Kelvin Browne, National Post Published: Saturday, January 12, 2008





By Philip Jodidio

“This book is not about architecture,” says Philip Jodidio, author of Under the Eaves of Architecture, the Aga Khan: Builder and Patron. He explains that, “It’s about a man and his commitment to bettering the life of many through improvements to the physical environment.”

The man is Prince Karim Aga Khan. He’s the 49th hereditary iman, or spiritual leader, of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He succeeded his grandfather in this role in 1957 at the age of 20. Approximately 15 million Ismailis live in more than 25 countries, including Canada and the United States.

Among other things, the book documents the winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that began in 1977, illustrates the successes of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Program, and describes four fascinating new projects in Canada. These include the delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, the Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana, the Aga Khan Museum, and the gardens that unite these two projects on a single site in Toronto. What’s unexpected is not the architecture the book showcases, which is mostly excellent, but the philosophy of the Aga Khan that maintains good architecture is a foundation for a better life.

This belief is beyond a narrow sense of architecture contributing to a spiritual life via religious buildings as you might as sume the Aga Khan’s focus might be. In an interview in the book from March, 2007, His Highness says, “In much of Islamic architecture you find a sense of spirituality. You find that spirituality not only in religious building. If you think of the history of landscape architecture and you relate that to references to heaven in the Koran, you find very strong statements about the value of the environment, the responses to the senses, to scent, to noise, music or water. You do not treat these spaces as theological spaces, you treat them as spaces that aim to give you a sense of spiritual happiness.”

The environment, built and natural, is intrinsic to our quality of life. This isn’t just rhetoric or someone getting on a trendy bandwagon. The Aga Khan was a pioneer environmentalist. One of his first projects in the early 1960s was on the beautiful but largely undeveloped Costa Smeralda. He gave himself the dual mandate of raising the standard of living of people there and, at the same time, protecting the remarkable landscape. Only recently have other developers tried to do both.

The Aga Khan says that when he first assumed his role and began to travel the world, he came into contact with poverty that was indescribable. Because of this, it’s understandable his interest in architecture was initially driven by how it could help improve the quality of life of the really poor. Ahead of his time again, he then realizes that, “Whereas in the consumer societies of the West you can build and then pull things down, in these ultra-poor societies you cannot afford to do that. What you have to do is to modify buildings or adjust them; therefore, the flexibility of the plan that you put into place has to be conceived with a different view of time than it would be in other parts of the world.”

He goes on to explain the difficulties of a western conception of architecture in poor countries and how important it is not impose this approach in terms of what is needed from a programmatic perspective or how a building should look. With the overwhelming influence of the modern (and western) approach to building in the 1960s and ’70s, literally using the local vernacular or the lessons it could give vis-a-vis sustainability seldom happened. While it seems obvious now, this insight was truly enlightened 40 years ago.

When Mr. Jodidio asks why the Aga Khan created an award for architecture, the notion of sustainability is implicit in his response. “One of the factors leading to the award was what I would call the deconstruction of the cultural inheritance … We worried about the loss of cultural continuity in the physical environment … there was no serious analysis of traditions and how they came into place, or how they could be revived and used in modern buildings.”

At the conclusion of the interview, the Aga Khan reiterates his holistic notion of the place of architecture in life. He says, “You cannot conceive of quality of life change without integrating the physical environment. Everyday you live under a roof.”


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