Sunday September 9, 2007
Catalyst for change
By CHIN MUI YOON
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture celebrated its 30th anniversary in Kuala Lumpur for the first time on Tuesday. While it is the largest architectural award in the world, its uniqueness lies in its promotion of the spirit of architecture as a catalyst for positive change that fosters dialogue and thought.
SINCE 1974, civil war has split Nicosia, Cyprus, into two. It is still the only divided capital city in the world. The Turkish Cypriots occupies the northern sector and the Greek Cypriots in the south.
The lovely old city inhabited since 5,000BCE became a crumbling mass of stone. With the Green Line, a demilitarised zone maintained by United Nations peacekeepers, running through the city’s core, a priceless heritage looked set to be lost to time and war.
Then the pressing, practical need to fix the city’s ancient sewerage system led to the two mayors of both communities to meet. Lellos Demetriades, representing the Greek Cypriots, and Mustafa Akinci of the Turkish Cypriots, agreed that their city and inhabitants’ wellbeing lay in cooperation, not arguing over a never-ending agenda.
In 1981, the Nicosia Master Plan was drawn to protect its architectural and urban heritage. It was the first joint project to treat the city as a united entity with integrated infrastructure. Peculiarly, it was done without any written agreement to this day.
Today, the rehabilitated buildings have breathed new life into a war-torn city and encouraged cooperation and culture to flourish. The project acted as a cultural force and catalyst for positive change.
Now that’s a dramatic term for a field of expertise concerned with designing physical structures and spaces for us to live, work, learn and play in.
Intervention suggests affirmative action; of mediation and of getting involved in a manner architects are not readily known for.
But then, why can’t architecture intervene in our lives? Architects are after all master builders. No other forms of design affect us more powerfully than architecture nor leave such an enduring legacy on our landscape.
And so the nine winning projects of the 2007 Aga Khan Award for Architecture certainly warrant much interest. It’s not just because the award is highly prestigious and the world’s largest architectural prize at US$500,000 (RM1.7mil). The unique criteria demanded from architectural submissions are in themselves fascinating at a time when the world is concerned with adjectives and superlatives.
Project director Farrokh Derakhshani explains at the recent award ceremony, which was held in Kuala Lumpur for the first time in its 30-year history, “The Aga Khan Award for Architecture goes beyond merely celebrating an architect’s work; it seeks to trigger debate and reflection on the built environment and play a positive part in improving it for generations to come.
“The award recognises work that addresses specific societal needs and wider contemporary concerns. It understands that successful projects are the outcome of a long and complex process of negotiation and collaboration between many different parties.”
Building for change
Some 373 projects from around the world were submitted, 27 shortlisted and reviewed on site. The steering committee was led by the Aga Khan himself with an international jury comprising respected specialists in various fields – five architects, including Malaysia’s Datuk Dr Kenneth Yeang whose Menara Mesianaga in Selangor was a 1992 Aga Khan Award winner; an artist, a historian, a curator, and a literary theorist. The Aga hails the diverse committee as “harnessing some of the most magnificent minds we have”.
The winning projects vary in scale and typology but each uniquely engages in a meaningful manner with the local conditions and inhabitants.
“It is for this reason that architecture is amongst the most monumental of cultural constructions – functional, practical, durable, and designed – and yet it only becomes architecture when its presence is permeated with a 'thought' that overwhelms its physical presence.
“And the value of architecture as thought is a concept at the heart of the Aga Khan Award. Good thinking demands both clear intentions and precise purposes in the execution of a project. It aspires to some version of the good life and contributes to a vision of the common good.”
While the award endorses excellence in professional expertise and technical innovation, it is dedicated to architectural values that “embrace ethical and aesthetic criteria”.
“Architecture represents the most complex human negotiation between the need to belong and be settled – to be at home – without having your worldly ambitions and affiliations constrained by retaining walls, village boundaries, city limits or national frontiers,” explains Prof Bhabha.
Common threads run through the winning projects – each respond and cooperate with site conditions, they challenge existing ideas on the use of materials, and they are built with the participation of the local people. The projects also redefine what constitutes good architecture.
While most awards seek to celebrate grandiose buildings, the Aga Khan Award wants works that address the needs of the society and which positively contribute to the wellbeing of the local population.
The projects trigger much debate, dialogue, and reflection on our built environment. This is something much desired by the Aga Khan, who is the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims (see accompanying story).
“A large part of the ummah (Muslim community) equates critical thinking to disloyalty. But it is part of the Islamic faith to be intellectual to improve our quality of life. Through the award, some of the best minds in architectural, social, institutional, rural and other forms of development were harnessed for this process of change, which is indefinite.
“We are looking at a moving target. We have to have the intellectual humility to go on asking questions. Asking questions prevents our world from falling asleep.
“After 30 years, the awards will have to change. Many parts of the ummah do not have resources. I consider it our obligation to focus on rural poverty. I hope we will continue to focus on specific needs. Many Muslims live in seismic areas with high risks. We need to seek new knowledge continuously and develop what we know so that our physical world can be improved,” he says.
Beyond bricks and borders
Architecture began when two bricks were put together well, said German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).
Add an in-depth understanding and respect for the local environment and we have a winning portfolio that is inspiring with its simple yet profound works.
A rustic but delightful school in Bangladesh that was hand-built with mud and bamboo in four months is selected alongside Malaysia’s sophisticated US$174mil (RM609mil) University of Technology Petronas sprawled across 104,000sq m in Tronoh, Perak.
A 2,000-year-old city in the deserts of Yemen revitalised as a living community is recognised. And lest we forget the importance of nature as part of our environment, a calming square of a garden in chaotic downtown Beirut, too, is chosen.
And in the heart of Koudougou in Burkina Faso, a central market built with hand-pressed mud has transformed its community. Over 600 women practically live in the market along with their children; some 140 masons were trained during its construction, and many of the city’s youths have returned to trade here.
Another rehabilitation project was in the restoration of the Amiriya Complex in Yemen built in the 16th century. In restoring the complex came a revival in the production of qudad, a smooth waterproof plaster prominent in traditional Yemeni architecture. And over 500 craftsmen and artisans were trained during the project that started from an archaeologist’s interest in 1983.
In explaining the prominent selection of rehabilitated ancient projects, the Aga Khan says, “If ignoring the past was a problem on one side, then the opposite danger was an exaggerated submission to the past, so that some creations and creators became prisoners of dogma or nostalgia.
“There is a danger everywhere in the world, that people will respond to the hastening pace of change with an irrational fear of modernism, and will want to embrace uncritically that which has gone before. The Islamic world has sometimes been vulnerable to this temptation – and the rich potential for a new 'Islamic modernism' has sometimes been under-estimated.
“In my view, a healthy life, for an individual or a community, means finding a way to relate the values of the past, the realities of the present, and the opportunities of the future. The built environment can play a central role in helping us to achieve that balance.”
Prof Bhabha adds, “Architecture is about making a difference. Architecture represents the hopes and aspirations of a people and place.”
Indeed, the award is not just about the architects; it’s also about the people and their land, needs and ambitions.
Perhaps the spirit of the Aga Khan Award is best encapsulated through the Rehabilitation of the Walled City in Nicosia project. It exemplifies how the process and act of architecture perpetuate dialogue and cooperation among a splintered people.
“We built with the hope and belief that one day our city will reunify,” solemnly explains the project’s initiator Lellos Demetriades, former mayor of the Greek Cypriot community, to StarMag.
His project partner, Mustafa Akinci from the Turkish Cypriot sector, adds, “We don’t wish to end up like what happened after the Berlin Wall went down, when buildings built on either side of the wall had to be demolished after the city reunified. The Master Plan unites us.”