As a result of my building exercises, I started asking, what were the correct elements, what were the correct issues that anyone responsible for a large amount of building should keep in his mind when he makes these decisions. You can completely eliminate the social roots, the cultural roots. You can weaken the economic strength of the community by bad development, by bad building.

Interviewers: Xinhua News Agency and representatives of “Xinkiang Gizetti”

An interview held at Urumchi, Xinjiang, on Friday, October 30th, 1981 by Xinhua News Agency and representatives of the “Xinkiang Gizetti” with His Highness the Aga Khan, to elicit the Aga Khan’s views and comments on the holding in Beijing of the international seminar “The Changing Rural Habitat” and on the Aga Khan’s subsequent visit in China.

XNA, GZ: What are the achievements of the seminar “The Changing Rural Habitat” and what is Your Highness’ evaluation of these achievements?

His Highness the Aga Khan: Before I discuss the achievements of the seminar, let me explain briefly the background to the seminar. We brought experts on sociology, construction material, earthquake design and architecture — people from different professional backgrounds — to look at the total problem of the rural habitat. And I think that as a result of all these people coming together for the first time to discuss all the elements which affect the rural habitat as and when it changes, the conclusions that were drawn were much much wider than have ever been drawn before.

Originally, in the standard conception of the role of the architect, the architect simply designed a building and is commissioned by somebody — government or an organisation or an individual person to design a building. I think the result of this conference showed that those who have an impact on changing the rural architecture have to have a much wider understanding of all the factors which impact the change, all the factors — not just design.

The second conclusion which I think is very important, is that in the urban context, communication between the architect and the client, whether it is a government, or an organisation or a private individual, is very easy because they live in a small area, which is the city. What we found was that in the rural habitat, the communication between the rural population and the people who are responsible for making that rural habitat change is much more difficult to establish.

The second conclusion which I think is very important, is that in the urban context, communication between the architect and the client, whether it is a government, or an organisation or a private individual, is very easy because they live in a small area, which is the city. What we found was that in the rural habitat, the communication between the rural population and the people who are responsible for making that rural habitat change is much more difficult to establish.

What I mean by communication is the ability or the possibility of the rural population to communicate with those who are changing the habitat and also to tell those who are changing the habitat what the rural population thinks of the changes.

Then you asked me what is my evaluation of the results. I think that what the seminar has done is it has introduced a number of new ideas, a number of new thought processes into the debate, into the discussions, into the planning, into the programming, into the thinking of how you change the rural habitat, why you change it and with what objectives.

XNA, GZ: Your Highness has just visited the rural architecture and ancient monuments of Western China. What are your impressions of Chinese rural architecture? What is your evaluation of the work done in China in solving housing problems in rural areas, and what further work should be done to improve and strengthen what has already been achieved?

My impression is that you have taken many very worthwhile steps in rural architecture in China and I think that the problem of the rural habitat is one of the most difficult problems for any country in the Third World to solve…. One of the most important things is that you have involved a rural population in the psychological process of change, and this has made people eager to improve themselves and that, in a country with a population of 800 million in the countryside, is an immense achievement.

AK: My impression is that you have taken many very worthwhile steps in rural architecture in China and I think that the problem of the rural habitat is one of the most difficult problems for any country in the Third World to solve. Not only in China, but all the developing countries have the same problem. I don’t think there is a total solution and I don’t think there is a perfect solution. But I think you have taken immense steps towards finding different solutions for different situations and you have developed many different routes that you can take; what I mean by routes is roads, which is a very, very valuable thing to have done. One of the most important things is that you have involved a rural population in the psychological process of change, and this has made people eager to improve themselves and that, in a country with a population of 800 million in the countryside, is an immense achievement.

Then you have asked me what further work should be done to improve and strengthen what has already been achieved. My answer to that would be that I think this seminar, and other seminars that may be held by the Architectural Society in the future, will continue to bring to China new ideas which you will have to test and see whether they are suitable for China or not. But this seminar really is like a building which has a full wall, and then somebody punctures holes in it, or windows, and you start looking out through the windows and you see what other people have done. I think that is what the seminar has done. It has brought to you what other people have done and what they have learned.

XNA, GZ: Your Highness is a religious leader, yet you have also established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and presided over many international seminars on architecture. Would Your Highness please tell us of the circumstances that aroused your interest in architecture? And what were Your objectives in established the architectural Award? Also, what are your considerations for the next Award?

When you change somebody’s habitation, you change their whole style of life.

AK: In our faith, a religious leader is not separated from the life of the people everyday. The everyday life, the material life, of people is as important as the spiritual life. Because of this, I have built many schools and hospitals and housing estates and industries all through the third world. Any every time I have had to build I have asked myself what is the consequence of building? Not only on providing a service, which could be education or health, but what is the consequence on the family, what is the consequence on the culture, what is the consequence on the style of life, what is the consequence on the earning conditions, in other words the net disposable income. When you change somebody’s habitation, you change their whole style of life.

Just to finish that explanation. As a result of my building exercises, I started asking, what were the correct elements, what were the correct issues that anyone responsible for a large amount of building should keep in his mind when he makes these decisions. You can completely eliminate the social roots, the cultural roots. You can weaken the economic strength of the community by bad development, by bad building.

XNA, GZ: As many people of the world know, Your Highness is deeply concerned with helping people in the developing countries, in ameliorating their living conditions and raising the level of culture and health. Would Your Highness be so kind as to inform us what is your next step and have you any plans for the future?

I have tried to spend time and effort on two areas: economic development and social development…. But I have reached one conclusion which is important, which is that there can be no development unless man himself wishes to develop. In English you say, “You can take a horse to the water but you can’t make him drink”, and I have been very excited to see how everywhere I have been in China, people want to work.

AK: I have tried to spend time and effort on two areas: economic development and social development.

In the field of economic development, I will continue the efforts which I have made in the past to assist countries to strengthen their national economies and seek to become economically self-sufficient. In the field of social development, I have spent a lot of time on health, housing and education and I want to continue putting more effort into those three areas of social development.

I am not in a political office. I am in a religious office. But I have reached one conclusion which is important, which is that there can be no development unless man himself wishes to develop. In English you say, “You can take a horse to the water but you can’t make him drink”, and I have been very excited to see how everywhere I have been in China, people want to work.

XNA, GZ: Thank you very much.

SOURCES

  • Ismaili Contact No. 5, 1982.
  • Text (secondary source): ismaili.net

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