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Enhancing Everyday Life: The AGA Khan Awards

The Aga Khan Awards 2013 explore the transformative power of architecture to positive effect, writes Paul Finch

Lisbon’s São Jorge Castle provided an evocative setting for the Aga Khan Architecture Awards ceremony, held at the end of August. Substantially rebuilt by the Moors in the 11th century, it was for a while a symbol of the potential peaceful co-existence of Muslims, Christians and Jews, a poignant reminder of what might have been in the Middle East.

The awards ceremony was a cheerful and inspirational occasion. This was the 12th ceremony since the awards were launched on their three-year cycle in 1980, and the mix of winners was a demonstration of architects, as the Aga Khan noted, ‘transforming the quality of human experience’. Since their inception, the awards have had an explicit Islamic flavour, though there have been many winners which have had no explicit reference to Islamic architectural traditions.

Over the past 36 years it has become tougher to win an award; in 1980 there were 15 winners, while this year there were five. This is certainly not a reflection of any decline in quality. On the contrary, the 20 shortlisted schemes were of a very high order and the task of the master-jury, chaired by cultural historian Mahmood Mamdani, was by all accounts a tough one.

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Rabat-Salé Bridge, Morocco by Marc Mimram

As is usual with the programme, an overall steering committee (including Harvard GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi and MoMA director Glenn Lowry) sets the tone and context for each cycle of the awards. This helps the master-jury to identify thematic categories for the awards which mainly derive from the nature of the buildings nominated from around the world, more than 400 this year. This time these themes comprised Craft, Conservation, Dwelling, Infrastructure, Institution and Resilience.

In the event four of the five winners came from the Infrastructure strand (the word was taken to include a wide range of public project types, not merely transport). They were the rehabilitation of Tabriz Bazaar in Iran by the Iran Cultural Heritage Organization of East Azerbaijan Province; the Rabat-Salé Bridge in Morocco by Marc Mimram Architectes; the Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Austria, by Bernardo Bader; and the Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery by Studio Tamassociati in Khartoum, Sudan. The fifth winner was the revitalisation of Birzeit’s historic centre in Palestine, by Riwaq, the Centre for Architectural Conservation.

The multicultural nature of these awards is evident from the fact that while only one of the prizewinners is in Europe, three of the five winners are by European architects. Nationality is far less important than the general criteria for these most rigorous of awards.

In the first instance, and in order to generate the shortlist of 20, the master-jury looked at the general themes and challenges facing architects today. The second set of criteria, which generated the five awards, were the degree to which a holistic and participatory approach had been adopted; the quality of the design; and its resulting social, economic and environmental impact.

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Tabriz Bazaar, Iran, by the Iran Cultural Heritage Organisation of East Azerbaijan Province

Although the jury does not visit the buildings, they get live presentations from a team of ‘on-site reviewers’, who assess everything from the technical performance of a project to how it is working in practice for users and communities. Passionate argument took place, and the number of potential winners flexed up and down from the five finally selected by the jury, which included Wang Shu, Toshiko Mori and Murat Tabanlioğlu.

Winners share US$1 million, though this sum is divided at the jury’s discretion between all those involved in the creation of the finished result. In the case of the Tabriz Bazaar, for example, substantial work was undertaken by the occupants themselves, with the designers creating the context and the encouragement for community self-help.

The extraordinary range and quality of work considered for the awards is presented in an accompanying, well-produced book (Lars Müller Publishers). It was edited by Mohsen Mostafavi, who noted that the specific manner in which a project’s aspirations are conceived and constructed ‘provides the critical basis for evaluation and judgement’, with attention paid to solutions that ‘transcend local norms and practices’.

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Revitalisation of Birzeit’s historic center in Palestine, by Riwaq, the Center for Architectural Conservation

A striking example of this was the use of freight containers in the Khartoum cardiac unit project. The containers had been filled with material for the building; when emptied, the containers themselves were deployed as part of the building. By contrast, the most striking thing about the Tabriz project was the commitment given by all 5,500 shopkeepers to the renewal, which has been rewarded by the Bazaar’s recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2010.

What the awards programme celebrates is a humanist architecture which has the noblest aspirations of Islamic culture as part of its DNA. The organisers, steering committee, jury and on-site reviewers tread a delicate path as the awards evolve from the more specific conditions and problems that existed four decades ago to today’s more globalised and diverse cultures.

The awards ceremony was a splendid affair. At its heart, however, the programme is about the potentially transformative power of architecture, as His Highness put it, ‘to enhance the moments of everyday life’, in contexts very different to the grandeur of São Jorge.

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Salam Center for Cardiac Surgery in Khartoum, Sudan by Studio Tamassociati

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