in its purest form, contemporaries often see its social and economic costs and weigh that against the other needs of society. Clearly, architectural excellence is not enough. Therein lies the positive side of the notion of “search”. We are only beginning to grasp the social, intellectual, aesthetic, cultural, historical needs and emotions of the Muslim world. To impose from the very outset of the Award process formal or even social criteria of excellence would not only be an exercise in vanity and folly, but a profound moral wrong. We only know the issues and the problems. We know that social changes of momentous proportions are taking place everywhere. We know that expectations have risen both for a good life and for a good Muslim life. We know that we are far too ignorant of our past and far too careless in preserving it. We know that Muslim lands are subjected to pressure and temptations from cultures which are not Muslim, even if nearly all Muslim lands are independent of foreign rule.

But the solutions, the answers, to these problems are still unclear. They must be sought and this is why the Award process itself is designed to be one of the means for this collective search. A partial failure can be as important as a unique success. It is in this spirit of common search for solutions to thousands of problems that these Awards will play their part. It is a spirit which is well proclaimed in the Muslim message, for the intention of man (the niyah) is a fundamental part of his action.

And, finally, we may turn from the Muslim world to the whole world. Many of the issues which led to the creation of the Awards are not unique to the Muslim world. They are issues found in all new lands, as on our shrinking planet all new countries, or all developing countries grope for a visible self-identification of their own and for the satisfaction of new, worldwide expectations about the quality of their lives. But why think only of new or undeveloped countries? Social problems plaque lands with the highest per capita income, and self-identification is a concern of countries with the longest history of independence and expansion. It may be just that, as the Award highlights the search of the Muslim world for an architecture centered on man and proclaiming the potential of life, an example is given to the whole world of how this can be done. In part it is simply that the Muslim message is a universal one and not restricted to a few areas or a few ethnic groups. But, in a deeper sense, what we are trying to achieve, this environment we are looking for, is not only ours. It is also something we want to share with the whole world, not as an exercise in pride or vanity, but because of our belief that the means at our disposal may allow us to sharpen issues, to discover solutions for all mankind to use and understand.

Such are a few observations based on the Awards themselves, on recognised achievements from Senegal to Indonesia, from humble houses to grand hotels, by architects and by masons, by anonymous bureaucracies or specific individuals and collectives, by Muslims and by non-Muslims, yet always for Muslims.

But this is not the end of our effort. It is in fact only the beginning, as we are about to embark on the process leading to the Second Award in 1983, as we seek to extend our network of nominated projects, as we seek to refine the ways in which we judge, as we seek to anticipate issues and problems by organising seminars and other kinds of research activities to help us better to understand the issues involved.

And it is indeed appropriate at this time to mention these issues – or some of them – in public, in front of so many experts and decision makers deeply concerned with this construction of the fifteenth century of Islam. For without your help and cooperation with ideas, with criticisms, with information, indeed your total commitment and creativity, we cannot succeed in meeting the challenges ahead.

What are these challenges? The first one is perfectly exemplified by the very setting in which we meet, the magnificent Shalimar Gardens. From the very beginning we felt that the Awards should be given in places of overwhelming historical and aesthetic interest. This is to remind us all of the great traditions to which we are the heirs. But what in fact is the relationship of our roots to what we are today? Surely we do note expect of contemporary architects copies or imitations of the past; we know only too well how disastrous such copying has been. There are two things, I feel, we may appropriately seek from the past. One is what I would call our moral right to decide on the environment which will be ours. However useful and essential outside experts may be, however international contemporary architecture has become, our past, our roots, give us the right to say that the choices we make are our choices and that the opportunities we have today will do for the next decades what early Muslims did in Spain, Syria or Iraq, what the Ottoman Turks, Timurids, or Mughals did some five to six hundred years ago in Anatolia, Iran or India: to understand sufficiently well what was available and appropriate in non-Muslim lands in order to create something profoundly Muslim. And this leads me to my second point about the monuments of our past. We must learn to understand them well, not simply to preserve them as museums of past glories, but to feel in every part of them – a stone masonry, a brick dome, a window, an ornament, or a garden arrangement – that unique spirit, that unique way which made these monuments Islamic. Only then will we be able to impart the same spirit to the technical means and to the forms of to-day.

A second challenge is of a very different order. As time goes on, more and more of the major environmental and architectural programmes within the Muslim world will utilise the high technology developed for the most part outside the Muslim world. As airports, office buildings, hospitals, schools, industrial complexes, whole new cities grow in numbers and in quality, they will quite naturally satisfy much less easily the originality of our traditions. The models of the past, even if available, will be technically or economically unsuited to new needs. These new creations will run the risk of becoming homogenised, internationalised, monuments with an occasional arch or dome. But need it be so? While preserving and nurturing the immense variety of our vernacular architecture, how will we be able to channel the necessity of high technology without becoming its slaves? There are areas, perhaps, such as those of solar energy, of water conservation, of thermal control, or of pre-fabrication, where we should become leaders rather than followers, where our needs can revolutionalise the rest of the world.

And, finally, let me mention one last challenge: the challenge of education. Not only do we know too little about ourselves, but we have not yet been able to form in sufficient numbers our own experts and practitioners with the full competence to solve the environmental problems of tomorrow. Too many of our best minds are trained outside their own countries. Why is this so? Is it a matter of equipment and of facilities? Is it a question of teaching staff? Is it a peculiar trust in outside expertise? Clearly we must develop ways to make our own schools of architecture and of planning places to which others will want to come, and this will require yet another kind of intellectual and practical effort. For, even if we create an architecture worthy of praise, we would have partly failed unless we form ourselves the men and women who will realise that architecture.

I do not claim that these are the only challenges left to us. Others exist no doubt. But, as we celebrate the first Awards and open the way for the forthcoming ones, all these challenges can help us in defining the attitudes we must develop in thinking of the future and the areas of discovery open to us. It is a task we must accomplish together, fully acknowledging our diversities, but knowing, as well, that there is a Straight Path which is that of our Faith.

Let me close, therefore, by reminding you of Attar’s great poem, the Conference of the Birds, Mantiqat at-Tayr.

The birds, you will recall, in huge quantities went in search of the Simurgh, the ideal and perfect king. After my tribulations, thirty of them do reach the end of the journey and come to the gate of the Supreme Majesty. The Chamberlain tests them and then opens the door and they sit on the masnad, the seat of the Majesty and Glory. And, as an inner glow came into them, they realised that it is they together who were the Simurgh and that the Simurgh was the thirty birds.

Is this not what these Awards mean? From the travails and labours of thousands, humble masons or expensive experts, there have emerged those works made by us and for us which we can present as being, all together, as an aggregate, as a group, the statement of our hopes and of our expectations as much as of our achievements. It is indeed the way in which Pakistan’s beloved poet? Muhammed Iqbal, put in two quotations which better than any speech say what the Awards can mean. Speaking of Islam in his vision for tomorrow, he wrote that it was:

A world eternal, with renewing flames and renewing leaves, fruits, and principle.
With an immovable inside and an outside of.
Changing, continuous revolutions.

And, then, in another poem, he said:

The journey of love is a very long journey,
But sometimes with a sign you can cross that vast desert.
Search and search again without losing hope,
You may find sometime a treasure on your way.

On behalf of the Master Jury and of the Award Committee, it is to this search for our new environment that I wish to invite you present here, the immense community of Muslims, and the whole world as well.