Award Ceremony for the 12th Cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Mawlana Hazar Imam addresses the audience during the award ceremony of the 12th cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, presented in Lisbon, Portugal. Gary Otte


Your Excellency President Cavaco Silva
Your Excellency Vice-Prime Minister Paulo Portas
Honourable Mayor António Costa
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a special joy for me to welcome you this evening, and to thank you for being a part of this most auspicious ceremony, in this most appropriate place.

Returning to Portugal is always a great pleasure for me. The Ismaili Imamat and the Aga Khan Development Network have had a close, long-standing relationship with the Portuguese government and the Portuguese people, a relationship built on shared values.

This is the twelfth time over 36 years that we have presented the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The award cycles have fostered a deeply enriching conversation during this time, one that has involved, altogether over 5000 nominated projects, and over 100 premiated ones.

Our ceremony tonight is only the second one we have held in predominantly Christian countries. I mention this point because it speaks to an essential dimension of the Award. While its roots lie deep in our concern for the state of Islamic architecture, the Award is also committed to a spirit of pluralism and a respect for diversity, a set of values which are deeply embedded in Portuguese history.

It was on the Iberian Peninsula, of course, that one of history’s great pluralistic societies flourished for several centuries, a home for Christian and Jewish peoples that was also part of an Islamic empire. Portugal has for many ages nourished a profound sense of what we might call “world awareness”. It was in that same spirit of “world awareness” that this Award was founded, and it is in that spirit that it is presented tonight.

We meet in a setting, this evening, which is one of Portugal’s architectural monuments. Its walls have been built and rebuilt over many centuries, by people of many civilisations. It crowns the capital of a truly cosmopolitan city.

The story of Portugal is in part the story of people who came from far away to settle in this beautiful land. And it is also the story of people who have gone out from Portugal to shape the heritage of places in every corner of the globe, from Eastern and Southern Asia, to the Persian Gulf, from Eastern and Western Africa to South America. And, even as I say these words, I remember the sense of overpowering beauty I felt when I first walked through the streets of Manaos in Brazil.

This legacy, moreover, continues to be renewed. As you may know, the year 2013 has been declared the “Year of Portuguese Architecture, ” and Portuguese architects continue to be an important source of global inspiration.

You can see why a moment ago I spoke of Portugal’s capacity for “world awareness”.

As I think back to the origins of this Award almost four decades ago, I recall my own growing realisation at that time that the proud architectural heritage of the Islamic world was endangered. Here was one of the world’s great architectural traditions, often inspired, as major architectural flowerings are so often, by one of the world’s great religious faiths.

And yet, this flowering had been allowed to decay, and in some cases almost to disappear. Nowhere else, in no other great cultural tradition, had this sort of compromise threatened such a rich inheritance. The result was that, for huge segments of the world’s population, cultural memory was fading, and an enormous cultural disaster seemed to be looming.

One part of the issue had been the effect of the colonial experience on Islamic cultures. But even in post-colonial or non-colonial settings, much of the Islamic architectural practice seemed to be consumed by a growing passion to be truly “modern”, or by a rudderless quest to be fashionably “global”.

At the same time, of course, some genuine architectural achievements were taking place. The problem was that these exceptional experiences were not widely shared, nor did they have a strong conceptual underpinning. It sometimes seemed as though a vast desert silence had set in. The purpose of the Award was to replace that silence with lively debate.

The Award was designed, from the start, not only to honour exceptional achievement, but also to pose fundamental questions. How, for example, could Islamic architecture embrace more fully the values of cultural continuity, while also addressing the needs and aspirations of rapidly changing societies? How could we mirror more responsively the diversity of human experience and the differences in local environments? How could we honour inherited traditions while also engaging with new social perplexities and new technological possibilities?

The three-year Award cycle was organised to take up such questions through a wide array of seminars, exhibitions, lectures, publications, and a highly decentralised award selection process. Over time, the Award has been joined by other programmes under the aegis of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, including our Historic Cities programme.

This new discourse, as wide as it has become, has had a continuing, common premise, a conviction that architecture has a capacity to transform the quality of human existence. More than that, we believed that our Quranic heritage gave us the responsibility, as good stewards of the Divine creation, to shape and reshape our earthly environment in the service of humankind.

In all this work, we were fortunate to be joined by a wonderful array of friends. It is heartwarming to think back on the contributions of so many people in so many places: architects, philosophers, artists, historians, and other professionals, from diverse faiths and cultures, who helped to shape and reshape our thinking. Their influence has been felt not only by professional architects and their clients, but also by an expanding array of participants; government officials and grant-makers, urban planners and village leaders, educators and researchers, engineers and financiers, and builders large and small. Also, many of them have contributed outside their own cultures, in order to help us rebuild our own.

Since the Award was presented in 1980 for the first time, successive Steering Committees have identified the pertinent issues of their time, and independent Master Juries have recognised exceptional achievements reflecting these concerns. The 2013 Steering Committee and this year’s Jury have continued in this great tradition.

Among the themes that have helped define this cycle is the concept of: “restoration” - interpreted as the revitalisation and re-adaptation of tradition. Another is the pursuit of design excellence in low-budget settings. Another key word is “infrastructure”, where imaginative rebuilding is a pressing public priority. And yet another important concept has been the “integration” of fragmented environments, urban and rural. And finally, community participation, an essential component for success.

In this respect, I would note that the world will soon reach a tipping point, where a majority of the world’s population for the first time will live in urban rather than rural environments. And so we must ask ourselves some searching questions: how, for example, can depopulated rural areas provide sufficient food and water to support dense urban agglomerations? And how can we best transform sprawling, impoverished human encampments into city neighborhoods that enhance the quality of human life?

Interestingly, we have had and we have seen in our own urban restoration programmes, the potential for bridging the urban-rural divide, for reintroducing something of the rural into the heart of the city. Parks and other open spaces, new and restored, can revive something of the balance between human construction and natural space. And they are astonishingly popular, with people of all economic backgrounds, and with people of all ages.

In these, as in so many other cases, it is amazing, and deeply humbling to see what a difference the built environment can make, in enhancing the everyday moments of everyday life.

The tasks are enormous. And these tasks must become our tasks. I have noticed, for example, that a significant number of the world’s new bleak and spreading cityscapes are in the Muslim world.

The pace of change is accelerating in our world and it is critical that the Architectural Award should continue to be positioned at the cutting edge of change. The future will bring an ever-demanding set of new challenges, such as global urbanisation. My hope is that the Award will always be responsive to the challenge of change.

Let me conclude by expressing my warmest congratulations to those who have been recognised by the Jury this evening, and by saluting those who have shaped this Award, over the past 36 years, and in this, its twelfth cycle. And finally, I am pleased again to extend my sincere gratitude to all of you for joining us at this presentation ceremony, and for sharing it with us, in a true spirit of “world awareness”.