Jan 6,2008

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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.

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  Posted in         Ismaili News
Nov 20,2007

Canadian Muslim well-positioned for job of ambassador
Peter O’Neil, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, November 03, 2007

LONDON – Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Lalani, can claim uniquely among western ambassadors in Kabul a religious and cultural connection to his host country, as well as some empathy for the kind of violent upheaval that has always plagued Afghanistan.

Mr. Lalani, only 40 years old and considered a rising star in the Canadian diplomatic corps, has an unmistakable Canadian accent that betrays a childhood spent in southwestern Ontario and, from 1982 until graduation, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

But he is also a Muslim, born shortly before the dawn of tragedy in Uganda, who was the only western diplomat invited recently with other top Muslim foreign diplomats to pray with President Hamid Karzai at the end of Ramadan.

“It was the first time a Canadian ambassador, a western ambassador, really, was there with the president,” Mr. Lalani said yesterday.

“And that was interesting. It gives us a different insight (to see) the president and his cabinet ministers and others in a very different setting. It’s a very personal and informal setting.”

He is in London as part of the federal government’s stepped-up efforts in Canada and abroad to highlight the successes of the Afghan mission.

Mr. Lalani, the former ambassador to Jordan, was appointed to the Kabul post by the Harper government in April. He said his family’s Indian background also gives him a south-Asian cultural link to Afghans.

Born in Uganda five years before Idi Amin’s savagely brutal 1971 coup, he remembers being perched on his father’s bed watching his father get ready to head off to work at the family hardware store.

“We heard a couple of gunshots, and we didn’t know what it was, and all of a sudden we heard more,” he recalled.

“And then we heard troops in the back of our house and we knew something was up.”

His father was later abducted by the army, but managed to avoid the grim fate of most other captives — thousands of corpses of Mr. Amin’s real and perceived enemies were dumped into the crocodile-infested Nile River — because he knew important military officers who made army purchases at the hardware store.

The Lalani family was among the community of Ismaili Muslims forced to flee after the coup. The Lalanis were flown to Montreal and they moved immediately to Cambridge, Ont. In 1982, they moved to Vancouver.

His swift ascent up the ranks of Canada’s foreign service after joining in 1991 included postings at the United Nations and in Washington, as well as policy adviser for assignments in Ottawa where he was responsible for hot files like the Balkans and the Middle East peace process. He was appointed ambassador to Jordan last year.

Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander, said Canada’s diplomatic mission in Afghanistan has reached “new heights of coherence and impact” under Mr. Lalani.


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  Posted in         Ismaili News
Nov 12,2007
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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  Posted in         Ismaili News