Address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Ninth AKAA Cycle, New Delhi

Mawlana Hazar Imam addresses the gathering at the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) ceremony, held at Humayun's Tomb in Delhi. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh looks on. Gary Otte

“In Islam, the Holy Qur'an says that man is God’s noblest creation to whom He has entrusted the stewardship of all that is on earth. Each generation must leave for its successors an enhanced and sustainable social and physical environment. I am sure every responsible citizen in every part of the world would share this aspiration.”

Prime Minister,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here in Delhi this evening to recognise the winners of the ninth cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. We are particularly honoured by the presence of the Prime Minister whose leadership and ideas have contributed so much to improving the quality of life and economic well-being of the citizens of India.
I would also like to thank the departments and agencies of the Indian government who have been so supportive in mounting the Award events in India, and in facilitating the presence of so many people from different parts of the world. Many of our international guests have prominent and responsible positions at home and their presence here honours us.

The recognition we are giving tonight carries the name Award for Architecture. But it represents much more. The Award recognises the efforts of architects and their clients, builders - large and small, governments, planners, international organisations, granting agencies, village organisations and individuals. All of them are collectively responsible for the creation of a humane and socially-supportive built environment that is so important to our quality of life.

It is therefore most appropriate that this event is taking place in India, a country rich in cultural heritage and pluralistic traditions. Here, many cultures have maintained their distinct identities while combining and co-operating to create something even greater, the dynamic and vibrant India of the modern world. This is also a country where the struggle for social justice and improved quality of life has made tremendous strides over many decades through the continuous efforts of governments and civil society.

This year’s Award recognises projects that cover the entire spectrum of human capability and human need. The striking differences in these award winners reflect the enormous range of need for human habitat that must be met in the world today.

It is now 27 years since the Award was launched. At that time, I was becoming increasingly disturbed by the loss of cultural identity and appropriateness in the architecture and built environments of much of the Muslim world. A few centuries ago, architecture was one of the great forms of artistic expression in the many diverse Muslim societies.

It permeated all types of buildings and spaces, both secular and religious, rural and urban, in the multiple Islamic cultures spread across the world and in neighbouring non-Muslim societies as well.

This magnificent structure, built to honour the second Mughal Emperor, Humayun, is one of the early examples of the spectacular architectural legacy the Mughals left to the people of the subcontinent. The Taj Mahal, built almost a hundred years later, is one of the world’s most admired buildings of all time. Before these, the early Muslims had already made their distinctive architectural mark in Syria, Iraq, Fatimid Egypt, Spain, Persia and Anatolia.

But in recent years, Islamic architecture seemed to have lost its identity -- I should perhaps say identities -- and its inspiration. Occasionally, construction tended to repeat previous Islamic styles, but much more often, it simply absorbed imported architectural forms, language and materials.

There were several reasons for this. In part, it was because “modernity,” equated with all that was Western, had come to be seen as representing improved quality. And most Muslim architects were trained in western schools and had little knowledge and understanding of the traditions of Islamic architecture.

The net result was that our cities, villages, and rural areas were being transformed by the insidious introduction and expansion of inappropriate and irrelevant architecture and planning.

In Islam, the Holy Qur'an says that man is God’s noblest creation to whom He has entrusted the stewardship of all that is on earth. Each generation must leave for its successors an enhanced and sustainable social and physical environment. I am sure every responsible citizen in every part of the world would share this aspiration.

Therefore, we set out on a long journey to try to understand the causes of this sad situation which Muslim and non-Muslim architects alike recognised as unfortunate, but which none knew how to alter. They included some of the most eminent architects, and men and women of different disciplines and cultures who joined me in this endeavour to understand the causes of this decline in quality and design.

The enormity of the challenge caused many to doubt that a significant result could be achieved. It seemed certain that decades would pass before results, if any, would be seen.

The evolution of the Award has been first, engaging constituencies to develop consensus about the nature of the problem; second, developing the means to support change; and finally, exposing solutions to the many who are involved in the process of developing human habitat.

Now, as we enter our second quarter century of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, we might ask ourselves: Are the lessons we have learned in this particular cultural endeavour applicable to other environments and other cultural traditions that are stagnating or under threat?

I, of course, start with the basic assumption that the world is a much better place because it is pluralist and multi-cultural. Imagine what it would be like living in a world of no diversity, a world where we were all the same colour, shape and size, ate the same biryani, told the same jokes and combed our hair identically. Aside from the fact that my comb, sadly, serves less purpose these days, I would find a world like that quite boring!

I am therefore convinced that supporting diversity and cultures under threat is a worthwhile and fruitful venture.

This leads me to the fundamental question we sought to answer in establishing these awards. It is one which I think is applicable to any initiative which is aimed at nurturing and supporting cultures at risk: How do we protect the past and inspire the future?

Put another way, how do we reshape and reposition knowledge and taste and appreciation in the public psyche, and among those who play a role in developing human habitat?

From the beginning, we knew that to have a realistic chance of bringing about fundamental and lasting change, we had to reach out and raise awareness, not just among architects, but among clients, corporations, governments, planners, educators and financiers.

That meant we needed to build an all encompassing profile of people and habitat, not only in the Islamic world, but in countries where Muslims live and interact with other communities, both urban and rural.

We broadened the definition of architecture from one that tended to look only at individual structures, to one that encompassed entire neighbourhoods, including informal settlements, village communities and open public spaces. In the first nine cycles, some 2,661 projects have been assessed and documented in 88 countries, an unparalleled data resource base. The independent Master Juries have recognised 97 projects in 25 countries.

They demonstrate widely different aspects of architectural solutions that affect quality of life, ranging from the restoration of historic urban fabrics and monuments, to the reforestation of a university campus of over 300 hectares. They have included generic models of individual houses and modest individual efforts, large civic complexes and high-tech, ultra-modern buildings that set new trends for the future.

Another important step in the process was to promote awareness and understanding of appropriate technologies and solutions. The Muslim world is multi-cultural, diverse in geography, terrain and climate and it exhibits extremes of wealth and poverty. This diversity required us to be sensitive not only to local needs, but to local capacity and resources available to meet those needs.

And finally, new initiatives outside the Award itself became necessary. In education, our Trust for Culture supports the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Harvard and M.I.T.

The Trust’s Historic Cities Support Programme helps create new examples and models for reviving historic buildings and spaces.

Our efforts have been richly rewarded in the growth of knowledge and awareness of Islamic architecture and landscaping in educational bodies around the world. In the most eminent Western schools there is a much greater academic offering and commitment to the field of Islamic architecture.

And in Muslim countries we have seen the birth of new schools and a new generation of architectural teachers and scholars in the field. Most important, as we have seen from the winners recognised this evening, we are getting better habitat. I think that the Award and the cluster of initiatives born from it are truly protecting the past and inspiring the future.

But while we can be pleased with this progress, there is much more to be done.

Quality housing remains the most essential need for societies everywhere, both in rural and urban environments. Industrial facilities and workplaces are not at a level of excellence that makes them exceptional.

Rapidly-expanding urban centres throughout the world lack public parks and open urban spaces. Problems of transport, congestion and pollution have too few solutions emerging. The growth of slums, the consequence of the relentless forces of urbanisation, has not been stopped or even slowed down.

And although many fine examples of rural projects have been represented in past Award cycles, still there are not enough. We have much yet to strive for. But I believe the process we have launched has become a self-sustaining and unstoppable force for change in human habitat not only in the Muslim world, but in much of the developing world as well.

The larger and perhaps more interesting question is whether this approach might be adopted to support other cultures that are at risk.

The issues we have been attempting to address through the process of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture are not exclusive to the Muslim world.

The non-Muslim world struggles equally with explosive population growth, poverty, environmental degradation, exodus from rural areas, globalisation and the impact on cultural identity of new forms of media.

I hope that the lessons learned in the process we have established would be applicable to the many others in similar circumstances.

Perhaps these lessons will one day be seen as an important contribution from the Muslim world: A contribution to the broader cause of maintaining and enhancing a multi-cultural, pluralist world and a responsive, appropriate human habitat.

Thank you.