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Pluralistic aspects of architectural excellence

In an era of globalisation, the term ‘pluralism’1 is often used to describe a response to the diversity of interconnected societies in a variety of places and countries. Undoubtedly, one could say that diversity “is the reality of life and pluralism is a response to that reality” (Dewji, 2018:84). Pluralism as a concept was first described in philosophy in 1882 and in political science in 1919 to signify similar meanings. In the field of political science, pluralism was initially viewed as “a theory in opposition to monolithic state power”; however, its usual definition, “toleration of diversity within a society or state,” was introduced in 1933 (Dewji, 2018:84). Diversity in the Muslim world, resulting from Islam’s influence and expansion over large swathes of geographical area, is highly valued by the award jury. This is acknowledged by recognising projects that honour climatic and historical differences as well as contribute to the uniqueness of Islamic cultures and societies. Additionally, by including places in which Muslims are a minority population, the Award’s parameters are expanded and therewith affirm its support of cultural pluralism. Indeed, the AKAA clearly stipulates that the endorsement of just any style as “official” is not applicable or relevant to the requirements of pluralism and thus cannot be used as “a convincing pretext of pluralism” (Bozdogan, 1992:183).

All Award nominations are carefully reviewed and examined as to whether they fully adhere to and respect the requirements, conditions, and principles set by the committee; jurors must stringently avoid considering any standardised notions of a ‘consensus’ and any static definition of Islamic architecture or architecture of Islamic societies. Indeed, the Award vigorously interprets these terms as functional, relevant, and encompassing, reflecting and “talking about the way in which people who practice the Faith of Islam around the world express themselves in their buildings and in their environment” (Cantacuzino, 1985:18). This dynamic interpretation is fluid, sustainable, and organic; it depends on integrating the user’s lifestyle, needs, and purpose in addition to his/her cultural and religious identities and, as such, wholly supports the notion of pluralism. This encompassing combination promotes human development and is thus manifested in what Arjun Appadurai coined as “process geographies”; these then represent alternative variations of transnational phenomena (Appadurai, 2001:7). According to Appadurai, fixed historical categories should be replaced by dynamic processes that allow fluctuations and interactions to take place. To meet the Award conditions, identity is perceived as “a process, and not a ‘found’ object. Identity, and with it, heritage and culture, may be likened to the trail left by civilisation as it moves through history. The trail is the culture, or identity, of that civilisation” (Correa, 1983:12). Hence, by dismissing the old-fashioned and cliched notion of the ‘clash of civilisations’ and rejected historical connotations of what can be identified as ‘Islamic,’ the Award instead looks beyond such out-dated limitations and instead creates spaces for intercultural and learned dialogue as well as platforms which advocate ideals of inclusion, exchange, and interchange.

The pluralism of the Muslim world and its representation in various and diverse locales is significant and is recognised and appreciated by the Award and its members; additionally, other notions of pluralism are also manifested in two complementary directions. This is achieved, first of all, by advocating a unique visual identity, which recognises a unique locality with its inherited elements and symbols of the past. Examples of projects that have fulfilled these criteria include the National Assembly Building of Dhaka, Bangladesh (1989); the Al-Kindi Plaza in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1989); the Nubia Museum in Aswan, Egypt (2001); and the Olbia Social Centre in Antalya, Turkey (2001). All of these endeavours clearly and visually demonstrate the multiplicity of modernity in various places throughout the Muslim world. In addition, promoting innovation, along with the use of advanced technology adapted to local expressions, remains a key criterion for nominations of the AKAA. Thus, the Award has recognised iconic projects such as the Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Centre in Makkah, Saudi Arabia (1980), and the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1983), for their innovative use of technology to reference, incorporate, and visualise aspects of time and tradition.

Moreover, on a smaller scale, some structures are significant for their locale, such as the B2 House in Canakkale, Turkey (2004), which embodies excellence in valuing its local singularity. Another example is the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands in Ethiopia (2007), which has successfully incorporated elements of Dutch architecture with its Ethiopian locale to evoke a traditional rock-sculpted building inspired by the red limestone rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. This extraordinary building, built of untreated red- tinted concrete, blends gracefully with the surrounding landscape to create a poetic and iconic building. As evidenced by these successful structures, merging ethnic cultural heritage with global technology can help sustain and preserve cultural identity for the future as well as reinvigorate and reinforce a community’s sense of belonging and purpose.

The notion of pluralism in the Award is not only represented in the variations of Muslim communities, based on their geographic and contextual situations, but it also encompasses civic engagement and ownership, particularly for diverse and vulnerable groups and users. The AKAA has recognised such exemplary projects as the Lepers Hospital, India (1998), whose primary goal was to provide lepers with a safe and secure environment in alien surroundings. The design was recognised for various reasons; for example, it not only provides a treatment centre that could also be used as a temporary home, but it also engenders public awareness by fighting the endemic prejudice against the lepers through a village-to-village nursing and information programme (Davidson, 1998). Another project that provides for a vulnerable group is the SOS Children’s Villages, Jordan (2001); each village provides an independent, non-governmental, home-centred community for orphaned and abandoned children that re-creates the conditions and security of family life. Every child is placed in a group-family home in which they are treated as members of a family.

Solving the problems and providing for the needs of Muslim communities have been central to the Award since its inception; this is underscored in a monograph entitled Architecture and Community (1980), edited by Renata Holod. One of the major themes of this monograph is the responsibility of architecture, architects, and design practitioners to help alleviate the epidemic poverty that pervades rural and urban communities in most Muslim countries. The monograph also highlights the fact that thirty projects out of two hundred nominations for the 1983 Award were for low-cost housing (Cantacuzino, 1985:13).

Consequently, pluralism as advocated by the AKAA ascertains that excellence in architectural design is only achieved when it is centred on fundamental human needs, both practical and spiritual, for sustainable human development. Exploiting architectural creativity, either through cultural heritage or modern technology, is essential to help solve problems of individual survival in the contemporary world; this premise forms the heart of Architecture and Community (1980). According to Holod, the award requirement for cultural pluralism must also acknowledge that Islamic architecture is not only purposed for mosques, madrassas, or mausoleums, but rather it should also transcend the formal typological limits of the so-called Islamic cliche to include the parts that the “common man [is] creating for himself” (HH the Aga Khan, 1983:11). Therefore, recognising the importance and function of medical centres, housing projects, and shelter projects imparts significance to the users and validates and embraces the community and the community’s individuals. The Award includes civic engagement and community participation as another dimension or aspect of supporting the principle of pluralism, as it preserves “for all time the memory of this quality of life” (HH the Aga Khan, 1983:11).

Since its launch, the Award has enriched the parameters and expanded the boundaries of the profession of architecture and helped promote public awareness of a variety of pioneering approaches as to what constitutes architecture. Since the very first 1977-1980 cycle, the fifteen projects which have received the Award have encompassed and helped resolve a wide range of issues, from conservation to slum upgrading, in addition to embracing traditional as well as modern designs. The diversity of these distinctive and, in particular cases, groundbreaking projects is acknowledged and evaluated throughout the award process. For example, in the 2010-2013 cycle each of the five jury-selected projects was an extraordinary and exemplary achievement. Three of the projects, Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the Revitalisation of the Hypercentre of Tunis, Tunisia; and Ipekyol Textile

Factory, Edirne, Turkey, fully represent five of the stipulated AKAA themes: environment, institution, industry, dwelling, and conservation.

Together, the winning projects exhibited the plurality of Muslim societies in countries from Asia to Africa. From the outset, the Award has made both members of the architectural profession and the wider public more aware of the broad and expansive approach as to what actually constitutes architecture in terms of appropriate, innovative, and relevant design solutions that meet the needs of local communities and personal exigencies. The Award nominations and jury are completely cognisant of the ramifications and effects of ongoing changes and transformation in the built environment that are taking place in various parts of the world and comprehend how these impact on communities of users in terms of buildings, quality of life, and function.

According to the Aga Khan, the notion of pluralism obliges us as individuals “to respect our differences, but not to ignore them, to integrate diversity, not to depreciate diversity” (Flis Flighness the Aga Khan, 2008:6). Moreover, pluralism is inclusive; “it means affirming social solidarity, without imposing social conformity. One’s identity needs not be diluted in a pluralistic world, but rather fulfilled, as one bright thread in a cloth of many colours” (Dewji, 2018:80). The importance of plurality and how it can effect positive change in architectural decision-making and design has been underscored since the launch of the Award. According to Fernandez- Galiano, an acknowledged critic and a contributor to the book Architecture and Plurality (2016), edited by Mohsen Mostafavi,

Architecture can build pluralism. In a world shattered by the tension between globalisation and nationalism, the built environment can provide stages for this conflict to be choreographed, bridging the gap between the cosmopolitan and the local through dialogue and compromise.

(Fernandez-Galiano, 2016:28)

This discerning stance shows how important viable, pluralistic, and innovative projects are to the AKAA, particularly those that exemplify the “outcome of a set of negotiations which oscillate between needs/programme, location/geography, conditions/themes, and architecture/construction” (Mostafavi, 2016:9). Moreover, the AKAA precept of ‘multiple modernities’ is clearly delineated by its support of architectural alternatives that can enhance, maximise, and synthesise transformations of the built environment of Muslim societies, far beyond dichotomies and differences.

Mohsen Mostafavi references David Bohm’s prescient writings and ideas formulated in the 1970s and 1980s. Bohm, an eminent theoretical physicist, challenged the conventional way of viewing the world as a series of separate invisible particles; instead he promoted the notion of holomovement, a dynamic state or implicate order beyond the visible and tangible world, wherein everything moves fluidly in a profound and dynamic process of holistic interconnectedness. Drawing an analogy of Bohm’s notions with architectural design, Mostafavi argues that what most architects and design professionals do is explicate order by designing buildings which primarily manifest the ‘visible.’ Even in so doing, paradoxically, such structures operate in relation to an intangible, implicate order that manifests the ‘invisible’ conditions.

The link between the visible order of shortlisted and awarded projects and the less visible situational conditions are considered to be critical aspects which have a strong impact on the way in which buildings and built environments are formed, performed, and received. In this context, one can refer to other complementary ideas generated in the 1960s by Chris Alexander; he postulated how systems generate systems through repeated patterns of use and the forms that accommodate them (Alexander, 1966). In other words, this continuing cycle of repetition demonstrates how the ‘implicate’ can impact the ‘explicate.’ While some studies suggest that approximately 87% of people’s perceptions are derived through the sense of sight, if we delve further into the surfaces of images, the word ‘image’ itself may reveal a deeper and more profound sense of integrity and identity (Salama, 2005). In essence, a positive image of the built environment goes far beyond appearance as it also includes a complete fit and blending into the landscape and the local environment to create a harmonious and integrated whole. The awarded projects discussed in the 2011 cycle’s monograph demonstrate how architecture as an ‘elegant receptacle’ can be integrated into a ‘spectacle’ in and of itself.

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