Some of the buildings we restore will have a direct commercial impact. Others will be cultural symbols that we hope will be self-sustaining, but may not be profit-generating. After all, many of these buildings are more important as symbols of historical social structure. It would be foolish to try to change that or to pretend it didn’t exist. In the developing world, you can’t just take any historic building and do anything you want with it. How you choose to re-utilise those buildings has to be acceptable to the society in which they are located. That notion of social responsibility for reuse of historic buildings is very important for us.

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Interviewer: Unknown

The Aga Khan explains how his architectural initiatives preserve cultural heritage in the developing world.

Unlike Britain’s Prince of Wales, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, is more than an architecture buff and royal critic. Along with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, he administers the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a nonprofit institution that promotes economic, social, and cultural programs in poor Islamic regions around the world.

The AKDN’s economic programs, many of which employ architects and planners, create financial cooperatives, design and build schools and clinics, and develop infrastructure. AKDN’s Trust for Culture includes educational programs, such as the Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT, and the Historical Cities Support Programme, a new venture that preserves cultural monuments and ties them to local economies. Last October, the Aga Khan received the 1996 Hadrian Award from the World Monuments Fund in New York City for his preservation efforts in the Islamic world.

The American Institute of Architects Journal: What draws you to architecture?

His Highness the Aga Khan: I came to architecture through my development work. When my grandfather died in 1957, I took over his work in the third world at a time when a growing consumer society in the West was having a huge impact on the availability of resources for poorer societies. We were trying to build schools, medical facilities, places of worship, and commercial buildings. It was — and still is — my belief that we would be wrong to construct buildings that would disappear in 20 years time. Most of the developing world of Asia and Africa cannot afford, rationally or morally, to engage resources as though it were part of a consumer-driven society. I started the Aga Khan Award for Architecture largely because I believe that if we are to commit resources to buildings, they should be culturally appropriate and survive for future generations.

AIAJ: Are the types of projects honoured in the last few cycles of the award different from those awarded in 1980?

The developing world is also changing from centralised economies to decentralised, local economies.

AK: Yes, they are different because the developing world is different. It’s difficult for Westerners to realise because the West is so urbanised, but the rural people of Asia and Africa, once so dependent on agriculture, are slowly creating sufficient wealth to save. That transition has an immediate impact on the built environment of rural areas: institutional buildings have become increasingly important contenders.

The developing world is also changing from centralised economies to decentralised, local economies. That means clients will be the institutional and private sectors rather than the public sector. We are also beginning to see young architects who are more aware of non-architectural issues that must be reflected in architecture. These young men and women are more concerned about preserving cultural heritage than were the architects of several generations ago, who were educated in the West or in a Western architectural vocabulary.

AIAJ: Tell us about the Aga Khan Development Network’s architectural education programs.

[W]e realised that architectural teaching about the Islamic world and the developing world has to take place locally.

AK: After beginning the awards program, we realised that education was a key player in the quality of architecture we hoped to achieve. In 1992, we started the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which sponsors several professorships and about 40 students at both institutions. But clearly, we realised that architectural teaching about the Islamic world and the developing world has to take place locally. We’ve begun what we call parallel centres, linking universities in the Islamic world to our resource base — funding for professorships and grad students and a lecture series. We’ve begun case studies at Dawood College in Karachi and the University of Amman, Jordan, and hope to expand to other universities in the developing world.

The other component is the Historic Cities Support Programme, which is restoring historic buildings in Uzbekistan, Tanzania, and Pakistan. We’re also working on a master plan for a large park in Cairo. The Historic Cities Programme makes a direct investment in education by reviving historic architectural practices, like earthquake-resistant structures in Pakistan. In that sense, it’s hands on.

AIAJ: Your organisation embraces both development and the preservation of culture, but development and cultural heritage are often at odds. How can they coexist?

AK: Our preservation work is not driven exclusively by a society’s cultural needs, but by its developmental needs. In a historic city, the AKDN has many different arms, giving us the ability to build education or health-care facilities, create a small-loans program, village organisation, or cooperative. Some of the buildings we restore will have a direct commercial impact. Others will be cultural symbols that we hope will be self-sustaining, but may not be profit-generating. After all, many of these buildings are more important as symbols of historical social structure. It would be foolish to try to change that or to pretend it didn’t exist.

In the developing world, you can’t just take any historic building and do anything you want with it. How you choose to re-utilise those buildings has to be acceptable to the society in which they are located. That notion of social responsibility for reuse of historic buildings is very important for us.

AIAJ: To reuse the stone and mud houses at Baltit Fort, your program rebuilt animal pens as bathrooms with modern plumbing. This strategy produced a dramatic change in the lifestyle of the occupants. In the West, we call it gentrification.

Mixing animal and human life in rural environments has a tremendously damaging impact on social structure, on water, on disease levels. What we are trying to do is to separate agricultural and social activity. Unless rural society can separate agricultural activity from daily living, very high disease levels will continue.

AK: I think the word “gentrification” means giving a capital asset a new value. It’s related to market value more than anything else. That’s not the goal in Baltit. The goal is to bring in basic improvements so that poor people get an improved quality of life. Mixing animal and human life in rural environments has a tremendously damaging impact on social structure, on water, on disease levels. What we are trying to do is to separate agricultural and social activity. Unless rural society can separate agricultural activity from daily living, very high disease levels will continue. To me, that’s an example of design contributing to health, not cultural, improvements.

AIAJ: In the West, architects sense that their role is changing, and fear they are losing work to engineers and developers. Is this frustration prevalent in the Islamic world?

AK: I think the processes of change in the Islamic world are different from what you encounter in the West, and the attitude toward architects is also different. In the past, the developing world has needed roads, bridges, and infrastructure. Engineering is specifically associated with those things in the third world. Architecture tended to be viewed as elitist, and not a priority profession; doctors, teachers, and economists were more important than architects. Moreover, architects worked essentially for public-sector decision makers and not for the private sector — except for the very wealthy. Architecture, therefore, has always been disconnected from the majority of the population, which is rural. But now that has changed. With the decentralisation of these economies, resources will move into new hands. These new clients are going to be seeking architects today more than they ever have in the past. Moreover, there is another world force at play: environmental capacity will not only impact engineering, but architecture.

AIAJ: Are you saying that, because of limited resources, clients in the third world will turn to architects?

The changing environment will cause clients in the developing world to call on architects more in the future …

AK: Yes. The changing environment will cause clients in the developing world to call on architects more in the future, because architects are regarded as being more sensitive to sustainability, local issues, and cultural heritage. I think the developing world is much more favourable to architects than the West is right now.

SOURCES

  • The prince and the paupers, Architecture, The American Institute of Architects Journal, v.86, no.3, March 1997, pp57

    [Text verified and/or corrected from this source by NanoWisdoms]

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