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.
Von Erich Follath

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.

An Adventurous Bavarian in Bangladesh

Perhaps the most surprising selection was the school in Bangladesh: an exemplary success story in a region plagued by natural disasters, a project that is the result of a series of favorable circumstances -- and bold decisions.

In 1997, Anna Heringer, an adventurous 19-year-old from Bavaria, wasn't quite sure what she planned to do with her life when she traveled to South Asia for a nine-month stint as a volunteer aid worker. Heringer ended up in Rudrapur, a village of 3,000 inhabitants 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of the capital Dhaka. Hours from the nearest major city, the village was only accessible by Jeep along mud paths. Not unexpectedly, to Heringer the locals -- split evenly between Hindus and Muslim -- seemed conservative and suspicious of foreign influences at first.

Heringer went on to study architecture in Linz after completing her stint in Bangladesh. But she stayed in contact with Dipshikha, the Bangladeshi aid organization with which she had worked in Rudrapur. She was drawn to the place and kept returning to visit. When the villagers eventually learned to trust Heringer, they told her that they wanted, above all, to build a new school. The old building, dingy and cramped, had a corrugated metal roof that leaked during the monsoon season.

The villagers wanted a new brick building. They had an aversion to their traditional mud huts, which are dark and susceptible to mold. But gradually, the architecture student managed to convince both her friends at non-governmental organizations and the local farmers of the advantages of a mud-and-bamboo design. In the end, the entire village helped build the "handmade school" in a four-month communal construction process.

The structure consists almost entirely of materials found in the village surroundings, and it utilizes the centuries-old skills of local builders. But Heringer, together with her colleague Eike Roswag, modified the traditional concepts in a few key respects. The two are by no means blind purists. Wet mud is mixed with straw and then applied in several stages. The roof is made of three layers of bamboo rods and reinforced with mud. The framing of the building is a sensible compromise between natural materials and smaller, modern "joints." The bamboo is held in place with steel anchors, and both traditional jute and nylon bind the structure together.

Because the students are accustomed to sitting on the floor, the building requires almost no furniture. Colorful textiles hang in the doorways, giving the structure an especially cheerful character and filtering the light that enters the classrooms. The children loved their new school from the day it opened.

Heringer's next project is an expansion of her concept. She plans to use her new, improved construction principle using natural materials to design a few model houses for the local farmers, a step that will bring decisive improvement to overall living conditions in the village. The young architect, who turned her Bangladesh project into her university degree project, beams as she accepts her prize from the hands of the Aga Khan and the Malaysian prime minister, immediately following the "grand master," Lord Foster on stage. She and her partners can make good use of the $55,000 prize. "That will build three houses in Rudrapur."

Returning to Work

Eight of the nine works honored this year awards are located in Asia and Africa. A single European project, the restoration of the old section of Nicosia, Cyprus, is on the roster. The project is an especially sensitive undertaking, because it brings together Cyprus's two opposing groups, the Greeks and the Turks, in a neighborhood in the middle of the divided city. As if to avert potential disputes, a United Nations representative stands between the Orthodox Christians and Muslims from Nicosia who are receiving the prize.

"Do not accept everything in your environment. Ask critical questions. Criticism should not, as has unfortunately become commonplace in many Islamic nations today, be misunderstood as disloyalty. It is critical for our society’s survival," the Aga Khan tells a group of invited Malaysian architecture students at a special seminar the next day.

It's then time for the prizewinners to return home to their respective worlds, to Burkina Faso, to Lebanon and to Bangladesh. Aga Khan hurries off to a birthday celebration in his chateau near Paris. Meanwhile, hundreds of noisy, cheerful schoolchildren wait for Heringer in Bangladesh, women from the local market and opposition politicians count on Mayor Zagré’s return to continue the budget negotiations for their project, and large quantities of mud await Mswanaq back home in Yemen.

Soon they will all be back in their huts, their ancient high-rises and their castles, ready to face old problems with new hope.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan