“Architecture is the only art form which has a direct, daily impact on the quality of human life.” Mawlana Hazar Imam, Aga Khan Award for Architecture ceremony, Al-Ain, UAE, November 6, 2016

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) was established by Mawlana Hazar Imam in 1977 to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence. Since the award was launched, 122 projects have received the award and more than 9,000 building projects have been documented.

In November 2019, Farrokh Derakhshani, Director of AKAA and who has been associated with the Award since 1982, participated in a discussion with Dr. Zahra Jamal at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center, Houston. Mr. Derakhshani is trained as an architect and planner at the National University of Iran and later continued his studies at the School of Architecture in Paris. Dr. Zahra Jamal is Associate Director at Rice University's Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance.

Discussed were the Award, the most recent winning projects, and how Hazar Imam’s emphasis on cultural programs are beneficial to the Jamat at large as well as other communities. 

At this year’s Aga Khan Award for Architecture Winners’ Seminar, Mawlana Hazar Imam said, “So architecture from my point of view is a vehicle, it’s an instrument for achieving goals that need to be thought through, evaluated, challenged, renewed. It’s not a single process at a single time.” As such, the Award plays a larger role—impacting communities, and working as a model of change and dialogue.

Speaking to this concept, Derakhshani shared that the Award was created to preserve Islamic architecture and “continue the tradition of building and being exemplars in the way that we are building.” He emphasized that projects must impact the quality of life of people using it, not just add functionality, but should contribute to making the world better. He gave the example of well-built hospitals having the capacity to heal better simply through better design.

Architectural design is a process by which architects must “search for an answer,” and by “asking the right questions as the first step, towards getting good results,” Mr. Derakshani noted, and “The message from the projects go far beyond architecture.”  Since its inception, the Award has helped to renew the rich traditions of Islamic architecture and promote the spirit of pluralism.

The AKAA 2019 cycle included 380 nominations, 20 finalists, and ultimately six project award winners. He explained that the 2019 theme, ‘Architecture in Dialogue’ was very important because “Architecture is not art where an artist sits on his or her own and creates something; this is the wrong way of looking at architecture. Architecture is an outcome of a collaboration between a number of people, disciplines—it’s the client, the architect, the engineer, the social scientist, the user, the builder, the craftsman, so many people are involved in projects…What is essential is that these people should have a dialogue between them to be able to do the best they can provide.”

This triennial Award is one of the oldest and most prestigious prizes in the field of architecture, and over time, has had a significant impact on the way architects think about design. He explained that “the Award has made users and the public aware because if the public knows there is something better somewhere, they will ask from the people, from the government, from the corporates, etc. They will ask for better housing, they will ask for better schools, and better universities and better hospitals. When you ask for that, those people who are responsible, will try and do a better job, and that is important.”

When asked what he would share with young aspiring architects, Derakshani humorously commented that “young people don’t like to listen to old people because they see the world very differently…but we can share our experiences so they can consider them.” He hopes they will take notice of how much work and energy famous architects must put forward to understand the problem.

Mr. Derakshani remarked also, that “You cannot come to a solution before understanding the problem. Understand the context and try to see the future at the same time.” He suggested young people “ask the right questions and not to be satisfied with the first answer that comes to you.” He added that they must understand hard work, be conscious, and be responsible.”

While in Houston, the Jamat was also fortunate to engage with Mr. Derakhshani. To a full house, he explained how Hazar Imam’s emphasis on cultural programs is beneficial to the Jamat at large as well as to others.

One project discussed struck a chord with the audience—the Arcadia Education Project, a floating school in Bangladesh, built with bamboo and addressing issues of flooding and climate change, using local materials with simple techniques, but in sophisticated ways. Mr. Derakshani said that buildings now need to be flexible, with the ability to evolve and be adaptable to change. Each of the AKAA-nominated projects is very different but each is done in a sensible way, and excellence is always used in the execution.

On a grander scale, Mr. Derakshani explained that the Award strives to cultivate pluralism and that the projects impact people and their quality of life, not just adding functionality, but “social human enhancement” and contribute to making the world a better place.