Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, Marrakech
Your Royal Highness,
Your Excellencies, Ministers of Culture,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
About nine years ago a small group of intellectuals and Muslim researchers met at Aiglemont in France in an atmosphere which was both intimate and very animated. Questions raised concerned the built environment in the Islamic World of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Whereas on the one hand we unanimously affirmed our pride in our heritage, we had on the other hand to raise a multitude of questions on the subject of the present and the future. As to the question of the present, everywhere we looked we found our culture disfigured by modernity; and looking toward the future, we strongly sensed the difficulties in controlling it. Our debate became increasingly complex and issues became elusive under close scrutiny. It could well have been easy to despair. But the question posed opened up so many horizons to reflect upon and to examine and engendered so much scientific curiosity that they aroused the desire of the participants to continue their enquiries. This quest, which began modestly, did not cease to gain momentum and has since grown through several seminars organised by the Award.
This is what explains our presence here today in Morocco in the presence of His Highness the Crown Prince Sidi Mohamed of Morocco and the Crown Prince Sidi Hassan of Jordan and Ministers from Egypt, Niger, Turkey and Yugoslavia to render homage to the men and women who have courageously and generously broadened their research and provided responses to the questions that we raised almost a decade ago. The Award can today congratulate itself on having encouraged all the efforts, all the willingness directed towards the promotion of an architecture worthy of our Islamic cultural heritage and, at the same time, open to the contributions of modernity. The prestigious capital Marrakech, where we now find ourselves contributes towards the reinforcement of the value of the perspectives opened by the Award. The glory of Marrakech and its cultural influence has extended beyond Morocco’s present boundaries, throughout the entire Maghrib, reaching as far as Andalusia.
Ever since our first seminar, we have not ceased to nurture our ambition to recreate links with the great traditions of learning, exemplary cultural achievements, open, tolerant, emancipating humanism and spiritual inspiration which characterise our common tradition. It is of great importance that we continue to testify to this tradition, which has always been part of us – all the more so now that it has experienced and continues to experience great historical discontinuity, destruction, elimination, neglect and alien onslaughts which have weakened, mutilated and distorted it. Hence the origins of our present difficulties in inserting ourselves into a historical process which, at least since the 17th century has unfolded without our participation and frequently against us. Islam has alienated itself from its own humanist achievements, its own culture and at the same time it found itself left behind by a Western World, which, on the contrary, has not ceased to accelerate its course towards modernity. It is not surprising therefore, that in the great void created in the process of a long historical evolution, a negative image of the Islamic World has developed, and which continues to spread.
Consequently one can understand why architecture and planning are the ideal gateways to the important issues which Muslim society must face everywhere.
Addressing a group of architects recently, His Majesty the King said “When you are designing, you are in fact drawing a philosophy of life”.
Convinced that architecture is a complete cultural act in itself, involving ethical and aesthetic values, requiring emotional sensitivity, drawing upon the economic potential of a community, the Award aims to help professionals of all disciplines towards accomplishing this total act, the creation of our habitat, the use of space for our daily existence.
Therefore, instead of limiting themselves to a rigid idea of what the character of Islamic Architecture and urbanism should be today, the members of the triennial Steering Committees and Master Juries have, on the contrary, opened up the field of thinking on what Islamic tradition and modernity represent.
Not everything within tradition is old and outmoded, and not everything within modernity is a vehicle for progress or is highly effective. The difficulty lies in rehabilitating great traditional architectural achievements whilst respecting regional variations and what are particular expressions of Islamic inspiration. But at the same time, it is just as important to take advantage of modern concepts and construction techniques to respond to the new and more diversified needs of our societies.
Having decided to consider architecture, in its richest dimensions and essential functions, the Award has raised a large number of issues illustrated by the winning projects since 1980.
Such an approach is not only valuable for architecture, it equally concerns political institutions, modes of economic planning, law, philosophy, ethics and, of course, religious life in a modern context.
In the field of architecture with which we are concerned, there are two obstacles constantly threatening us: one is modernisation imported from abroad and introduced indiscriminately, and, the other is a form of application of tradition consisting of arbitrarily inserting forms, materials, and elements taken from traditional monuments to give a “style” or general tone assumed to be Islamic. One has the illusion of reviving Islamic culture whereas one is displaying a serious ignorance of the spirit of this culture. This is why it was difficult for the Jury to distinguish carefully between populism and that which is perpetuated by the practice of the people whose culture has not yet been damaged as a result of alienation.
In my mind, this is not a question of returning to bygone days and cultures. The example of the evolution of Almohada, as many others in Islamic cultural history, serves to highlight a fundamental constant in the history of all societies. A culture reaches an optimum level of efficiency, of brilliance, of productivity in the midst of the existence of those who live and make it, when all the activities which it consists of confront each other, interpenetrate and converge towards the general integration of that society.
But we are aware of the obstacles which today are in the way of achieving an architecture which helps such a necessary integration in society. The demands and consequences of economic progress linked with industrialisation and urbanisation have, for a long time, now influenced certain Muslim societies to the point of shattering the humanism particular to the Islamic culture.
The efforts of industrialisation, modernisation of agriculture and urbanisation have in certain countries already reached the limits beyond which social solidarity – in families, groups, villages – and systems of exchange production – upon which rested all the symbolic wealth of local traditions, enriched and reinformed by an Islamic contribution – are threatened by disintegration and annihilation, and therefore disappear without even having had, as is the case in the secular Western World, a process of re-casting their symbols, of creating cultural institutions and practices capable of maintaining, even of increasing the cultural dynamics of societies.
There is another dimension that further complicates matters and which the Award intends to explore in greater detail over the coming years. Even if, in buildings such as universities, one can discern here and there some symbolic expressions and awareness of cultural creativity, it is still the case that we hardly noticed any progress in those sectors of architecture where the demand is greater still – industrial buildings, high rise blocks (such as skyscrapers) low-income and rural housing.
Architecture must integrate cultural wealth and creative spirit, I would even venture to say the dreams of a society aiming to become itself a force of integration of space and time where all creative and productive activities and human exchange take place. It is true that the power of integration of the classic Islamic culture at one time rested on the recurring spiritual energy which is called faith: faith expressed in ritual behaviour repeated daily but also in ethical rules and laws, the relationship to nature, even with visible and invisible worlds stresses in the Qur’an, thus creating a unity of thought and existence.
It is not a question of imposing a theology, a philosophy, a moral, but of forever encouraging an effort of analysis, understanding and explanation to give present Islamic thought every means of objectively knowing its past and of actively participating in the adventure towards self-renewal. Our ambitions must go beyond what is at present the case with Muslim societies, towards enriching, through the example of Islam, research and realizations conducted in the most advanced countries. In my opinion, it is the only efficient way to control the effects of technology transfer, of economic and cultural example in Islamic countries.
These are, I believe, the most crucial challenges, the most pressing needs of the act of building and structuring space in our towns and our villages in the Islamic World today. We are seeking to reach a clearer awareness of the threats to our societies and of adequate answers which everyone is searching for. These answers, must always be based on accurate information, and an objective assessment of the data of needs and means and on independent thought, as well as a sense of human solidarity.
Nine years ago, we started by asking ourselves questions. We did not yet know any examples of buildings which could have illustrated our theoretical research but we were convinced that the Islamic world would be able to stand up to the most difficult challenges thanks to its human, cultural and spiritual resources. We continue to ask ourselves new questions to which we do not at present find suitable answers. But after nine years of effort, we discover the great vitality of the Islamic World mirrored in the winning projects. Together, we have made an act of faith, and it is not without deep emotion that I can state today, that our joint efforts have been well rewarded. We can, I believe, regard the future with greater confidence as we draw from previous achievements and from the boundless spiritual dynamics of Islam.