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Outlook: a sustained quest for decolonised architectural excellence

To fulfil its mission to expand and enhance the discipline of architecture, the Award has acknowledged and appreciated an extraordinary array of heritage, cultural, educational, communal, community, and social projects that connect the humanistic practice of Islam with innovative buildings and public spaces. This approach can effectively inspire dynamic physical and ideologically pluralistic change in Muslim communities. The Award recognises projects that could be either modest or elaborate in scope, but which exhibit integration with their context, environment, and requirements. During the most recent Award cycles, emphasis has been placed on the new forms of architecture that are emerging throughout the Muslim world - projects that demonstrate new directions for architecture, planning, and landscaping in both urban and rural contexts.

Although many of these projects are not easily fit into one single category, they all embrace a diversity of initiatives, structures, and building types. Restoration, sustainability, and community participation projects that address the cultural, functional, and utilitarian needs of users and stakeholders in sustainable and pleasing ways remain the focus of the jury. One such project is the Revitalisation of Muharraq, Bahrain (Figure 6.1). This project

Revitalisation of Muharraq, by Authority for Culture and Antiquities Conservation Department, Manama, Bahrain highlights the World Heritage Site’s pearling history in the Persian Gulf

Figure 6.1 Revitalisation of Muharraq, by Authority for Culture and Antiquities Conservation Department, Manama, Bahrain highlights the World Heritage Site’s pearling history in the Persian Gulf. The Pearling Path Visitors Centre, designed by Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati, is the largest and newest construction to date on Bahrain’s UNESCO World Heritage List. This coastal area, famous for pearl diving and the pearl trade during the 19th and early 20th centuries, is linked to the island nation’s pre-oil wealth. The centre is part of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities’ programme which has initiated a series of restoration and reuse projects (Karimi, 2019). This mission of this inclusive project is to reinvigorate the city’s public spaces by providing community and cultural venues and improving the overall environment. Rehabilitation projects include restoring the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed A1 Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research and a number of traditional Bahraini houses in Muharraq and Manama, many of which belonged to prominent Bahraini merchants and personalities. It is also of significance that new building construction, which may make bold contemporary architectural statements, must respect the scale and street lines of the surrounding historic environment.

Another acclaimed revitalisation project is the renovation of 328 public spaces throughout the Republic of Tatarstan, including the capital Kazan, in the Russian Federation. These public spaces and squares that were often dominated by mosques and churches went into decline or were abandoned after the destruction of many buildings during the Soviet era, in the 1920s. The Public Spaces Development Programme, launched by the president of Tatarstan in 2015, aimed to counter the trend of post-Soviet property buyers and real estate agents that bought up large tracts of land for development and private businesses; such purchases resulted in the reduction and shortage of public recreation spaces (AKAA, 2019a). The programme sought to remedy this situation by restoring, reviving, and rehabilitating spaces in various locales for public recreational use. Renovated spaces vary from neglected beaches and riverfronts to town squares and playgrounds; each space demonstrates different vocabularies and materials (Figure 6.2). The restoration project, covering each municipal district of the Tatarstan region, became “a model throughout the Russian Federation” (AKAA Master Jury, 2019). Like the programme of redesigning urban spaces in Barcelona after the end of the Franco regime, the rehabilitation, renovation, and design of these spaces were undertaken by the republic’s young architects. The project has been internationally acclaimed for implementing the territory’s cultural context and identity for the inclusion of participatory design and sustainable, eco-friendly approaches.

Another award-winning project that deconstructs the typical cliche of Islamic architecture as an artefact and delineates it as a process is the Arcadia Education Project in Bangladesh. The project was designed by architect Saif U1 Haque Sthapati to serve underprivileged neighbourhood children. The school is built on a floodplain, on a bank of the Dhaleshwari River that overflows almost five months of the year, during the monsoon season. Because of this annual flooding, the architect felt she needed a ‘native

Science and Entertainment Centre in Zdorovye Park, Almetyevsk, The Public Spaces Development Programme, The Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation

Figure 6.2 Science and Entertainment Centre in Zdorovye Park, Almetyevsk, The Public Spaces Development Programme, The Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation

Source: © Roman Karachev/Daniil Shvedov (photographer)

solution’ and decided to make a floating building - an “amphibious structure” that “can sit on the ground or float on the water” to suit a frequently flooded environment (AKAA, 2019b). The simple yet effective structure is mainly made of bamboo along with other affordable materials, sandbags filled with sand, earth, and local brick infill, and reused tyres. The school consists of interconnected rectangular structures supported by bamboo posts that are treated in a traditional Bangladeshi method (Figure 6.3) (AKAA, 2019). The school displays an innovative alternative thinking for building in climatically difficult conditions such as a floodplain. Like other projects that focused on an appropriate environmental approach to designing a school, the Arcadia Project displays continuity to other award-winning projects such as the School in Rudrapur (awarded in the 2005-2007 cycle), and the Primary School in Burkina Faso (awarded in the 2002-2004 cycle).

One educational project that manifests the aspirations for dispensing with acculturation and promoting decolonisation is the Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit (Figure 6.4). The university was founded in 2007 as part of the Senegalese government’s efforts to decentralise higher education. It accommodates students from rural areas to provide

Arcadia Education Project, South Kanarchor, Bangladesh, by Saif U1 Haque Sthapati

Figure 6.3 Arcadia Education Project, South Kanarchor, Bangladesh, by Saif U1 Haque Sthapati

Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Sandro di Carlo Darsa (photographer)

Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit, Bambey, Senegal, by IDOM educational programmes appropriate to these contexts

Figure 6.4 Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit, Bambey, Senegal, by IDOM educational programmes appropriate to these contexts. The architectural response to this need is a single bold and massive bioclimatic structure with a slanting heat-reflective steel roof that soars to almost 10 metres on the north side. This structure provides shade and fresh air and has given an iconic identity to the university. The roof provides an effective method of cooling as it extends to form a massive loggia to the north, which draws hot air up and away. This loggia is reinforced by thin metal columns of a varying three-branched form, symbolic of the solitary trees under which the locals gather to meet, sit, and chat. A lattice facade, made of perforated breezeblocks manufactured on site by local masons, echoes features on local buildings which aid ventilation and help cool the structure. The use of local materials and construction techniques conforms to sustainability principles and helps reduce cost.

Yet another educational project is the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit designed by Heneghan Peng Architects; the museum is built above a hill of terraced gardens. The architects have skilfully integrated the museum into the surrounding landscape to reference the traditional terraces of the West Bank (Figure 6.5) (Griffiths, 2017). The museum’s master plan comprises a series of stonewalled terraces that follow the site’s sloping topography and can be adapted at a later date if circumstances change. The gardens and plants of the cascading terraces reflect the museum’s position as a sustainable and ecological cultural facility situated within an agricultural setting. The sharply angled structure, cladded in limestone quarried in nearby Bethlehem, celebrates Palestinian history, heritage, and culture.

General view of the Palestinian Museum, Birzeit, Palestine, by Heneghan Peng Architects

Figure 6.5 General view of the Palestinian Museum, Birzeit, Palestine, by Heneghan Peng Architects

The oil-rich nation of the United Arab Emirates has been developing at a rapid pace, as new and iconic buildings and structures are constantly being built to create novel and distinctive cityscapes. Despite the ongoing construction boom and visually appealing modern architecture appearing in all seven emirates of the UAE, the only project that has won the Aga Khan Award is the Wasit Wetland Centre on the border between Sharjah and Ajman by X-Architects. The conservation project was mainly recognised for taking advantage of the site’s topography and minimal visual impact on its natural surroundings. The project’s aim is to rehabilitate coastal wetlands on the gulf, which were a regular stopover for migratory birds until the 1970s when they became a dumping ground full of rubbish, metal, and toxic waste (Figure 6.6). In 2005, the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad A1 Qasimi, decided to clean up the tip. Because of the aggressive intervention, within two years flora, fauna, and birds had returned and the restored wetlands became the Wasit Nature Reserve. Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Agency established the Wasit Wetland Centre as a conservation and educational centre that focuses on wetland preservation and provides information about this unique ecological environment. The building consists of two main linear intersected elements: one accommodates services

Wasit Wetland Centre, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, by X-Architects Source

Figure 6.6 Wasit Wetland Centre, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, by X-Architects Source: © X-Architects/Nelson Garrido - available on Archnet ( and administrative offices, whereas the other is a long glass-walled viewing arcade accessed by a ramp. The roof of this structure is at ground level, while the viewing gallery is below ground level; this sunken gallery enables visitors to watch the birds in their natural habitat without disturbing them. A third linear element, which runs perpendicular to the far end of the viewing arcade, houses a cafe and multifunctional space with views looking onto the open wetlands. The design is deliberately minimalistic to place full focus on the natural environment. The thick vegetation which surrounds the centre minimises noise levels as well as provides cover for the birds. Moreover, recycled wood and plastic used to build the six bird hides around the site reinforces the importance of the centre’s ecological sustainability.

Largely, the great variation of the scope of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has endeavoured to shift architectural discourse to more culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable, and community-oriented practices as it continues to encourage the submission of innovative projects and architectural solutions in rural landscapes, urban centres, and peripheries and those that deal with vulnerable communities and public spaces. Some shortlisted projects also display efforts to reduce the pressures of acculturation by implicitly promoting decolonisation as they strive to deconstruct longstanding cliches in an effort to impact local architecture and human habitats in positive and sustainable ways. Examples of such projects include Warka Water in Ethiopia, a nature reserve built on an old rubbish dump; the Jarahieh School in Lebanon, which provides educational and community activities for Syrian refugees; the residential school of Ashinaga in Uganda; and Tadjourah SOS Children’s Village in Djibouti. Such shortlisted projects showcase how the 14th award cycle (2017-2019) continues the mission and vision of the Award to promote architectural excellence, pluralism, and sustainability in Muslim communities and locales around the globe.

The AKAA’s widely promulgated discourse on pluralism succinctly showcases those “other worlds” whose “people hitherto” [have been] marginalised by a Western professional/academic establishment (Bozdo- gan, 1992:183). Highlighting the challenges faced by Muslim communities in their ongoing effort to retain their heritage and cultural significance, as well as enter into a functional modernity, are challenges which have been overcome; their goals have been achieved without collapsing back into what Edward Said perceives as a post-colonial “obsession with the West” (Said, 1979:56). In general, this obsession is often “for polemical purposes,” accompanied by “a politics of blame” (Bozdogan, 1992:184). Indeed, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is an important vehicle for helping to do away with such blame rhetoric and dismissing the monolithic Western notion of ‘Islamic’ identity (Cantacuzino, 1985:18) inherited from colonial times. This deconstruction has been inspired by a desire to completely decolonise and reorganise newly “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1983) based on a consensus between a continuity of traditions and accepting change and evolution. By striving for a new and contemporary identity accompanied by a pervasive resistance to being described as a specific ‘ism,’ the pluralism promoted by the Award and evidenced in its discourse is a coherent and composite manifestation of the post-colonial trends and processes through which the colonised throw off the cloak of coloniser to rightfully regain their domains and their dignity.

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