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Values of excellence and the narrative of architectural and urban conservation

The term conservation is often used interchangeably with other terms, such as restoration or preservation. However, various scholars argue that these terms do not mean quite the same thing.3 Restoration focuses on retaining a given structure which represents the most significant time in its history; this sometimes requires the removal of certain elements that belong to other periods. In contrast, preservation is the process of preventing further deterioration to that structure. In both processes, no changes, modifications, or additions are allowed. Conservation, on the other hand, is a dynamic process that requires the past to be reshaped in such a way that preserves the historical and cultural values while also responding to present requirements and needs and the challenges of the future.

The conservation project in the Muslim world is at a critical stage, as it strives to fulfil the present trend of reclaiming national identity, since historic waves of colonisation, modernisation, and globalisation placed huge threats on cultural heritage (Salama, 2005; Al-Naim, 2008). The Venice Charter, issued in 1964, made tourism development a valid part of the conservation process. This was further impacted when UNESCO adopted the World Heritage Conservation policies;4 these not only protect listed heritage sites around the world and provide them with international recognition, but also promote them as key tools for tourism development. Conserving the built heritage has been increasingly recognised across the globe. Many of the cases presented in the chapter demonstrate how, by accommodating historical values and contemporary needs, these rehabilitated buildings and sites retain socio-cultural meanings rather than become purely a platform for tourism. However, certain of these examples have demonstrated architectural excellence at all levels: in going beyond the physical structure, they pragmatically respond to social, economic, and technical challenges. The following account presents a critique of eight projects that are internationally acclaimed for demonstrating outstanding architectural excellence.

On the scale of city or settlement conservation, the rehabilitation of Nicosia and Shibam, although very different in nature, both represent such excellence. The long-term goal of the programme to rehabilitate Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city, was to treat the city as a unified entity rather than a divided one (al-Asad, 2007). With major monuments and buildings restored and the infrastructure upgraded, the programme offered a rich architectural revival that emphasised the diverse Byzantine, Gothic, and Ottoman history of the city. Additionally, it revitalised the urban environment and offered a variety of economic opportunities for residents. For the master jury of the Aga Khan Award, the rehabilitation of Nicosia positively impacted the cultural and commercial life of the city, as numerous joint cultural activities between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities evolved, despite the constraint of political concerns. The Nicosia project is a fine example of how the preservation of architectural and cultural legacy can promote tolerance between opposing sides in order to build a shared space for the use and enjoyment of residents and tourists.

In Shibam, the most outstanding architectural feature is the extraordinary height and locale of its historic buildings. The rehabilitation process began as an urgent need to improve the decaying housing structures in the city and encourage the residents not to leave. According to the Aga Khan master jury, the vital components of the programme were not just the restoration of the built fabric but also the mobilisation of community-based organisations (Johnston, 2007b). The economic and social impact of the project inspired various community groups to launch their own initiatives. Training in traditional crafts and workshops for high school students were organised, while local craftspeople were encouraged to develop new tourism goods. This type of rehabilitation programme facilitates the improvement of everyday life and creates a contemporary setting rooted within the urban heritage, rather than in artificial open-air museums.

The historic centre of Birzeit and the recent redevelopment of heritage sites in Tunis are also fine examples of successful revitalisation efforts. In Birzeit, due to issues caused by the Israeli occupation and ongoing land appropriation in Palestine, the cultural heritage is under severe threat. The 50 Villages Program focused on the 50% of historic structures in Palestine that are located in villages, where the majority of Palestinians live under difficult economic circumstances. By focusing on villages, the programme not only aims at saving Palestine’s remaining heritage, but also emphasises achieving a positive and important socio-economic impact on local communities (Mostafavi, 2013b). The Birzeit revitalisation programme involved restoring historical buildings or reconstructing those that were not restor- able in such a way that architectural coherence is preserved. The project also created jobs and revitalised local workshops, in addition to ultimately provoking investment in the historic centre. The revitalisation programme, considered to be unique in recognising the importance of in-between spaces, included the incremental creation of public spaces by focusing on the circulatory systems of the historical centre to create a continuous and cumulative experience (Toshiko, 2013). According to the master jury, the revitalisation of the Birzeit historic centre was a dynamic project that succeeded in mobilising stakeholders and local craftspeople into a process, which resulted in not only physical healing, but also amelioration of socio-economic and political concerns. The Birzeit project was a positive response to severe transformations; it not only rehabilitated the neglected historic core of Birzeit but also addressed people’s lives and personal concerns in addition to restoring their dignity.

Unlike the revitalisation of Birzeit, which focused on rehabilitating historic heritage, the revitalisation of the hypocentre Ville Nouvelle of Tunis paid particular attention to 19th- and 20th-century colonial architecture. The revitalisation programme was the first of its kind to consider colonial architecture a cultural, touristic, and economic asset for an urban environment. According to the master jury, the programme was an important and inspiring contribution to changing the understanding and perception of the recent history of the Islamic world, especially the cultural legacies of the colonial era. The success of such a programme lies in preserving landmarks of the colonial period and using them as a catalyst for an ambitious economic regeneration plan (Mostafavi, 2011a). In principle, the Ville Nouvelle project fostered a richer and a more enlightened understanding of Tunisia’s recent history, without disguising or diminishing the nature of colonialism.

On a district scale, the rehabilitation of Tabriz Bazaar and Souk Waqif presents fine examples of conserving and upgrading two traditional commercial centres in such a way that the historic character is preserved while also contributing to boosting the city’s economy. The conservation plan for the Tabriz Bazaar was developed through a bottom-up grassroots participatory process that directly involved all traders in the decision-making process. The programme aimed at restoring historic structures in the bazaar, upgrading its infrastructure, and ultimately boosting the commercial activity through re-establishing its historic image and context. Recognising contemporary needs with the need to preserve its historic character, delivery zones were placed outside the bazaar, leaving the inner open spaces for public gardens. As a result, the decaying disorder and insecurity was arrested and the bazaar has regained its position as the dynamic urban centre of the city of Tabriz, and thus reviving trades and shops that were at risk of disappearing (Mostafavi, 2013a). The bazaar is also recognised for its timeless and effective integration of structure and ornament, environmental responsiveness and circulation, together which promote urbanity and balance between commercial and public activities (Toshiko, 2013). For the master jury, the rehabilitation of Tabriz bazaar is a remarkable example of stakeholder coordination and cooperation that enabled participatory restoration that revitalised a unique structure. The rehabilitation project contributed to the transfer of lost building techniques and skills and shed light on the vital aspects of everyday environment.

Similarly, Souk Waqif was a traditional market that acted as a commercial and gathering place for many decades; however, its use declined over the years due to the construction of large shopping malls. The profits and wealth that ensued from the exportation of petroleum and liquid natural gas has transformed the city from a small fishing village to a global city with iconic structures, high-rise business districts, and huge shopping malls (Sal- ama, 2013). The protection of the traditional souk area and its surroundings from real estate development was an important factor in restoring the souk to a more traditional commercial space, which ultimately preserved vernacular architectural forms, local heritage, and history (Furlan and Fag- gion, 2015). Issues of identity, globalisation, and strategies based on a series of values were considered in the renovation and reconstruction plans of the souk. The preservation of cultural identity and well-proportioned public spaces and streets have contributed to business visibility, accessibility, and viability (Nafi et al., 2015). It was noted by the master jury that in contrast to heritage theme parks popular in several Gulf cities, Souk Waqif is a stunning example of unique architectural revival, wherein the designer has succeeded in creating an authentic and original experience (Salama and Wiedmann, 2013).

On the building scale, the restoration of the Great Omari Mosque and the Rubber Smokehouse presents two different approaches to the safeguarding of historical structures. The Great Omari Mosque, once a fortress, is the oldest and the largest mosque in the city of Sidon (Saida) Lebanon; it was badly deteriorated due to weather, neglect, and bombing. Rather than building a new structure, the local community initiated a restoration programme that articulated their desire to restore the great mosque as not only a place of worship, but also a public gathering space. Using traditional materials and techniques, reviving traditional building and crafts skills, the project involved the reconstruction of collapsed walls, arches, vaults, and domes (Altinyildiz, 1989). According to the master jury, the Great Omari Mosque was successfully restored and rebuilt by the physical effort and emotional investments of its users; the conservation was realised by the talents and skills of a team of competent architects and students from Beirut. The users rejected the suggestion of building of a new mosque, instead they preferred to rebuild the existing structure and restore their shattered environment with a monument from their collective past. This success story was achieved by a combination of human steadfastness, dedicated patronage, and sacrifice in the face of tragedy, as well as innovation, restoration skills, and talent in particularly difficult circumstances. All of these together have made the reconstruction of the Great Omari Mosque a beacon of hope in a tortured land and a sign of a better future for other war-torn nations (AKAA, 1989b).

In contrast to the Great Omari Mosque, which is an important religious structure, the Rubber Smokehouse represents Malaysia’s industrial heritage at a time when the production and export of rubber were the backbone of Malaysia’s economy. The conservation programme involved preserving the historical structure and transforming it into a museum and interpretation centre, displaying the local history of the rubber industry (Barakat, 2010). In doing so, the rubber house was transformed from an abandoned building into an important structure in the town’s landscape and a focus for the local community. Additionally, the programme helped increase people’s awareness of intercultural tolerance and encouraged youth empowerment by involving local schoolchildren from three ethnic backgrounds: Chinese, Indian, and Malay. The children were trained in cultural mapping and vid- eography; for three months, these 10- to 15-year-olds participated in collecting and analysing data on the history of local families, which enabled them to construct a picture of the past and the link between people and places. Ultimately, they showcased their findings to local people (Barakat, 2010). According to the master jury, the merit of the restoration of the Rubber Smokehouse lies in its unique approach, which demonstrated how precise architectural interventions could help restore physical heritage and encourage social cohesion in multicultural societies (Mostafavi, 2011b). Not only did the project conserve and save the historic building from destruction, it also restored the people’s pride in their own local stories and memories. The participating youth took collective ownership of their history and will be remembered as the memory keepers in times to come. Given such an opportunity, any collaborative organisation or group can use heritage and architecture to educate, reverse negative impacts of development, and empower people to participate directly and become a stakeholder of their own future (Loh, 2009).

Notably, some of the buildings, structures, and environments presented here were on the brink of complete destruction due to various political and natural forces. Some structures or places had lost their cultural, historical, or architectural importance because of cultural, industrial, or economic changes. Some were restored to their original use and function, while others were adapted for a new, more convenient, and more useful function. All of these examples were success stories of how national identity could be conserved; they helped reconnect people with their historical background and built heritage and ultimately provided a better quality of life for local residents and communities. Four decades ago, His Highness the Aga Khan, a visionary and dedicated proponent of saving Islamic heritage and heritage sites declared:

We must ask ourselves how we can prevent future architectural development from accelerating the loss of our cultural identity. . . . We must acknowledge that the world is changing, but in doing so we must realise that there are still many lessons that must be drawn from the past.

(HH the Aga Khan, 1980:xii)

Preserving the value of the built heritage is an important aspect in any conservation programme. The originality and authenticity of a historical site or structure must be valued as distinct and unique in each society and environment, and as such, the same set of conservation standards is not necessarily applicable or practicable elsewhere. The success of any conservation programme depends on a full consideration of the authentic aesthetic and cultural values of local societies and their inclusion as participatory stakeholders in its rehabilitation.

These eight projects demonstrate the rationale behind the restoration of historical structures either to their original use or to conserving them for adaptive reuse. Some scholars believe that the built heritage should be held in trust for future generations and is not ours to destroy. The principles of the Islamic religion instruct its followers to be guardians of the earth. Such actions and activities that promote and reinvigorate these principles are deemed positive and responsible. The notion of stewardship includes the protection of heritage, both natural and built (Khan, 2015). Nevertheless, stewardship in this context may take different routes; in many cases preserving the historical sites and structures requires infusing new life into them and introducing new functions that had never existed before. With increasing recognition of the built heritage as a national asset, the conservation of historical urban fabrics and structures aims at safeguarding the built heritage while ensuring its continuity through socio-economic development.

Further to being a national asset, the built heritage, whether in the scale of a city, a district, or a building, is also seen as a source of national identity and pride. In principle, the built heritage is a reflection of cultural values and encompasses within it the collective memory of societies and communities. It is thus an integral part of a cultural identity that could be forever lost if this heritage is abandoned or ignored. From the aforementioned critiques, it is clear that conserving the built heritage should not just be an urge to preserve the past through restoring historical monuments and transforming them into fake antiquities. Rather, the built heritage should be revived by adopting and adapting rehabilitation objectives that meet the needs of modern life and respond to contemporary values, while still respecting and preserving their historical and cultural significance. The acclaimed excellence and significance of the awarded and shortlisted projects lie in their ability to combine physical, social, and economic aspects in their conservation programmes, as well as retain the historical meaning of the past and accommodate the social, cultural, and economic needs of the present. This approach will help all residents and stakeholders prepare to meet and address the challenges of the future.

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