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Decolonisation aspirations of architecture in Islamic societies

Generated discourse: seminars and monographs

While international architecture awards and periodicals mainly focus on synchronising modern aesthetics with the high technological achievements of Western architecture, in contrast the Aga Khan Award and publications recognise the enduring values of architecture by promoting and charting innovative standards and ideals for architectural excellence in the less recognised hamlets, villages, towns, and cities of the Muslim world. Aspiring towards a new architectural identity that is liberated from inherited ‘isms’ and cliches imposed on the Muslim world, the AKAA instead recognises projects that fulfil community aspirations and promote civic engagement and respect for local environmental and cultural settings. Every award cycle is accompanied by a number of seminars and a series of publications that enable discourse, debate, and response to the concerns and exigencies that face the contemporary Muslim world. Through these publications, the Award extends its role to act as a vehicle to disseminate, support, and promote the concepts and/or originality of the recognised projects. While the central focus of the Award is to establish standards of enduring values of architecture in the Muslim world, the oeuvre of award-winning figures and project concepts underpins the interrelation of the six elements within the architectural design process - people, technology, beauty, time, place, and cost. These elements are central to addressing the chief concern of the Award: the preservation of cultural identity in the face of globalisation and the domination of technology. In addition, AKAA members and the experts involved are mindful of the ongoing dynamism of culture and its continuing evolution, especially in culturally rich and historically layered societies such as Islamic ones.

As such, the Award does not attach importance to styles or trends, as these tend to continuously change, evolve, or disappear; instead it endorses and values transformation, change, and adaptation, emphasising the transformative character of culture. The initial series of discourse that accompanied the first award cycle was titled “Architectural Transformations in the Islamic World,” while the first monograph, edited by historian

Renata Holod, was entitled Toward an Architecture in the Spirit of Islam (1978). The very first monograph stated that the AKA A seminars had been “designed to be an overview of the problems in making new architecture. It sought to identify the theoretical or philosophical base for this architecture if it were to embody the spirit of Islam” (Holod, 1978:vii). The monograph described the Award’s holistic interest in changes in the Islamic city and in contemporary architects’ decreasing cultural ‘sensibility due to modernisation’ that have resulted in the loss of an “inner sense of beauty, dignity, harmony and nobility, which characterises all authentic manifestations of the Islamic spirit” (Holod, 1978:3). This change in sensibility and diminishing sensitivity has led to the loss of the integration between human and municipal functions, between the sacred and the profane, within the Islamic city, which has, in turn, resulted in narrowing the religion to a set of sharp a laws (Holod, 1978:3). Holod suggests that the ‘illness’ that characterises some Muslim cities has resulted from “the speedy change from medieval society to a society which tries to accommodate itself to the Industrial Age” (Holod, 1978:3). In contrast, the authentic Muslim city is inward-looking and is “intended to be strictly socio-historical” and “self-explanatory” distinguished by an “urban equilibrium” achieved by the framework of open courts or squares that unfold around a religious epicentre (Holod, 1978:26).

The search for identity within the Islamic city is a recurrent theme in the Award’s seminars and publications in monographs such as Architecture as a Symbol and Self-Identity (1980), edited by Jonathan Katz; Architecture and Identity (1983), edited by Robert Powell; and Expressions of Islam in Buildings (1990), edited by Hayat Salam. However, it is of significance here to stress that the Award also highlights the indispensable need for the acknowledgement of the contemporaneity of the expressions of ‘Islam’ as a religion, culture, and civilisation as stated in Architecture for Islamic Societies (1994), edited by James Steele. This precept to preserve a distinct Islamic identity is included in the conservation and preservation requirements for the Aga Khan Award. Conservation projects must stem from a deep understanding of architecture as a responsive art that reflects local people’s traditions, heritage, and culture. Considering a people’s tradition by focusing on historic environments enhances socio-cultural aspirations in relation to the specificity of the space and can act as a catalyst to resist patterns of globalisation and standardisation that often influence design. Deploring that standardisation, the AKAA’s second seminar proceedings, Conservation as Cultural Survival (1980), edited by Renata Holod, highlights historic sites and buildings that “stand out as striking examples of authenticity at a time when new urban development is increasingly impersonal and unimaginative” (Zulficar, 1980:xiii). In this way, the transformation of time and space phenomenology, as a response to continuing urban development, is underscored throughout the Award’s publications and monographs.

The AKAA has expanded its vision to respond to accelerated problematic situations that strategically impact nations around the world and, in particular, the Muslim world; these include “demographic pressure, environmental degradation, globalisation, standardisation, ethnic tensions and migration, the crisis of the nation-state, the struggle for democracy and human rights” (Davidson, 1998:10). Therefore, awarded projects should include two main concepts: community rebuilding and the development of vernacular styles unique to their contexts. In this way, the Award has embraced a pluralistic approach that resists globalisation and affirms the principles of multiple modernities. In essence, it adopts a moderate position between the transatlantic debate about modernism, at one end, and the regional debates on authenticity, cultural continuity, and craftsmanship at the other. Accordingly, this new approach has been dubbed the “third way - the veritable multi-laned highway” (Davidson, 1998:12). The commitment to architectural pluralism has been represented in monographs such as Architecture and Polyphony: Building in the Islamic World Today (2004), edited by Philippa Baker. Of note is the assertion that “modernity has tended to re-evaluate and reify tradition. Architecture is susceptible to reification” (Schulze, 2004:141). Palpably, over the past decade, the discourse generated within the monographs has deepened and addressed various themes, including multiple modernities and homogenisation of representations (Sadria, 2009, 2012), the role of architecture in shaping the quality of life and plurality (Mostafavi, 2013, 2016), and shaping cities (al-Asad and Mehrotra, 2016); these are manifestations of the commitment of the Award to continue to expand the knowledge base of architecture as a profession and academic discipline.

Collectively, the AKAA monographs, written and edited by practitioners, theorists, scholars, and intellectuals from both the Islamic and Western worlds, have produced lively debate and have had a profound influence on contemporary architectural discourse. More than thirty conference and seminar proceedings have been published; these highlight the role of architecture in producing ideals, values, and beliefs of Muslims in a tangible, recognisable, and interconnected way. The publications, articles, seminars, and workshops promote socially and culturally responsive urbanism, which can be achieved through upgrading, revitalisation, redevelopment, user participation, and the utilisation of appropriate technology. As such, the AKAA fosters formative and illuminating dialogue between professionals, decisionmakers, and academics, as well as students of architecture and young professionals on vital development problems that are of concern to various communities in specific situations. The Award publicises its policies, values, and points of interest by means of events and publications; these have become part of the Aga Khan Foundation’s tangible legacy and are essential components of global deliberations on historical and contemporary architecture. Due to the efforts of the Aga Khan Award, architectural communities, at international and local levels, have become more aware of issues like social architecture, stakeholder participation, squatter settlements, and environmental and cultural impact, indeed pertinent and pressing issues and problems that, as a rule, are not traditionally celebrated, supported, respected, or recognised by mainstream architectural practice.

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