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Saturday, November 7, 1998
Special to The Globe and Mail
Norwegian architecture students Per Christian Brynildsen and Jan Olav
on a student group tour of India and Nepal in 1983 when they took an unexpected
detour. They left their classmates to help missionaries plan and design a lepers
hospital near Chopda Taluka in the Indian state of Maharastra. Caught up with their
first chance to build, the two stayed out of school for a year to complete the project.
They helped the patients quarry the nearby sandstone, collect teak wood for windows
and use a concrete aerator, the only power tool used in the entire hospital's
construction. Fifteen years later, Brynildsen and Jensen found themselves in Grenada
before the Aga Khan and the King and Queen of Spain. They were being honoured
last month, along with six other recipients, with architecture's richest design award,
which offers a total of $800,000 in prize money.
The Aga Khan Awards recognize examples of architectural excellence in
contemporary design, restoration, environmental and landscape design, and
community improvement in mainly Muslim societies. Given once every three years,
these are the world's only near-global design awards -- the other notable one, The
Pritzker Prize, rewards lifetime achievement -- the architectural equivalent to
Hollywood's Irving Thalberg Academy Award.
With so many architectural prizes now validating only fashionable work
media-savvy designers, the recognition accorded Brynildsen's and Jensen's obscure
but profoundly sensitive building was a welcome change. The small hospital consists
of a series of simple stone pavilions with vaulted, ceramic tile-topped roofs arrayed
around a courtyard garden, which is intended for patients' use.
This is not to say that the Aga Khan prizes exclude the work of famous
An award also went to the Tuwaiq Palace, a Saudi Arabian recreation and cultural
centre in Riyadh worthy of some high tech-enthused Kublai Khan. German architect
Frei Otto, best known to Canadians for his German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal,
designed this diplomatic-quarter pleasure dome. Otto's design evokes curving mud
walls and Bedouin tents, an abstracted, contemporary use of tradition that found
favour with the jury.
Charles Correa's magisterial pink sandstone-clad state legislative building
Indian state of Mahhya Pradesh reflects the Boston-and-Bombay-based architect's
interest in traditional Indian design. Situated in Bhopal, the Vidhan Bhavan has a
mandala-like circular plan eaten away within its perimeter by gridded warrens of
offices, assembly chambers, gardens, pools and reception rooms.
Correa's heroic form-making at Bhopal owes a debt to the work of American
architect Louis Kahn. Another award winner was also influenced by Kahn: Nayyar
Ali Dada's design for the Alhamra Arts Council Building in Lahore, Pakistan consists
of an interlocked set of octagonal brick studio and theatre buildings.
Two other projects, a neighbourhood preservation effort in the Palestinian
Hebron, and an urban upgrade in an Indian city slum, also made the roster of
winners. Just a second -- urban infrastructure, neighbourhood preservation, a lepers
hospital -- surely this is not architecture as we have come to know it? Clearly, the
Geneva-based organizers behind the Aga Khan Awards have a broad, inclusive
definition of architecture -- one that puts design quality ahead of budget, size,
designer credentials or media image.
That definition, however, does not exclude rich people's houses. Kuala
architect Jimmy C.S. Lim won for the spectacular Salinger residence, a design based
equally on Frank Lloyd Wright's triangular, late-period houses and traditional Malay
wooden dwellings on stilts.
The major controversy of this year's awards was the snubbing of a synagogue
restoration project sponsored by Phyllis Lambert, the about-to-retire director of the
Canadian Centre of Architecture in Montreal. The synagogue redevelopment, located
in one of the oldest quarters of Cairo, was shortlisted and enjoyed strong support on
the international jury -- but not enough to overcome a veto-yielding minority. Juror
Zaha Hadid, a London-based Iraqi architect and possibly Lambert's only rival for the
role of the most influential woman in contemporary architecture, expressed some
dismay. "The synagogue restoration is superb, and an important project for Cairo,"
she said in an interview in Grenada. "I hope it is reconsidered for a future Aga Khan
Award." (The competition allows for resubmission of projects.
In addition to Hadid, this year's jury included Marxist critical theorist
Jameson, of Duke University, Tokyo architect Arata Isosaki, and some of the Islamic
world's finest theorists, historians and practitioners of architecture. In a multi-stage
process, they assessed the 29 finalists (from 425 nominations) and winnowed the list
down to seven winners.
For the first time, the awards ceremony was held in the West, in a city
with a strong
Muslim heritage. Grenada's Alhambra -- a hilltop complex of fortified, geometric,
ornament-encrusted palaces, exquisite fountains and gardens -- together with the
nearby Cordoba Mosque, are the most important Islamic constructions in western
The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims, began
program in the 1970s, as a way to address the low quality of buildings he observed
throughout the Islamic world. His role as a patron of architecture is about to be
exercised in Canada with the selection of a design and designer for a new Ismaili
prayer hall, or jamatkhana,for the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. In an interview
before this year's awards ceremony, the Aga Khan confirmed that one international
and three Canadian architectural firms have submitted plans, now under technical
review. "We hope to have an announcement next year," he said. If this year's award
winners are any indication, then Don Mills will likely be the site for an innovative,
Source: Globe and Mail, November 7, 1998
Aga Khan Award for Architecture Speech at the Granada, Spain
Aga Khan Award for Architecture Speech at the Alhambra Palace
Aga Khan Award for Architecture Scene at the Alhambra Palace
Mowlana Hazar Imam Interviewed about the Architecture Award
Islamic Architecture Article by Sakar Datoo
An Islamic Reminder of the Sacred in Design
Press Release from Aiglemont AKAA 1998
Aga Khan Award for Architecture Website 1998
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture Website
Aga Khan Architecture Award 1998 Ceremony BBC News
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