Architecture Serving Humanity: The Winning Projects of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Urban Crossroads #74



The Aga Khan Award for Architecture recently announced the winners of its tenth award cycle. Every three years, an international jury selects a group of projects that express excellence in the design and implementation of building projects intended to serve Muslim communities. Hundreds of projects are submitted for every Award cycle. Of these, a group of less than thirty is short-listed. Technical reviewers visit the projects and report on their findings to the jury (I have served as a technical reviewer for the Award on a few occasions). Based on these reports, the jury selects the winning projects. Nine projects were selected for this cycle of the Award.

Many architectural awards usually end up glorifying an architect or an architectural design. Many architectural awards also end up emphasizing architecture almost exclusively as an artistic process that is concerned with the creation of form, and totally ignore architecture as the main setting in which we human beings spend most of our lives and interact with each other. The Aga Khan Award does acknowledge individual achievement as well as high-quality designs, including the cutting-edge and the avant-garde, but the uniqueness of the Award is in its emphasis on the positive contributions that building projects can make to the lives of the people they serve, and to humanity in general.

As a result, projects, or at least autonomous phases of projects, need to have been completed for at least two years before being eligible for nomination for the Award so as to enable an assessment of the interaction between the projects and their users. Moreover, the Award is not given to an individual architect, but to the project as a whole and to those involved in it, who include the architect, client, and in some cases, even those who built it. While the Award addresses projects that serve Muslim communities, its message is universal. Also, the architects and other experts responsible for the winning projects express extensive diversity in terms of religious affiliation and nationality, and come from just about every corner of the world.

Although the emphasis of the Aga Khan Award is on architecture, it addresses the built environment as a whole. Although individual buildings regularly receive the Award, the Award also has acknowledged projects that address urban contexts, and in one case, an award was given to a forestation program at the outskirts of the city of Ankara.

Each cycle of the Award has had different jury members (Jordanian architects Rasem Badran, Jafar Tukan, and Sahel Al Hiyari have served on the Award juries, and Akram Abu Hamdan has served on its Steering Committee), and the winning projects of each cycle express the outcome of the dynamics that take place between those members as they deliberate on the submitted projects. In spite of this, a tradition has evolved according to which the winning projects may be divided into a number of clear categories. One of those categories may be referred to as contemporary design, which refers to projects that incorporate contemporary, often cutting-edge, architectural vocabularies, materials, and techniques. Another category may be referred to as traditional design, which refers to projects that incorporate traditional, vernacular architectural vocabularies, materials, and techniques. A third category consists of restoration projects in which there is a conservation and rehabilitation of historical buildings. And there also is a category that can be referred to as urban regeneration. Here, historical and / or low-income, often highly-impoverished, urban areas undergo comprehensive regeneration processes that not only include physical improvements, but also socio-economic development programs. Over the past three to four cycles, the environment also has achieved prominence, and projects that have a strong environmental protection component, such as the Ankara forestation project as well as buildings that have incorporated natural energy conserving mechanisms, have received the Award.

The borders between these different categories of course are flexible, and a number of winning projects have covered more than one category. Also, having nine jury members for each cycle, who include architects and representatives of other fields, guarantees an element of diversity, and ensures that the Award is not dominated by a specific architectural methodology to the exclusion of others. Every award cycle consequently has featured combinations of modernist as well as traditionalist projects.

The 2007 Winning Projects

The winning projects of this Award cycle continue to express this diversity, and also emphasize the Award as a celebration of architecture, conservation, and urbanism in the service of humanity. What follows is a brief description of these projects (in no particular order).*

The first winning project is a small public square in downtown Beirut. The square presents a modernist public space that is a well-designed, well-executed, and well-maintained. Moreover, it is a space intended as a place of contemplation rather than merely a place for recreation and leisure as are many public spaces in our part of the world.

The second project is the ongoing urban development project for the city of Shibam in Yemen. Shibam is known for its multi-story traditional structures, some dating as far back as the late-seventeenth century. This use of tall buildings partly aimed at achieving higher densities and thus conserving valuable agricultural land (Shibam often is nicknamed “Manhattan of the Desert”). The project not only developed mechanisms that have allowed residents to take responsibility for restoring their buildings through hiring members of a local association of trained builders, but the restoration process also has been accompanied by a socio-economic development program carried out through a variety of local community-based organizations.

The third project is a central market in Koudougou, the third largest city (75,000 inhabitants) in the African state of Burkina Faso. The market, which has over 1,750 shops, was developed through a local committee that included the storekeepers themselves. It is built from locally-made compressed earth blocks, which are used for both walls and vaults. The shops are organized in a manner that allows for suitable air circulation and provides adequate shade along its open paths. The project also trained about 140 men and women as masons in the techniques of constructing the market buildings, and a number of them are making a living from their newly acquired skills.

The fourth project is university campus in Bandar Seri Iskandar, Malaysia. The campus with its high-tech architecture was designed on an 800-meter module, which is the distance a student easily can walk in the ten –minute break available between classes. Natural ventilation is used throughout the campus, as with central open passages that are designed to create cooling airflow, and large cantilevers are used to provide shade. Water from the building roofs is collected to irrigate the landscaping. The project’s high-tech details also have greatly developed the skills of local contractors and fabricators of construction materials. A British architect working on the project remarked that an apparently simple local Malaysian metal shop was able to produce details with much higher levels of precision than one would get from high-tech fabricators in Britain.

The fifth project is the restoration of the Amiriyya complex in the Yemeni city of Rada. This richly-decorated, white-washed early-sixteenth century madrasa, prayer hall, and royal residence had dilapidated considerably over the years. The carefully carried-out restoration project of the complex, which was initiated in the early-1980s, has allowed for the recovery and revival of lost traditional construction techniques, and also trained over 500 local craftsmen and artisans, many of whom have gone on to restore numerous other heritage buildings in the country.

The sixth project is a residential high-rise in Singapore. The architects of this modern building developed natural methods of ventilation adapted from traditional residential buildings that depend on manipulating orientation, internal planning, cross-ventilation, shading, and perforations. These solutions have greatly minimized the use of mechanical air-conditioning in the apartments.

The seventh project is the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Addis Ababa, where two Dutch architects designed a complex that very much is an expression of contemporary directions in Dutch architecture, but also completely relies on materials and construction techniques that are predominant in the developing-world context of Ethiopia. The buildings of the complex also use heavy, roughly-textured concrete masses that are pigmented in red-ochre and allude to the rough-hewn thirteenth-century churches found in the Ethiopian city of Lalibela.

The eighth project is the rehabilitation of the walled city of Nicosia, a city with a long and rich historical heritage. Nicosia was divided into two sections as a result of the conflict that took place between the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus in 1974. However, it was through the remarkable efforts of the mayors of the two divided sections of the city that a project was initiated in 1979 to carry out various joint projects aimed at rehabilitating both sides of the city, particularly the historical star-shaped walled town, and that culminated in a joint master-plan. Successive mayors on both sides have continued to support the project. Not only has it created results of very high quality in terms of urban planning and conservation, but also has provided a very good example of how two conflicting communities can come together, joined by a spirit of cooperation and mutual acceptance.

The last project is a school in the town of Rudrapur in Bangladesh. The project is the result of joint efforts by members of the local community as well as experts and volunteers from Austria and Germany. The school was hand-built in four months using local materials and techniques consisting of rammed straw-reinforced mud and also bamboo frame construction. The Austrian architect who designed the project and worked on building it incorporated these traditional methods and techniques to create a fresh, richly-colored architectural composition that features warm, protective womb-like play spaces for the children on the ground floor, and open, light-filled spaces that are open to the cool breezes on the upper floor. The building creates a very positive and joyous environment in which the school children receive their education.

These projects have much to offer, not only to people in the Islamic world, but to anyone concerned with improving the quality of the built environment for human beings everywhere.

 * Additional information on each of the projects is available at

Mohammad al-Asad

October 4, 2007


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