The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is the only one that recognises an eclectic approach in the field. A. SRIVATHSAN


The prize money of $500,000 makes it the largest architectural award in the world. But there is more to Aga Khan Award than the largesse it offers. It is probably the only architectural award that recognises eclectic approaches within architectural p ractice. Projects varying from contemporary design to historic restoration are recognised as equally creative. At times, depending on the jury, the awards may have shown a restrained tilt towards a particular ideology or method but, by and large, they have remained liberal.

Broad spectrum

Established in 1977, Aga Khan Award encourages architecture that addresses the needs and aspirations “in societies in which Muslims have a significant presence”. However this does not mean that the awards are limited to Muslims, but are open to all architects and institutions.

This month, the 10th cycle of this triennial award, was announced in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. From the 343 projects nominated, 27 were short-listed for on-site review and, from them, nine projects were awarded the prize. This year too, the spectrum of award-winning projects was broad. If, at one end, the Royal Netherlands embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, designed by Dutch architects was chosen for being ‘unashamedly contemporary’; the restoration of Amiriya complex in Rada, Yemen, and the rehabilitation of the city of Shibam, Yemen, were chosen for restoring lost tradition of craft.

The University of Technology at Petronas, Malaysia, with the glass-and-chrome signature of London-based Lord Norman Foster, won for its technological novelty. In the same breath, the School in Rudrapur, Bangladesh, was celebrated for its innovative adaptation of traditional methods and materials of construction to contemporary needs.

Not all projects were valued as an architectural object; somewhere chosen for being a part of the larger social process. Rehabilitation of the Walled City in Nicosia, Cyprus, brought two opposing sides of the city together. Central Market Koudougou in Burkina Faso appears as a simple array of useful functional boxes but was acclaimed for its participatory approach to design that involved the entire community.

Innovative uses

The speculative commercial projects were not left out of the awards category. The Moulmein residential tower in Singapore, in spite of being a commercial project, was appreciated for its innovative use of tropical elements like monsoon window and perforated wall. Samir Kassir Square in Beirut is the smallest among the projects. It is a jewel-like urban artefact, tactfully woven around a few trees creating a restful urban space.

These awards articulate a more sophisticated and complex nature of Muslim societies and their expressive architecture. It is clear from the choice of projects that no particular approach or style is put forth either as a representation or prescription for Muslim societies.

Even though history and theory have always arrayed architectural objects between the poles of tradition and modern, people and practices have gone beyond such taxonomies and territories.

Architecture has aligned itself with a wide variety of strategies and enriched itself. This award recognises the wide space of the architectural praxis and avoids narrow debates like modern versus tradition Architectural awards including Pritzker prize, the Nobel equivalent in architecture, have always favoured the avant-garde and celebrated the buildings that exhibited the hitherto-unseen kind of creativity. In resistance to this emphasis on the new, other alternative awards championed architecture that totally rejected the modern and avant-garde and looked at traditions and past.

Relevance and strength

Thus awards to one specific kind of practice or the other are a reflection of the institutions affiliation and preference and not necessarily about a wide variety of possibilities that architecture seriously explores. The location of the Aga Khan Awards within the Muslim society does not have to be construed as a limitation or being retrograde. At the same time, it need not be exaggerated as a resistance and alternative to international awards that are excessively Euro-centric.

Its relevance and strength is in the sweep and acknowledgement of multiple ways of working with architecture and making it.

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