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Architectural excellence: perceived and measured quality

Today the prevailing perception of architectural design excellence is about embracing technology and materials to create new compositions of aesthetic forms and living spaces that fulfil specific needs. In contrast, the Aga Khan Award strives to alter such perceptions. In 1983, the Aga Khan’s first publication, Architecture and Community (1983), announced the launching of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the requirements of the “search” (HH the Aga Khan, 1983:12) for appropriate nominations that would acknowledge and reward achievements in architecture and urbanism within the Muslim world. In recent discourse, the notion of perceived and measured quality in architecture and the overall built environment has been discussed to highlight the ontological differences between criticism and evaluation (Salama, 2008b). Criticism in architecture is typically carried out by ‘expert critics’ employing subjective methods of assessment focused primarily on the aesthetic properties of buildings. On the other hand, assessment and post-occupancy evaluation studies utilise objective criteria and methods of measuring the performance of buildings, using parameters relevant to health, safety, functionality, psychological, social, and cultural satisfaction of the building users (Preiser et al., 2014). Notably, through its jury process and on-site assessments, the Aga Khan Award provides the opportunity for the two paradigms to co-exist by acknowledging the need for an enhanced understanding of human needs and richer life experiences, thereby advancing the discourse on architectural excellence.

The AKAA functions as a platform “to grasp the social, intellectual, aesthetic, cultural, and historical needs and emotions of the Muslim world” (HH the Aga Khan). From its inception, the Award set its own independent standards of distinction: “To impose from the very outset of the Award process, formal or even social criteria of excellence would be not only an exercise in vanity and folly, but a profound moral wrong” (HH the Aga Khan, 1983:12). Although the Award aims for excellence in architecture in the Muslim world, it adamantly rejects any intimation or suggestion of any societal or cultural prejudices; rather, it is based on the lucid awareness of the variations of such a broad and variegated community. The structures and projects considered by the Award are not the typical monumental forms of architecture that many historians believe to “define the Muslim’s past.” Instead, the Award focuses on the architecture that

the common man is creating for himself and his neighbours a setting for life and for health, preserving and utilising what nature has created, developing ways to maintain his identity rather than accepting the elephantine massiveness of so much of today’s world.

(HH the Aga Khan, 1983:11)

By adhering to such precepts, the Award strives to implement a creative and generative process, while avoiding the perceptions of monumental architecture. Indeed, the award criteria do not refer to certain styles or trends, as these tend to continuously change; instead it selects buildings, conservation efforts, or urban interventions that are representative of innovation, appropriate functionality, beauty, and civic engagement.

Aware of the intricacy and the plurality of the Muslim world, the jury is very cautious; it is circumspectly critical of any projects that attempt to sustain a cultural frame of normativity that could impede that plurality. In addition, the AKAA endeavours to liberate the architecture of Islamic societies from any stylistic references generated by inherited orientalism, perceptions that may have emerged during periods of colonisation. This consideration of decolonisation is manifested by the Award’s ongoing emphasis on pluralism as a rooted aspect of the rich and varied historical and cultural contexts of Muslim societies. The Aga Khan Award sets standards for the enduring values of architecture by charting innovative ideals for architectural excellence in the Muslim world, heretofore a sometimes neglected and less recognised aspect of architectural appreciation by Western discourse.

While perceptions of architectural excellence are frequently based on abstract aesthetics, forms, compositions, and techniques, for the Aga Khan Award architectural excellence is much more inclusive; it represents innovation in synthesising traditional and advanced technologies to create inspiring forms and spaces that push the boundaries of realism, set the imagination free, and ultimately reaffirm humanity. Appropriate architectural responses to climate and the utilisation of local materials and vernacular technologies are cornerstones to achieving basic human comfort and contributing to a shared cultural identity. As such, architectural excellence signifies the way art and science integrate socio-cultural and spatio-temporal aspects into the physical environment. According to John Lautner, who was a proponent of organic architecture and a former apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, “the purpose of architecture is to improve human life, create timeless, free, joyous spaces for all activities in life” (Lautner, 2011). Thus, the enduring values of architecture do not simply refer to certain styles or trends.

The need for liberation from style or ‘dogma’ was highlighted in the title of the AKAA third cycle monograph: Space for Freedom: The Search for Architectural Excellence in Islamic Societies (Serageldin, 1989). Serageldin noted that the AKAA had been established to create an intellectual space where ingenuity can soar and the quest of relevance and architectural excellence can proceed in numerous ways, transcending a single style or school of thought (Serageldin, 1989). Awarded projects exhibit a wholesome excellence, not only in articulating cultural and architectural innovation, but also in sustainability in its wider interpretation. While the central focus of the Award is to chart the standards of these enduring values in the Muslim world, the oeuvre of award-winning figures and projects highlight the deep awareness of the Award’s jury members in recognising structures and projects that represent the best and most worthy ideals of architectural values in Islamic societies.

Collectively, architectural and urban excellence, central keystones of the award process, are achieved by acknowledging four strategic considerations essential to selected architectural representations: firstly, expressing historical memory in architecture through present-day vocabulary and needs; secondly, integrating private initiatives to fit within a pluralistic public sphere; thirdly, expressing self-distinctiveness and countering the perceived collective identities of Muslim societies; and finally, synthesising the hegemony of global domains of technology with culture and economics.5 These four elements, if applied to architecture, should be sufficient to fulfil the criteria for commitment to excellence. However, this does not necessarily mean assigning an archetypal form to all problems.6 The historian Renata Holod, in her article entitled “Defining an Art of Architecture” (1986), stated, “[to] develop criteria for detecting quality in a building, its own intimate context of related buildings has to be found” (Holod, 1986:26). Therefore, according to Holod, architectural excellence is also based on an “intellectualised” process that cannot be identified without the ability to conceptualise and to create discourse about it (Holod, 1986:27).

The Award stipulates that architectural excellence involves displaying a clear understanding of the notion of a worldwide exchange of technological, cultural, and economic knowledge. The translation of global identities into local architecture vocabularies - which can be achieved through the technology used in buildings or in the potential functions of buildings - is considered by the jury to be of great significance not only for the Award or the Islamic world, but also for the global discourse in architecture.

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