Islamic Architecture Speeches
Speech by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan
Architectural Leagues, New York, April 21, 1980
I would like to thank Mr. Barnett for his very generous comments and for the opportunity you have given to me to address this distinguished audience tonight.
On the 11th of July, 1957, I succeeded to the Imamat of the Ismailis and from that date onwards, my life has been committed to a public office in the Muslim World. This office has required that I should become widely involved in all aspects of development in Africa, Asia and Middle East and in these last 23 years, I have built a large number of new institutions covering a wide range of activities including most aspects of health, education, housing, finance, tourism and industry. My concern about the built environment in the Islamic world rests therefore on my holding a public office, having experienced the problem in most of the Islamic world and having, in many cases, had to address the issue directly and personally.
Architects wield a strange and encompassing form of often unrecognized power. I can think of no human art form which exercises such a permanent influence over our lives. The architects can inspire us, overawe us or charm us. He can make us proud or humble. He can play upon nearly all our senses. He can create an impression of movements or immobility. He can encourage us to be gregarious or he can instil in us a deep sense of solitude. This is indeed the exercise of power, a power which has a deep and permanent impact on every aspect of our lives, on our relations with each other and on our attitudes towards this world and the universe around us. In Islam, where the faith demands disciplined integration and unity of all aspects of daily life, the potential and responsibility of the architect is especially significant.
Between 1957 and 1976, the year I established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, I had become increasingly disturbed by the loss of cultural identity in much of the Muslim World.
A few centuries ago, architecture was one of the greatest of Islamic art forms, but today what is being built in many Muslim countries rarely reflects their cultural past.
To absorb foreign architectural expression without thought or analysis, without adopting that which is valid and rejecting that which is inappropriate, would lead to a dangerous alienation. Once this problem was recognized, it became necessary to establish the direction or directions that those who commission and conceive our buildings could take, and to identify the new tools that they could require to address themselves to the issue successfully.
It seemed to me that two means were available; the instruments of precept and information, and the instrument of teaching. For the latter, I selected two of America's most distinguished architectural schools, Harvard and M.I.T. and established a programme for Islamic intellectual resources for the benefit of Western scholars seeking to understand Islamic architecture but most importantly, circulate this expertise among students, teachers and universities in Muslim and Western countries.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture on the other hand, seeks primarily to recognize achievements by practising professionals and patrons.
In establishing the Award, I was attempting not only to bring about the survival of the Islamic heritage in building forms, my objective was to stimulate in the architectural profession a new thought process which would seek to grow from the roots of our own culture, and develop a momentum of its own and become an almost instructive manner of expression.
SEMINAR ON THE AGA KHAN AWARD:
To confirm the validity of our objectives we held a series of seminars in different countries which attempted to establish criteria for judging the architecture of modern Islam.
In the first seminar, we established that from extensive parts of the Islamic World, amongst traditionalists and modernists alike, there was a desire to project and revitalize the cultural content in our built environment. We discussed the process of urbanization and discovered, as you have done in the West, that the social and economic pressure of the 20th century too often obliterated the need to preserve human scale and identity.
Our second seminar, in Istanbul, place of selection of seminars, was devoted to the theme of conservation as cultural revival. We looked at historic or traditional environments and considered their future role in a rapidly changing physical and social landscape, in which there is tremendous economic pressure to sweep away and build anew. Success in conservation depends on public education, enlightened planning policies that focus on harmony between the old and the new, and the finding of viable functional and economic roles for old buildings. The environment of the past will always contain clues for future of Islam.
Seminar three in Jakarta, was concerned with housing. The basic act of creating shelter was viewed as one of the most complex development question of modern Islam, going beyond the residential unit itself and encompassing the entire infrastructure of modern living.
In a fast urbanizing situation, housing is not only a social - economic issue but also a political one, especially as it affects the lower income groups which constitute the vast majority of the population of Third World nations. We discussed the essential nature of the Islamic home, and how local resources and unskilled labour can be most usefully employed.
Seminar four took place in Fez, Morocco, and dealt with "symbols and signs in Islamic Architecture". Can we define the symbols specific to Islamic Architecture and their different expressions in the varied building types and regional conventions that spreads across the Muslim World? Do some have universal validity? And if so, how can we be sure that our new buildings have the appropriate symbolic content. The issue is central to the definition of Islamic Architecture, the search for which lies at the core of the Award.
The fifth and final seminar before the first Awards are given will be on public buildings and spaces and takes place next month in Amman.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture aims to seek out, reward and disseminate architectural solution which approach the problem of building in the modern Islamic world with sensitivity to the needs of the user and to the quality of the environment in which they take their place. I wish to emphasize that we are specifically seeking to avoid a school of architecture.
The first Award will be given in November of this year. They will be repeated every three years. The selection process started with the appointment of nominators to propose projects for consideration. Some two hundred nominators representing thirty countries have been received. A thorough dossier on each nominated project is being developed which includes background, history, design, evolution, construction details, cost analysis, drawings, slides and photographs, and questionaries filled out separately by the client as well as the architect.
In addition, technical review teams are currently making site visits to report on environmental impact, verify the existing documentation and to record user response. These reports will complete the dossiers presented to an International Master Jury scheduled to meet in Geneva in July to select up to five winning projects.
These dossiers are in fact a unique historical record of contemporary architecture in the Muslim World. Once the Awards have been announced they will be available for study to schools and practitioners alike. The major projects will also be published in book form as will be the proceedings of past and future seminars.
In a wider perspective, it would perhaps be correct to say that the issue the Award is addressing are not limited to the problems of Islamic Architecture in the modern world, but relate to architectural practice everywhere.
I would like to end with an expression of hope. My belief is that from this country, of such exceptional talent and creativity, there are practising architects and scholars who share our concerns and are willing to work with us. It is my hope that, together, we can use the power which can be wielded by the architect to understand and strengthen our culture and assist our governments and our private patrons to create an environment that we can once again recognize as our own.