Item(s) for January, 2008

Jan 12,2008

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.”


Jan 6,2008

The Daily Herald

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While on a recent trip to Atlanta, Georgia, I visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden. On exhibit was the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme Exhibition.

I was fascinated by large before and after photographs of historic sites around the Muslim world such as the Gardens of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Citadels of Aleppo and Masyaf in Syria. For more information go to and click on “historic cities” in the column on the far left of the page.

Since l992, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP) has been undertaking restoration of historic structures and public spaces. Our tour guide explained the thinking behind this initiative by noting that rehabilitation of urban areas sparks social, economic, and cultural development within communities where Muslims have a significant presence. The projects go beyond mere refurbishment of the site addressing questions of the social and environmental context of the site to the local population. Each project includes adaptive re-use, an effort toward institutional sustainability and training of local people.
These projects impressed me as an enlightened way to preserve culture, engage in urban renewal, and give an economic boost to the local population.

Public libraries often serve a similar function. In Schaumburg, an old shopping center near the center of the village was shuttered and had become a real eyesore. In l995, new Mayor Al Larson saw an opportunity. By l998, the new 166,500 square foot Schaumburg Township District Library was dedicated and became the anchor for the revitalized shopping center.

Libraries are really good in this capacity because they are open long hours and are fun places of learning and culture that one visits again and again. Libraries are places where the community comes together.

The Schaumburg story was repeated in Des Plaines. Downtown Des Plaines was a collection of small shops and assorted buildings facing the railroad tracks. It had merely grown up over the years and was neither beautiful nor impressive. City planners wanted a project that would give identity to the downtown so, naturally, the library was selected as an anchor for this redevelopment. The current 82,000 square foot Des Plaines Public Library was dedicated on September 24, 2000.
The City of Chicago has long used libraries as an impetus for economic development. Mayor Richard M. Daley has said, “In Chicago, we look at schools and libraries as the anchors of society. Learning is key to success in this information and technology economy. Libraries are key to safe neighborhoods. That is why we have built so many libraries and why they also are architecturally beautiful.”

Starting with the downtown Harold Washington Library Center, completed in l991, in the once less than trendy South Loop neighborhood, Chicago library construction has been credited with the building of about 10,000 units of new housing, improvement to streetscapes, schools and parks, expansion of educational institutions and redevelopment with uses as diverse as blues clubs and trendy hotels.

Since Mayor Daley has been in office, 52 of the system’s 79 branches have been reconstructed or seriously renovated. Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey said, “I’ve purchased and knocked down more liquor stores, more no-tell motels, more really crummy and dilapidated, burned-out buildings in neighborhood after neighborhood and replaced them with libraries than I’d ever thought I’d do in my life.”

What do forward-thinking library planners have in common with His Highness, the Aga Kahn? Both believe in and have seen the positive effects of investing in cultural institutions that have deep roots in the community. A new or refurbished building is nice, but it takes a building plus an ongoing program to really have an impact.