Aga Khan Award Ceremony, Istanbul

His Highness the Aga Khan addressing the audience at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) 1983 ceremony held at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. AKDN / Christopher Little

Your Excellency, The President,
Your Excellencies,
Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished Guests,

Three years ago the first Aga Khan Architectural Awards were announced in the fabled Shalimar Gardens of Lahore. Today we are honoured that the Turkish Government has so generously invited us to hold the second prize giving at the no less legendary Topkapi Seray, the grand palace from which, for over four centuries, the Ottoman dynasty ruled most of Western Islam. To be here is particularly significant for us because from the start of the search for excellence with the Award represents, we have felt that the recognition of contemporary architectural achievement is strengthened by association with major examples of the Muslim heritage, in which both Istanbul and this country as a whole are so very rich.

Equally, we have wished to interest the governments of today in the Award’s efforts. Architecture is of primary importance to all of us, from ordinary citizens to national leaders, because it affects every aspect of our daily lives. Both the Steering Committee and I are delighted that Your Excellency has found time to be here today and so demonstrate that you share our concern to improve the built environment.

Your Excellency, this country, a modern secular state the majority of whose citizens are Muslims, is not only the keeper of many of mankind’s and the Islamic world’s greatest treasures. It is at the forefront of present day architectural thinking. Indeed the activity of Turkish architects was reflected in our 1980 Awards, when three of their projects were premiated as outstanding achievements and it is a happy coincidence that today’s award ceremony is taking place in the centennial year of the first Turkish school of architecture, now the Mimar Sinan University.

Few of the other nations with which the Award is concerned are so fortunate. In the Third World especially, where most of them have only emerged recently from colonial rule in the last quarter of a century, architecture has long tended to be dominated by imported aesthetic ideas as well as by Western technology and materials. Even countries which have controlled their own political destinies for generations have accepted international canons of architecture which are in essence alien. In consequence, the revaluation of national inheritances which has been so strong a characteristic of recent decades has confronted many Islamic countries with a difficult dilemma. How can they maintain or revive their traditional cultures without losing the benefits of modern technology?

Different countries necessarily respond to this dilemma in different ways. In certain circumstances perceptions of the conflict involved may be acute. Urban communities, for example, may instinctively associate traditional building methods with poverty and a past from which today’s citizens seek to escape, while Western technology and its associated values are seen as modern, desirable and cost effective. By contrast rural populations are less likely to feel international techniques applicable to their needs, or to consider them affordable financially. But, variable as such responses may be, the conflict between technology and traditional cultures is indisputably an important issue in the Islamic world today.

Nor are the countries of Islam alone facing this problem. Nations as far apart as Japan and Spain, as the Philippines and France, are attempting to reconcile the conflicting demands of maintaining their own cultural identities and yet achieving technological progress.

From the inception of the Award we have been concerned to help analyse and reconcile this conflict and to motivate a search for solutions to it. We have hoped to inspire a new sense of direction, stimulating fresh thinking and creativity at the same time as appreciating the value of historical tradition and what can be learnt from the past. We have endeavoured to promote confidence in the architectural languages of the peoples of Islam, languages which, through years of neglect, have until recently come perilously close to losing their identities.

In premiating projects which demonstrate excellence at all levels, the Aga Khan Award has endeavoured to encourage those who build to meet both the cultural and the functional needs of the people who will use their constructions.

We have now been pursuing this aim through six years of continuous activity by the Steering Committee, by the Convenor, by technical review members, by the Master Juries and not least by field trips. In support of our aims we have conducted Seminars on different aspects of Architectural Transformations in the Islamic world. The outcome of these labours has been that the Master Juries have premiated 26 projects, 15 at the first ceremony at Lahore in 1980 and 11 which are being given prizes today. At Lahore I stressed how profoundly wrong it would be to impose formal criteria of excellence upon the Award at its inception. Our mission had to be one of collective searching for solutions in a spirit of open-mindedness. Today, three years on, it may be appropriate to ask what we have learnt, in which areas the Award may have had a constructive impact upon the way in which the built environment is dealt with, in which areas we may have failed and in what directions we should look forward.

At the start, in 1977, we set out to bring together a wide spectrum of professional talent, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to consider whether there was a case for seeking to invigorate and perhaps reorient the built environment of the Islamic world. This was a task of global dimension, in which we had to recognise the immense diversity of the countries involved and to accept that the only theoretical base underpinning modern architecture in the world of Islam – as in most of the Third World – was a passive acceptance of the ‘International architecture to which I have already referred and of its materials and its methods. Thus there was indeed a base, but was it the right one?

Among our most important aims therefore, was to instigate a multiplicity of thinking processes, viewing architectural problems in the light of many factors: aesthetic, historical, economic, practical. For example, here in Istanbul one cannot fail to be struck by the powerful effect of domes and minarets on the skyline of the city. But does that mean that the architects of today must continue to incorporate those formal elements in their structures and, if it does not, what replacements will prove symbolically and aesthetically satisfactory, as well as being of use? In addressing such questions we have aimed to stimulate free ranging discussion, without encouraging any particular polarisation of views.

So what have we learnt and in what areas may the Award claim to have had a constructive impact.

I believe that the Award has established the case for seeking to invigorate the built environment of the Islamic world; that we have helped to highlight the complexity of the influences which buildings of all kinds have on the societies that use them; and that we have raised the level of consciousness about these issues both among members of the public and within the architectural profession, especially the younger generation of architects working in Islamic countries.

In eight Seminars organised by the Award, bringing together talented architects, planners and thinkers from many parts of the world, has helped clarify issues and priorities in a number of specific areas. One might compare the overall problem to the search for solutions to a pyramid, each block of which is analysed in turn by a seminar, so gradually achieving a better understanding of the whole. In these Seminars we have always aims to learn rather than assuming the pretension of teaching.

Linked with this search has been a concern to make national decision-makers aware of the aesthetic and technical options in the built environment which they may not have considered in the past when international design appeared to most people to represent the totality of improvement available. In fact, concepts of progress and of an improved quality of life can now be adjusted into idioms much closer to appropriate cultural traditions than was thought possible twenty-five years ago.

Thus, the Award has occupied itself with both issues and people, premiating projects which are of catalytic value in the evolution of a new cultural and environmental sensibility, as well as for their design merits. In so doing we have endeavoured to illuminate the inner mechanisms of contemporary Muslim civilisation and to do this within the universal human guidelines of our Faith.

The Master Juries’ decisions are entirely their own, as they must be if they are to retain international respect. The first Jury three years ago selected and premiated in terms of a series of searches for social, aesthetic and historic objectives. The second Jury has attached more importance to visual quality and architectural impact. Its eleven choices are taken from some 220 nominations, which as it has commented in its statement, reflect the scope and diversity of the Muslim world with its myriad challenges.

The projects which the Master Juries have premiated are not intended to represent absolute solutions to these challenges, but rather to be valid steps in the process of search. The built environment of the Islamic world has always been developed in the main by craftsmen who work without the benefit of the latest professional training and their efforts are certain to continue side by side with the transformations of architects commanding the full resources of modern expertise. Thus the Award has responded to the technology of the twenty-first century displayed by the Hajj Terminal at Jeddah and equally the traditional craftsmanship of the master builder of the Niono Mosque in Mali. We have premiated a low income housing project in the Medina in Tunis, the domestic spaciousness of a house here in Turkey and the rejuvenated pride of indigenous Malaysian design created by the Tanjong Java Beach Hotel. I am delighted that a significant proportion of the prizes reward the talents of the younger generation of architects.

In several instances projects premiated are the result of Muslim and Western architects working in collaboration, while this time three prizes have gone to projects which have constructed or preserved historic buildings that are part of the Islamic heritage, thus emphasising the importance of learning from the past. It is only by appreciating how old environments are seen and understood by both decision makers and the general public in their own cultural context – whether it is a monument, a house, a village or a city – that the willingness and the means will be found either to preserve them, to adapt them for new uses or even, at times, to abandon them.

Here I am, of course, simplifying a complex issue which inevitably has economic and financial implications as well, and which has, I know, troubled the present Master Jury. How far is it justifiable to draw on a developing nation’s limited resources for the expensive research and educational effort involved in restoring a building tradition?

However, the central question is cultural. We have to maintain our cultural heritage and one of the continuing aims of the Award must be to help discover acceptable mechanisms for eliciting valid responses to problems not only of restoration but of city planning, of rural growth and of housing. These are not specifically Islamic problems, they are universal, but in considering solutions we must recognise that there are differences between Muslim and Western outlooks on life and on man’s relationship to the universe. Furthermore climatically and demographically most countries where Muslims live are different from those in with contemporary planning concepts have evolved. It is profoundly desirable that the environment we build for Muslims should reflect their individuality, their civilisation and their needs.

This brings me back to my earlier query. I have indicated some areas in which the Award has made progress. Are there also areas in which we have failed? In what directions should we now be looking?

The Master Jury’s selections are merely the most visible aspect of a large number of activities which are designed to impact upon as many as possible of the constituencies influencing the built environment: constituencies which include not only architects, planners and engineers, but academics, the media, the civil servants who formulate policy, the intelligentsia, the financial institutions who lend money for construction and, as I have said before, national leaders.

Here we still have a long way to go. During the next few months the staff and the Steering Committee will scrutinise the methods and results of the past three years work and we shall be asked, as we have before, if it is sufficient for our search to be purely reflective. Should we not be seeking to articulate new directions ourselves, rather than simply identifying the trends and thoughts which come from those who build? If we wish to invigorate the built environment, should we not allow our concern for the future to take more active forms?

The answer is that the Award only seeks to premiate new directions taken by others: to encourage, not to direct. It is the task of the Award to maintain a balance between its own aims and objectives, the judgements of outsiders, and the multifarious activities and accomplishments of the whole Islamic world. It is not a School of Architecture, nor an executive agency engaged in the restoration or the development of sites. Were it become activist in its approach, it could too easily lose its independence of judgement.

What we can do is to improve and supplement the Award’s process of contacts and information in order to address its chosen constituencies more effectively. The seminars, the publications, the informal contacts made during field trips, the lectures and writing of people associated with the Award – all these enable it to act as a catalyst and a motivator, which was the role on which the case for its existence rested originally and still rests.

The Award will, I hope, now build on this catalytic role, by becoming a medium for the exchange of information and reflection through which everyone concerned with the built environment can gain the stimulus to think about the deeper implications of what they are doing.

Thus at the highest level of the Award we should be able to assist the decision makers of today to become more aware of current concerns and ideas, since, as I have already indicated many more exciting and challenging options are available now than existed a generation ago. At the level of research we could enlarge its contribution to the international discourse about architecture. At the academic level we could utilise the dossiers resulting from nominations, which are in themselves a valuable if not unique record of contemporary thought and practice, to assist those institutions where the professionals of the future are trained.

The Award is concerned with planners, engineers and builders, with the whole spectrum of people involved in construction, and especially with young architects, whose technological competence specially in regard to cultural awareness are so important for the future. We should say to them, as to all people who build for the Islamic world. ‘Your cultural heritage is unique and universally admired. Enhance your traditions and project them into the 21st Century. Move ahead within your own idiom and culture. If you want to change course, do so. It is man’s privilege to control what he does with his own built environment. If you are uncertain, we will help you, because it will be your achievements which are the key to our long-term success.’

What will be the appropriate mechanisms for thus enlarging the Award’s catalytic activity has yet to be decided. To evolve them will be the task of the Steering Committee during the next two years, but I hope they will encompass the objectives I have just outlined. If we are to respond adequately to the challenges facing us, we must always look to the future. The search for solutions is a voyage of discovery on which we must neither fail to gain from experience nor fear to explore further.

Meanwhile, through the second series of Awards being presented here today we are moving one step further towards our aim – and I do not deny that it is an ambitious one – of recognising and promoting what is worthy in the built environment of the lands where Muslims live, and of propagating what is good now so that those who follow may be inspired towards excellence.

Thank you.