Islamic Architecture Speeches
Speech by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan
Opening Remarks at the Fifth Seminar in the Series "Architectural Transformations in the Islamic World" of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture Amman, Jordan, May 4, 1980
I would like to begin by thanking His Majesty King Hussein for honouring us by opening our seminar. His participation clearly illustrates Jordan's concern for the evolution of Islamic architecture. I wish to welcome His Majesty most warmly, and to express our great pleasure at this opportunity to hold the fifth seminar of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Jordan's active interest in our subject is also manifested in the participation and continuing efforts of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Hassan. He also joined us during the spring of 1979 in Jakarta for our discussions on the vital subject of housing. It is at his suggestion and invitation that this seminar is being held here in Amman. I therefore express my sincere gratitude to His Royal Highness.
Whatever efforts the Award may make to provide a new direction and sense of purpose to the future environment of the Islamic world, it cannot achieve substantial or long-term results unless the governments and people identify and implement the changes they desire. In most of the Muslim world governments are the principal builders. I am thus especially grateful to His Majesty King Hussein for giving his support to this seminar and its objectives; I hope this example will be widely followed. The words which His Majesty spoke at the opening of the National Consultative Council on April 29 of this year are greatly encouraging:
".....we are daily running against challenges of contemporary industrial civilization which threaten our cultural identity and confront us with the obligations of work and development.....all Jordan's institutions need renovation and development -- but renovation which respects continuity and is true to our roots and heritage while at the same time triggering forces of progress and action in the State and Society."
Progress can only be achieved by the will and concerted effort of the Islamic world as a whole. It is a source of encouragement and satisfaction that an international agency such as UNESCO should have organised a successful seminar on conservation in Lahore recently, and that the President of Pakistan supported it wholeheartedly and opened the ceremony itself. The international symposium on Islamic architecture held earlier this year at King Faisal University in Damman, Saudi Arabia, is another effort which deserves praise and support.
This is the last, and in a sense the culmination, of five seminars organised to examine the issues and establish the criteria for the first Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The seminars have convened in a number of cities in the Muslim world. It is appropriate that this one, dealing with public buildings and spaces, should be held in Amman. Jordan is an Arab country rich in Islamic history, heritage and archeological sites. It has made commendable efforts to preserve Petra, the desert castles and other renowned monuments. In contrast, we cannot help but note the striking amount of new construction going on around us in Amman. Over the last few years Amman has tripled in geographical area and doubled in population. To the architects and scholars gathered here for the seminar, this building boom can only serve to emphasize the urgency of our present endeavours.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is concerned with the present and future expressions of modern Islam. Nearly all Muslim countries in the throes of development are encountering the challenges which we will be considering at the seminar, and the few that are not are unlikely to escape. Jordan has earned an enviable reputation for the steps it has taken in grappling with these issues; an example is its carefully planned science and technology policy aimed at rational economic development. It is also appropriate that this particular seminar, which deals in part with educational facilities, should be held in Jordan. This country has long been a centre for higher education in the Arab world; it possesses the experience, the institutions and the potential to realize the objectives which will be discussed in the forthcoming sessions.
I have been concerned with the quality of the physical environment in Islam since 1957, when I succeeded my grandfather as Imam of the Ismaili community. Though comparatively small, the community is widely scattered and therefore exposed to an unusually broad cross-section of social, political and cultural influences. My office has required that I become involved in many aspects of development, especially in Africa and Asia. I have been personally engaged in a number of building programmes, from small schools or rural health clinics to large regional hospitals and teaching centres. I have therefore had the opportunity to experience the dilemma facing Islamic architecture today.
The rapid pace of urbanization and the dramatic increase in wealth in some Muslim countries have provided us with an opportunity and, even more, a responsibility. In a desire to respond quickly and effectively to tremendous social demands and pressures, our tendency has been to import ideas and technologies without considering their suitability to the needs of our people. We must adopt only that which is valid and reject that which is inappropriate. To absorb foreign architectural expression without careful thought or analysis could lead to a grave and irreversible cultural alienation. We are in danger of losing that vital sense of continuity with the past without which I believe we can have no real future.
Much damage has indeed been done, but it is not too late to check the erosion of our environment, to turn in new directions and work toward a future we can all be proud of. That is why I initiated the Aga Khan Award for Architecture three years ago. I decided that an Award programme offering substantial incentives for outstanding work, based on a serious intellectual examination of the issues and recognising the contribution of all involved in the building process, could do much to stimulate true excellence in Islamic architecture. I believe that the response to the first Award has justified this conviction.
Almost two hundred projects have been nominated for the Award. These represent some thirty countries from Morocco to Indonesia, and include a wide variety of building types -- from single houses to huge multi-use complexes. They reveal considerable variation in materials and design approaches in response to local and regional conditions. Many of them are of great interest and sensitivity. Considered cumulatively, they seem to demonstrate that the spirit of Islam is not irrevocably lost to the modern environment. The Master Jury, many of whose members are here today, will be making the final selections in July, and the first presentation ceremony will be held this autumn.
This encouraging start is only a beginning. The Award programme will continue, with a new series of awards every three years, and the intellectual effort on which it is based will continue with it. We shall continue to hold seminars; teaching programmes are being established in universities; and we are working to produce exhibits, books and other publications as the programme gathers strength and momentum. The presence here today of so many distinguished participants and the welcome we have received in Amman make me feel that we are truly launched on a far-reaching cooperative adventure.
The previous seminars have dealt with topics of concern to all of us. At the first seminar we considered the crises attending urbanization in the Muslim world, and established that there was a strong desire, among traditionalists and modernists alike, to protect and revitalise the cultural context in our built environment. The second seminar, held in Istanbul under the title "Conservation as Cultural Survival," has as its theme the preservation of historic and traditional environments. We concluded that success in conservation depends on public education and enlightened planning policies that focus on harmony between the old and the new, and on finding viable functional and economic roles for old buildings.
Seminar Three in Jakarta was concerned with housing, one of the most complex development questions for modern Islam. We discussed the essential nature of the Islamic home and questioned how this nature could be incorporated into different approaches, from artisanal (using local resources and unskilled labour) to industrialised techniques. The fourth seminar met in Fez and dealt with symbols and signs in Islamic architecture. We tried to identify those symbols that could claim universal validity across the Muslim world, and we asked how to ensure that our new buildings have the appropriate symbolic content. This issue is central to any definition of Islamic architecture, the search for which lies at the core of the Award.
We have found no simple or infallible answers, but we have made progress in all our areas of study. We have discovered priorities and approaches that will help us evaluate the architecture of contemporary Islam and point directions for the future. Identity and human scale, environmental integrity, suitability and cost-effectiveness are of prime importance. The buildings in use and the reaction of those who live and work in them have been subject to close scrutiny in the Award process. Every nominated project with a serious chance of winning has been examined on site by technical review teams charged with reporting on these issues. We believe that no other award programme has made such a major effort to document architectural achievement from the user's viewpoint. The documentation itself will constitute a unique historical record of contemporary architecture in the Muslim world. Once the Awards have been announced this wealth of information will be available to scholars and practitioners alike. The major projects will also be published in book form, as will the Proceedings of past and future seminars.
Today we begin a search for form, as we look at public buildings and spaces in Islam. We are very conscious of the role that such buildings play in our lives. Major public buildings and spaces are often large, easily identifiable and have considerable symbolic and physical presence within the environment. They are generally designed to last, and may involve a substantial commitment of public funds. Their design therefore constitutes an important demonstration of the architectural and planning principles that lie at the heart of the Award programme.
Public buildings, more than any other building type, are a major force in creating taste in a given locality or country. They are complicated structures which combine diverse functions and services in a single complex. They may be technologically sophisticated, and can often be designed to meet stringent performance standards. Architectural excellence in this area will thus demand much more than formal brilliance of conception or limited functional success. Buildings which fulfil a major public role are the result of many people's labours. They may involve government departments, developers and financiers, specialised consultants, as well as the architect, engineer and contractor. They may require a design/build relationship and they often necessitate inputs from a wide range of professional disciplines. Public buildings are therefore paradigms of the team approach.
For these reasons, we have structured the seminar to include case studies of projects from the points of view of the decision makers in the building process, representing stages from initial conception to final occupancy and use. Educational, recreational and institutional/commercial cases will be introduced and discussed by eminent scholars and practitioners. In small workshops we will have the opportunity to discuss these ideas in detail, and to broaden the scope and implications of the specific issues raised during the seminar sessions.
I would like to conclude by reemphasising my belief that the continuation and evolution of Islamic cultural and architectural traditions are of vital concern to all Muslims. They should concern international cultural institutions and above all the governments of Muslim countries. We wholeheartedly welcome the efforts of all those contributing toward this common goal. I would like to thank His Majesty and His Royal Highness once again for their personal participation in our efforts, and to welcome all of the distinguished participants to the seminar. I hope that our endeavours here will be another step toward the creation of an environment which we can recognize as an expression of our heritage and of our faith in the future.
Source: Hikmat January 1984