A prelude for narratives of architectural excellence in Islamic societies
In the post-independence Islamic world, many cities have been in a continuous state of socio-cultural flux. Transitioning from a dependent foreign- ruled colony or protectorate to self-rule has not been an easy task for some nations, leaders, politicians, and citizens, including architects. Many cities want to negate their colonial past as they look elsewhere, both internally and externally, for new responses to design challenges. Today, in the effort to disconnect themselves from the influence of orientalist design fantasies that often held sway during the colonial era, contemporary architects practising in Muslim nations have their own lucid and pragmatic design visions; they would like the world architecture community to respect and acknowledge architecture in Islamic societies as a fully organic, home-grown response to religious, cultural, environmental, and social needs. However, despite clear evidence that architecture in particular contexts within the Islamic world has developed relatively autonomously in its home environments with minimal outside influence, many scholars would still argue that it has had major Western influences and is, thus, not truly authentic.
Departing from the debate of the origins of Islamic architecture, whether Roman, according to Robert Hillenbrand, author of Islamic Art and Architecture (Hillenbrand, 1999), or Byzantine, according to David Talbot Rice (Rice, 1965), an English art historian, the AKAA avoids such posits and instead concentrates on the excellence of architecture based on contemporary local and global exigencies. In the Muslim world, the cultural and physical movements and fluctuations caused by globalisation have resulted in great variation of building typologies and responses to community needs and aspirations (Farmer et al., 1993; Turner, 1994). For the AKAA, striking a balance between inspiration and realism, tradition and globalism, need and aspiration, and community involvement is indispensable to achieving excellence in architecture. Therefore, the AKAA highlights such efforts by paying attention to exemplary projects and by supporting and promoting them to attain an overall excellence in the Muslim communities in which they are used.
Narratives of excellence that manifest this innovative synthesis between local exigencies and global pressures are exemplified by such structures as the Hajj Terminal at Jeddah International Airport, awarded in the 1981-1983 cycle, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina or the New Fibrary of Alexandria, awarded in the 2002-2004 cycle, on the waterfront, not far from where the magnificent ancient original once graced the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.7 The first example, the Hajj Terminal (Figure 1.1), represents modern
Figure 1.1 Hajj Terminal, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by Skidmore, Owings 6c Merrill and Fazlur Rahman Khan
Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Reha Gunay (photographer) building typology that departs from traditional archetypes in response to a need for a synthesis between local traditions - Muslim pilgrims - and global technology - modern airport infrastructure. The main aim was to accommodate the vast influx of pilgrims arriving at the Hajj Terminal at Jeddah International Airport, from which they would continue on their way to Mecca to perform religious rituals and visit the holy places. In designing the Hajj Terminal to look like a massive traditional Bedouin tent, the architects were able to effectively connect the past and the present and incorporate aspects of local culture and identity with modern technology (cables, Teflon-coating, fiberglass).
Similarly, according to the master jury, the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Figure 1.2) “shows an innovative approach to the design and placement of a large, symbolic form on one of the most important waterfronts in the world.”8 By situating historical meaning into contemporary needs, a building can effectively hold societal connotation rather than simply becoming an object of tourism.9 These buildings not only synthesise local culture and global technology, but they also skilfully fulfil environmental sustainability criteria and functional needs through their organisation and use of space. For example, the main reading area of the New Alexandria Library is a huge open space that includes eight terraces; each accommodates stacks based on a specific subject, “starting from the roots of knowledge (philosophy,
Figure 1.2 Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt, by Snohetta Hamza Consortium Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Christian Richters (photographer) history, religion, and geography) and ending with the latest technologies” (Baker, 2004:8). These edifices signify narratives of excellence in these particularly Muslim communities, in which the majority of its built environment is vernacular, organic, and functional and, very importantly, as evident in many other awarded projects, “dependent upon non-architects” (Serageldin, 1989:18). The designs of both of these two awarded projects represent responses to functional and socio-cultural needs imbued with a sense of heritage and identity.
The AKAA contributes to the redefinition of vernacular architecture by recognising and lauding the socio-cultural aspects of its awarded projects, regardless of the conventional vision of architecture. One project that manifests this philosophy is the community development project on the remote island village of the Mbaru Niang on Flores Island in Indonesia that was shortlisted in the 2011-2013 cycle (Figure 1.3). The village’s archetypal buildings are conical houses with thatched roofs, made of bamboo and worok wood tied together in a rattan construction. This minimalist design is based on an almost extinct tradition that was used to represent unity of community and family. A number of architects were asked to help revitalise this old method of construction and facilitate the rebuilding of all the original houses. Their role was to encourage villagers to engage and take ownership of their structures and thus inculcate a sense of civic pride and
Figure 1.3 Preservation of the Mbaru Niang, Flores Island, Indonesia, by Rumah Asuh/Yori Antar
Source: © Rumah Asuh/Yori Antar - available on Archnet responsibility. The architects motivated the villagers to invest in and become the custodians of their culture as they strove to revive this almost forgotten traditional building skill. Today, students and the younger generation continue to preserve and document such almost lost traditions and skills.
Demonstrating the importance of the development process as a social practice, another AKAA recipient project is the Kampung Improvement Programme, Jakarta, awarded in 1980 (Figure 1.4). In this programme, community investment and improvement was not only manifested by providing housing, but it was also the result of improved access to the community as well as flood control and increased economic activity within the Kampung’s traditional settlements. The most important aspects of the programme were integrating the informal community with the city economy and motivating individual initiative in the process of housing production (Holod and Rastorfer, 1983). Similarly, Kampung Kali Cho-de in Indonesia (awarded in 1992) manifests the AKAA requirement for synthesising the “highly sophisticated and valid values of architectural experience and realities of Muslim cultures in a process of social, economic and environmental change” (Ozkan, 1992:13). The development of the Kampung Kali Cho-de was a platform for civic engagement and was mainly developed by its inhabitants.
Interestingly, the local chief and a priest, who together convinced the government to invest in the gradual upgrading of the neglected villages,
Figure 1.4 Kampung Improvement Programme, by KIP Technical Unit - Darrundono and Jakarta Municipal Government Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Christopher Little (photographer) initiated the project. The transformation of the community from one with a bad reputation to a harmonious, more sustainable one resulted from their engagement in the upgrading process of their environment; this has now started to attract tourists whose visits and tours contribute to the local economy. The narratives of these and many other success stories represent the multifaceted aspects of community concerns and architectural excellence promoted and supported by the Award.