Houses of Hope Architecture for a Better Muslim World

In 1977 Karim Aga Khan IV, the leader of the Nizari Ismailis, established what is now the world's mostly heavily endowed prize for architecture. At a recent awards ceremony in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, the prize was awarded to a number of very different, socially relevant buildings: a showcase university, a market and a school made of bamboo and mud.

By Erich Follath in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


The prize-winners on stage here at the elegant concert hall at the Petronas twin towers in the Malaysian capital look like a cross-section of the world's population. These men and women represent every region of the world, every social class and every age group. Despite the obvious pride in their faces and the perspiration from excitement, some look as though they feel uncomfortable in the flurry of the photographers' flashes.

Among them is Salem Awad Mswanaq, from Yemen, who is being recognized for his efforts, in collaboration with the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), to restore Shibam, an ancient walled city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city, with its multistory mud buildings, dubbed the "Manhattan of the Middle Ages," seemed doomed to fall into ruins only a few years ago. Now that the renovation is complete, large parts of Shibam are habitable once again. Mswanaq, a self-taught expert on mud architecture, nervously adjusts his skullcap and tugs at his traditional robe.

Vladimir Djurovic, a Serbian landscape architect who is well known in his field, is receiving a prize for his design of a small, quiet and peaceful square in Beirut, a city torn apart by civil war. He shuffles his feet nervously, repeatedly swatting an imaginary fly with his restless hands.

Seydou Zagré, the mayor of Koudougou, a small city in the poverty-stricken West African country of Burkina Faso, is accepting an award together with a French architect for their plans to restore the town's old market buildings. He sits, stiffly, in a dark blue suit, his first, which he purchased for the occasion. A heavyset man, Zagré occasionally pulls at his sleeve where the suit is too tight. Or perhaps he is merely pinching himself because he can hardly believe what is happening to him and others surrounding him here in Kuala Lumpur.

And then there is 72-year-old Lord Norman Foster, a world-class architect knighted by the Queen of England for his services, the oldest of the honorees, and, despite his experience in the limelight, one of the most excited. Foster is being honored for his design of the Technical University in Bandar Seri Iskandar in Western Malaysia, a light and airy building that appears to float and cost about $50 million to build.

The youngest of the winners is 29-year-old German national Anna Heringer, a doctoral candidate at the Linz University of Art in Austria. Her project is the most economical of the group, costing just under $20,000. In a joint effort with a local aid organization and the local population of Rudrapur in Bangladesh, she built a two-story, child-friendly school that offers underprivileged children a shot at a better future. The materials she used for the project were obtained almost entirely from the surrounding area: mud, straw, bamboo and jute.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, with its $500,000 in prize money, is the world's most well endowed architecture competition. It is also undoubtedly the most unusual competition in the field. Although architectural excellence and the "normal" professional and aesthetic criteria are factors in the competition, they are not the only ones. In fact, social and cultural relevance are the most important criteria for awarding the Aga Khan Prize. The judges must answer questions like: Does the work influence the living conditions of those affected in a long-term and positive way? Is it consistent with the wishes of the planners and the workers completing the project and is it an overall success?

There is only one other set criterion for the prize, which is awarded every three years (the tenth such honors were given in September): The project must be located in a primarily Muslim country or in an area where there is a "significant number of Muslims."

Architecture’s Most Exciting Award

The first speaker at the event is Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who seems proud that the awards ceremony, held each time in a different location, is taking place in Kuala Lumpur this year. He notes that the 452-meter (1,486-foot) Petronas Towers was a 2004 prizewinner. In his speech, the prime minister emphasizes the tolerance among religions and ethnic groups in his country. His comments seem almost like an appeal for moderation, given that many are concerned about the rise of radical Islamism in this southeast Asian country, which just turned 50 and was long considered a relatively peaceful place.

The next speaker is the creator of the prize and donor of its cash award. The 49th Imam Aga Khan -- the spiritual and secular leader of the Nizari Ismaili -- is cosmopolitan, tolerant and charismatic and could be called Allah's gentle revolutionary. He has roughly 20 million followers around the world who constitute an often elite and economically successful minority within Shiite Islam. They see their leader as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and traditionally give him 10 percent of their income.

With total assets of more than $500 million, the Aga Khan Development Network is the world's largest private development aid organization. According to the New York Times, the Aga Khan's prize is more exciting than all other awards in the field. The newspaper refers to the imam as "the most important figure in the world of architecture today."

Khan, who celebrates his 50th anniversary as the imam of his religious community this year, would have liked to become an architect in "another life," say members of his inner circle. The 70-year-old’s enthusiasm for the projects showcased this evening in Kuala Lumpur is apparent. He leads the committee that selected the jury of prominent international architects, cultural critics and one artist. For this year's prize, the jury reviewed 343 projects; 27 made it into the final round. The committee dispatched teams to carefully examine each project on site. The jury then debated the projects’s merits for several months, before agreeing on the nine winners.

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