Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, Samarkand

His Highness the Aga Khan addressing the audience at the Fifth Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony in Samarkand's historic Registan Square. AKDN / Gary Otte

Your Excellency the Governor Pulat Majidovich,
Your Excellencies,
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished guests,

It is with delight and appreciation that I open in the city of Samarkand, this fifth prize giving ceremony of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. To be able to join with all of you to celebrate architectural excellence in this magnificent setting, a setting of unrivalled importance to the history of architecture in the Muslim world, is the realisation -- for me -- of a long cherished hope for the Award and its mission.

Your Excellency, you yourself, the government of Uzbekistan, its Ministers, their staff, Mayor Nasirov and his colleagues, Mr Ashrafi, President of the Uzbek Union of Architects and the people of Samarkand have all provided us with extraordinary assistance in welcoming this prize giving ceremony. I want to thank you all most sincerely for this welcome and for your warm understanding throughout the preparations. I would also like to express my gratitude to you and to all our distinguished guests for your presence here this evening and for the efforts you have made to make this journey to Samarkand.

Three years ago, at the fourth Award ceremony in Cairo, I expressed the hope that we might one day bring the Award into a dialogue with those who design and create the buildings and cities in this incomparable region of the Islamic world. With all your help, we have made that hoped-for journey into a reality far sooner than any of us might have dreamed possible.

For thousands of years Samarkand has been a destination for those who journey with ideas and artefacts. At this time of astonishing change this city has made it clear that it is again ready to host debate and consider the diversity of ideas and values present in any dialogue about contemporary building. We, in turn, are ready to learn from you invigorated by the stimulus that your city provides.

In legend and in reality Samarkand is a source of inspiration to those who love good buildings and great cities. Your city has given to all the world the remarkable legacy of the Timurid expansion. The two generations of inspired building by Timur and his grandson, Ulugh Beg, have shown us how determined patronage and the skills of different schools and practice can be brought together to create great architecture. One amongst many of the rewards for us today of these buildings is their use of colour -- a use not confined to the grand structures alone but seen also in the tombs of humble warriors. Samarkand also carries with it a lasting role as the source from which East and West alike drew objects and ideas of quality. We stand again at a new threshold when this same role can again be taken by your city.

We have made this journey to celebrate -- and understand -- nine buildings and places of outstanding quality. We have also come together to continue an inquiry and debate that will, I hope, strengthen our skills in the making of architecture and cities.

Our journey began fifteen years ago with the establishment of the Award for Architecture as a means to address the concerns and questions of those who build for Muslim societies. These concerns were -- and still are -- about the ways in which the profound humanistic tradition of Islam can inform the design and building task. They were about the finding of apt, modest and inspiring solutions in that task. They were about the need for sensible and unconstrained debate on the merits of diverse solutions. And they were -- and are with even greater imperative today -- about the ways in which an approach, learned through the making of architecture, can be gainfully applied to other realms of culture and human exchange.

We chose to focus our attention on these issues by establishing the Award and asking that it identify exemplary buildings and places made, or re-made, today to serve a Muslim community. We did so to demonstrate that a built environment of high quality can be achieved. We did so to give scrutiny and discussion to the reasons and factors that explain such a quality, that is, to help us all understand how good buildings and places can be achieved. And we did so to show that hope is not false, that excellence can be achieved and that we need not succumb to despair even in the face of huge difficulties.

In each cycle we ask an independent Master Jury to examine detailed documentation describing hundreds of built projects in the Muslim world. Their viewpoint is inevitably fresh and their energy and rigour of judgement is exhausting. I am extremely grateful to them. The nine projects selected by this fifth Master Jury for a prize in this cycle again provide us with a renewed definition of excellence in architecture.

The projects they have selected call upon us all to recognise the profound opportunity for quality in an architecture of modest demands and in buildings and places that serve all people, regardless of their age, means or circumstance. The winning projects acknowledge the rewarding union of public purpose and professional competence in the restoration of historic city areas and public buildings. The projects also demonstrate in a lively way how outstanding contemporary architecture draws upon the wit and ingenuity of its designer. And again and again we find in these nine projects powerful evidence of the positive influence on good architecture of a demanding and caring client, sponsor or community for building activities.
Indeed, in this context, I cannot fail to draw attention to a feature of this set of nine projects which I am sure deserves attention in our seminar tomorrow. In every case not only is the professional approach to the making of places and architecture one of innovation and invention, but the nature of the sponsoring client or organisation served by the project is also without precedent.

Institutional innovation is as much a feature of these winners as architectural innovation and we need to understand what may lie behind this phenomenon. That such innovation is pervasive presents us with an intriguing set of questions. Do existing institutions in Muslim societies face intractable difficulties in seeking out and achieving outstanding physical settings for their activities? And if so, what are these? Or are these new institutions an entrepreneurial response by individuals and governments to legitimate new demands and changing pressures in these societies? And regardless of the identity or newness of the sponsor, are there timeless and constant expectations that underlie the demands that these projects respond to so well?

Muslim societies everywhere are having to confront complex patterns and pressures of change. The nine projects we will see tonight, and countless others known to the Award, demonstrate that these pressures can be a source of creativity and opportunity. We see our task in the Award to build a space for reflection and debate on the meaning for architecture of these patterns of change within the unchanging humanistic dimensions of Islam. During this past cycle the Award took up these questions very specifically in its seminar in Indonesia on the contemporary expressions of Islam in building. We can draw at least two lessons from the intense discussion at that seminar. One is that the technical issues of the built environment cannot be considered in isolation from the cultural and spiritual values of a society. The second is that these values have to be related at one and the same time to the historical traditions of Islam, in all their diversity, and these values have to be related to the fresh challenges posed by modernity.

The Award too is taking stock of the new conditions and opportunities it faces after as brief a period as fifteen years. As we do so, we are convinced that some of our practices and policies must remain unchanged. We will continue our determination to create a "space of freedom" for the examination of architecture and the built environment. We will sustain our efforts to be comprehensive and rigorous in our documentation of projects to be considered by the Award. And we will maintain our procedures that seek to ensure the independence and integrity of the Master Jury and its processes. These policies and the sustained high quality of management of the Award's affairs are its hallmark and its strength. I am truly grateful to all who have worked to build these qualities.

At the same time there are aspects of the Award which we do believe need to change. For example, our network of correspondents and contributors to the thinking that goes into the Award has expanded into the thousands. We must, therefore, put in place new ways of sustaining our relationships with these many institutions and individuals in ways that are mutually rewarding and efficient. Through a parallel set of initiatives fostered through the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and MIT, we have come to a better understanding of education and scholarship that addresses directly the needs and basis for architecture in Muslim societies. I have begun also to implement a new program intended as a demonstration of, and stimulus to, the upgrading of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in the Muslim world. Our plan is to carry out these projects in ways that are sustainable locally and benefit current, and often very poor, urban residents.

These experiences, combined with the knowledge we have gained about architectural practices through the Award, have caused me to bring together the professionals involved in the Award with those involved in the administration of the education and Historic Cities Support Program. To do this, we have established a new "umbrella" foundation, called the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is based in Geneva. The design of the Trust for Culture is intended to ensure that the integrity and independence of judgement of the Award is sustained, at the same time as its growing pool of knowledge and understanding of architecture in the Muslim world becomes a resource to educators and an inspiration for action that benefits historic cities in that world. We see the Trust as a welcoming custodian of knowledge about the practice of architecture serving the entire world and especially practitioners, teachers and students in settings such as yours.

There has been another important new activity undertaken on a special basis by the Award during this past cycle. This activity is one which has brought us much closer to the needs and dreams of your city, Samarkand. Beginning in 1990 the Award began work with the Uzbek and Soviet Unions of Architects and with the city of Samarkand in the capacity of advisor to, and international sponsor of, the Samarkand International Urban Design Ideas Competition.

Seven hundred competitors from every part of the world submitted entries. The ideas evident in all of them entries, and especially in the winners and honourable mentions, will give your city, we believe, a wealth of excellent possibilities and options to consider as you go forward in the exciting and challenging task of bringing new activity and form to the heart of your city. Our work with you in this competition gave the Award and the Trust a new experience of enormous value. But we are grateful, above all, for the opportunity it gave us to gain a much deeper knowledge and affection for Samarkand and its people.

Your Excellency, distinguished guests, our journey will not stop at Samarkand, though we will travel on much refreshed by your hospitality, your insights and by the memory of this extraordinarily beautiful setting. When we look around us tonight there can be no question about the power of architecture to lift a people's heart. We believe that each of the nine projects that we celebrate will do the same for its users. As we continue our journey, we hope to help others understand how architecture in Muslim societies can be invested with this same power to serve and to move those who experience its form and the places it makes.

We would do well on our journey to remember one of the phrases inscribed in Arabic high in the arch of the Sher Dar to the left. To one side of the lion it is written: "The architect has built the arch of this portal with such perfection that the entire heavens gnaws its fingers in astonishment, thinking it sees the rising of some new moon."

May the light of the heavens and the earth always illuminate Samarkand and guide the people entrusted with this unique city.

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, please accept, again, my deepest thanks for joining us this evening.

Thank you.