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Expanding the scope of architecture

The choice of the award-winning projects is based on the review of an independent master jury, which is appointed each award cycle. In order to expand the scope of architectural practice to be more inclusive, the jury is always multidisciplinary. For each triennial award cycle, the steering committee brings together a master jury of specialists in various fields such as history, cultural and critical theory, philosophy, engineering, art, planning, urban and architectural preservation, landscape, and of course architecture. In order to ensure objectivity, each member must nominate projects outside their native place or homeland. The specialists must carefully examine the documentation of each project and make a shortlist of approximately twenty-five to thirty projects. During this short-listing process, the boundaries between these disciplines intersect through discussion and interpretation; this results in creating a thorough and stimulating debate that is published in each award cycle’s monograph. Additionally, on-site review reports assess each shortlisted project, and then the specialists file appropriate reports that respond to thematic categories such as identity, revitalisation, or sustainability. Each category includes detailed standards covering two main levels - architectural and urban. While the architectural level addresses exterior morphology, spatial organisation, facade treatment, building materials, and responsive building elements, the urban level focuses on building position, orientation, urban structure (grid, density), and the shape of urban spaces (courtyards, gardens) (Catalani et al., 2018). In addition to the review reports, technical reviewers present the key outcomes of their visits to the master jury.

Compelling and appropriate architectural responses to climate, local materials, and vernacular technologies are corner stones to adequately express heritage and cultural identity. Therefore, award-winning projects must exhibit a holistic excellence not only in articulating cultural and architectural innovation, but also in demonstrating sustainability and climate efficiency. On-site assessments are an essential component of the award process. They substantiate textual and visual information about the shortlisted projects before the announcement of the results to the master jury takes place over intensive seven- to ten-day jury sessions. This rigorous assessment system is exclusive to the Aga Khan Award; no other award programme in any part of the world appoints on-site reviewers. Indeed, the AKAA procedure is very different from other, more typical, jury settings; for example, the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize allows any licenced architect to submit an electronic nomination to the executive director for consideration by the jury for the prize.

Since its launch, the Award has aimed to expand the scope of architecture and prescribe what constitutes socially and culturally relevant and sustainable architecture. For the AKAA, the realm of architecture does not simply involve a built artefact; it is also regarded as a comprehensive intervention process that integrates a given community with its particular surroundings. This philosophy is evident in such projects as the Wadi Hanifa (or Hanifa Valley) in the Najd Plateau of Saudi Arabia (2010), Indonesia’s Kampung Improvement Program (1980) and Citra Niaga Urban Development (1989), and the Indore Slum Program (Slum Networking of Indore City) in India (1998). These projects address issues that are often viewed as of little or no concern to architecture. Typically, these types of projects would never be considered or qualify for more conventional architectural awards. The AKAA’s broader vision of what constitutes architectural relevancy underpins a more comprehensive and empathetic approach that enables design and architectural platforms to serve a given community’s materialistic needs and help enhance spiritual aspirations.

Moreover, the AKAA perceives restoration projects and the reuse of religious or cultural structures as an organic process, in that they deal with actual living fabrics composed of structures, materials, people, and communities, and as such, the AKAA endorses enterprise and engagement between local authentic skills and new ones. This approach has been manifested in a number of projects such as the Darb Qirmiz Quarter in Cairo, Egypt (1983); the Great Omari Mosque in Saida, Lebanon (1989); and the Al-Abbas Mosque in Asnaf, Yemen (2007). The definition of restoration has also been expanded to include sustainable urban conservation efforts in projects like the conservation and/or rehabilitation of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia (1980); Mostar Old Town, Bosnia and Herzegovina (1986); Asi- lah, Morocco (1989); Bukhara, Uzbekistan (1995); New Life for Old Structures, Iran (2001); Shibam, Yemen; and the Walled City, in Nicosia, Cyprus (2007). These projects exhibit robust approaches to how old cities can be rehabilitated and integrated into modern life. In this respect, the Award does not simply limit architecture to aesthetics but also implicitly endorses harmony, tolerance, plurality, and cultural processes.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture has expanded the boundaries of architecture as a profession from being merely artistic statements to becoming sources of empowerment and ownership for society and, in particular, for special populations and communities. It affirms that every building and structure can intensely influence people’s lives and be an instrument for change and engagement. The Award is keen to alert architects to the importance of how sensitive and socially appropriate design can improve the quality of interaction between the people they serve and their designs. Therefore, the awarded projects manifest the AKAA belief that architecture should represent both the present and future status of a community.4

Another small-scale initiative that has enhanced ties between communities is the Beijing Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre (2016), near

Tiananmen Square in the city centre. The project helped to revive several adjacent neglected hutongs, which are slender lanes and alleys that crisscross and surround traditional courtyard compounds. These narrow meandering passageways bustle with food stalls, traditional shops, markets, hawkers, and traders. Most of the low-income residents have spent all their lives in these streets. The Hutong library project used a centuries-old courtyard that once housed a temple as a historical layer for the library. The aim was to establish an educational centre and community-gathering place for children and residents in the hutong neighbourhoods. This popular small-scale intervention strengthened ties between the hutong communities and enriched the contemporary civic life of local residents.

One of the most important missions of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is to promote social architecture to serve specific and vulnerable segments of societies, including children, the poor, and the under-represented; such community-oriented projects help to instil collective responsibility, civic engagement, hope, and pride, as well as support learning and progress in unfortunate conditions and environments. School projects in impoverished communities like Gando Primary School, Burkina Faso (2004), and Rudrapur School, Bangladesh (2007), have made vital community contributions, which have been recognised and lauded by the Award. By addressing local formalistic limitations, engaging users, and instilling stakeholder optimism, projects like the Cultural Park for Children (1992) and SOS Village in Aqaba (2001) provide appropriate learning and recreational environments and pleasant settings amenable to children’s needs.

The Award’s farsighted and inspirational charge has been to expand the architectural spectrum to move beyond aesthetic and technical limitations. It has broadened the definition of architecture and its related fields of sustainability and restoration to include social and communal considerations rather than simply common stylistic cliches. The Award’s conditions perceive the discipline of architecture as more than producing mere structural artefacts; instead, it is eager to deconstruct the formalistic cliche of Islamic architecture, and as such, it continues to transcend the boundaries of architecture.

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