The vast majority of buildings in the developing world are not “architectured” buildings in the sense of the Western profession. That does not mean that quality buildings do not happen. They happen through a whole series of different processes, and not just the architectural process. The inherited knowledge of builders is remarkable. There is a whole body of inherited knowledge in developing countries, and in the Islamic world in particular, which is not driven by Western definitions of architecture.

When the Award started, the question arose about whether we were talking about that small window of “architectured” buildings in this enormous environment or whether we were talking about the whole process of change of that environment? … Very early on there was consensus that the Aga Khan Award could not be just for “architectured” buildings, it had to be an award for quality buildings no matter what the process of their creation…. The Award was very definitely an initiative to recognise the processes of building quality….

I think that the Award must evolve. Institutions that do not evolve tend to get marginalised. There are needs ahead of us which must be addressed by the Award. The biggest concern I would have is to recognise the processes of change, and to be certain that the Award plays an appropriate role in working with those processes so that they are not exclusive of quality in design or environmental concerns.

Interviewer: Philip Jodidio in London

His Highness the Aga Khan: I will be talking about things that I have not talked about before. Your questions prompted me to think back to what the situation was when I became the Imam in 1957. The first ten years of Imamat caused me to become more and more involved in what you call architecture and what I would call the processes of change.

Philip Jodidio: Is it true that you had originally considered studying architecture or engineering?

AK: No, neither architecture nor engineering specifically. My grandfather had wanted me to study the sciences, because at that time he felt that the Islamic world did not participate in the development of modern science. The history of the Islamic world, on the contrary, had been meshed with the environment of science and astronomy, medicine and so many different fields. I did all of my secondary school with the intent of going into the sciences. In fact, I applied first to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because that was the normal destiny for a student who wanted to specialise in the sciences at the time. I was admitted to MIT, but then when I met up with my grandfather before going to university, he said: “I think that the sciences field is too narrow, therefore I would like you to go to Harvard.” I had to backtrack on my education up until then, including language, because Harvard had much more rigorous English-language requirements than MIT did. I had done most of my education in French at the time. I did apply to Harvard, and in the first years there I spent a lot of time in the sciences. At the end of my sophomore year, I decided to move into history. I did my junior year and whatever was left of my senior year in history.

PJ: In the history of Islam?

AK: Yes.

PJ: At that time, did you have a specific interest in the architecture of Islam?

AK: No. It was the general field of Islamic studies. Yes, you learned about the great buildings of the Islamic world, the great names in history and philosophy, the empires of the Islamic world, the languages and the people. You would not have reached a very intense degree of specificity unless you had been doing an M.A. or a Ph.D., which is what I hoped to do, but of course my grandfather died before I was even able to complete my undergraduate studies.

PJ: What are some of the ways in which you came to be interested in architecture early in your Imamat?

[I] came into direct physical contact with levels of poverty which were absolutely indescribable, and which were very much evidenced by the physical environment in which the people lived. The first indicator of a community’s poverty, what you see, is the physical context in which they live. Therefore, my interest in architecture was driven at that time by the question of what to do to improve the quality of life of the ultra-poor.

AK: I have thought about your question and it brings me back to what happened between 1957 and 1967. I travelled extensively, meeting with various communities in different parts of the world. I came into contact with visible forms of poverty that I had not known before. I had been educated in Switzerland and the United States. Anyone who visited the slums of Karachi in 1957, or who visited the high mountain areas in the Karakoram, (1) or who simply visited the periphery of Bombay or Calcutta, came into direct physical contact with levels of poverty which were absolutely indescribable, and which were very much evidenced by the physical environment in which the people lived. The first indicator of a community’s poverty, what you see, is the physical context in which they live.

Therefore, my interest in architecture was driven at that time by the question of what to do to improve the quality of life of the ultra-poor. That brought into focus a very serious question that impacted my thinking on architecture. It was apparent that the material needs to change this process were so enormous that the idea that these parts of the world could ever enter the domain of the consumer society was simply unrealistic. What you were doing at the time was to look at every way possible to obtain the highest return on any investment, whether it was for a school or a hospital, or housing. It was not possible to think in terms of the useful life of a building. The useful life of a building was quite simply as long as it was going to stand up.

That completely changed my attitude to building programmes. Whereas in the consumer societies of the West you can build and then pull things down, in these ultra-poor societies you cannot afford to do that. What you have to do is to modify buildings or adjust them; therefore, the flexibility of the plan that you put in place has to be conceived with a different view of time than it would be in other parts of the world. If you think about it, this is self-evident.

Architecture is the only art that is a direct reflector of poverty. Music does not reflect poverty in a tactile way, nor does literature. In architecture there is an inherent and unavoidable demonstration of the quality of life, or its absence.

Architecture is the only art that is a direct reflector of poverty. Music does not reflect poverty in a tactile way, nor does literature. In architecture there is an inherent and unavoidable demonstration of the quality of life, or its absence. At that time, I was looking at how to deal with these situations. I inherited projects that my grandfather had started, or that the communities had started. There were schools that were under construction, there was the Aga Khan Platinum Jubilee Hospital in Nairobi, and there were various other projects as well. My grandfather was vigorously involved in the field of housing, particularly in East Africa, but also elsewhere. He set up some very fine housing organisations.

Obviously these were programmes that were running and, therefore, what I was concerned about at the time was, in particular, completing institutional buildings. Every time that problem was on the table, the issue was fairly simple; you either had an opportunity to change or modify, or you did not. Where projects were not frozen or where new initiatives were necessary, change was possible. The question was, if you can change, should you? And what change would you make? Then, if you were building a new programme, the question was, are you building the right programme? Are you building flexibility into that programme? Because at that stage it was clearly necessary. What is the idiom that you build in? Do you build using the language of the West, which is what the situation was at the time, wherever you built?

It had become the omnipresent language of architecture and was even called the International Style. You ended up with schools or medical centres all over the developing world, in Africa or Asia, which all came back to this basic language of architecture. Two things came into focus at that time.

One was the need to think through building programmes much more intensely than had been the case before because of the awareness of resource limitations, and the need to be able to modify buildings if that was necessary.

The second issue was the actual architectural language that you used, but at the time there was no alternative. The only architects who were practising that I came into contact with in Africa or Asia from 1957, for at least ten years or more, were people who had been exclusively educated in Western schools of architecture, who might have had an academic interest in inherited architecture, but an academic interest only.

There was no endeavour to revive the architectural languages of other cultures. At a later date, I asked myself whether this direction, which was in a sense an imposed direction, or a consensus of the time, was in fact the right one…. That was, of course, the essence of the Award for Architecture. The moment that question was asked, this whole spectrum of issues was on the table.

There was no endeavour to revive the architectural languages of other cultures. At a later date, I asked myself whether this direction, which was in a sense an imposed direction, or a consensus of the time, was in fact the right one. I came to the conclusion that that was the question that had to be asked of a very wide spectrum of thinkers in the Islamic world and beyond. That was, of course, the essence of the Award for Architecture. The moment that question was asked, this whole spectrum of issues was on the table.

PJ: When you make reference to hospitals and schools, were these for the benefit of the Ismaili community?

AK: They were not at the time. The schools in 1957 were mixed schools. The Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi was the first multi-community hospital in Kenya. Before that, all of the hospitals were African, European or Asian.

PJ: You speak of the need for flexibility. Is that something that you began to impose very quickly on the constructions that you were involved in?

AK: The difficulty was to try to understand what were the hypothetical directions that you could go in. If you built a general hospital in 1958, what was going to happen to that hospital twenty or thirty years later? Some things were predictable, some were not. What was predictable was the need to grow. What was much less predictable, at least for me at the time, was the nature of change in medicine.

The difficulty [in incorporating flexibility] was to try to understand what were the hypothetical directions that you could go in…. The nature of change in medicine, but also in education, was not predictable, but rising demand was. What was done was to leave extra land and to place technical facilities so that you could extend when you needed to extend.

Today, the nature of medicine has changed enormously. The duration of hospitalisation was not a factor that was taken into account extensively in 1957, so you tended to get all sorts of cases: for example, some people were incurably ill, but were still hospital-based. Where surgery was concerned, hospitalisation was often for a week or ten days at a time, whereas today a lot of that is done on a day basis. That has changed the nature of the programmes of hospitals. Day care is much more prominent than it was fifty years ago. The nature of change in medicine, but also in education, was not predictable, but rising demand was. What was done was to leave extra land and to place technical facilities so that you could extend when you needed to extend.

PJ: You became involved very early in the actual art of architecture and construction, and you went to visit the sites. You then started to change the direction of construction…

AK: I watched and I asked questions, because the Imamat was responsible for much of this building and the community would identify needs and put forward requests for a school or a medical centre. Yes, I obviously went to see what was actually happening, to try to understand what we were doing. Being directly involved in these situations, you learn about poverty by going to see the way people live and by talking to the ultra-poor. You do not learn it from books.

PJ: From a later period onwards, that of the Award, you have had contact with very well-known architects. Were there any individuals who had a real influence on your approach to architecture? If you had to select one building that has most influenced you, which one would it be?

AK: I would not be able to recall specific names, but those who were strong in what I would call “programmatic” buildings, in medical or educational architecture, were my partners. It is not that I worked with them intimately, because, frankly, there were just too many projects going on. A lot of them were “colonial” practices. As for the buildings that have had an impact on me, there is one that I would give as an example, the Ahmad Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, where I think that the interrelationship between space and building is just extraordinary. It is incredibly simple, but you cannot walk into a more remarkable space.

PJ: The notion of space you refer to is not necessarily only ancient, it could be modern as well.

AK: Absolutely.

PJ: Do you make a clear distinction between the creation of the Costa Smeralda resort in Sardinia, for example, and the architecture you were involved with as Imam?

AK: In a sense yes, in a sense no. If it is a private initiative, you are looking at the economic factor more than you might be doing elsewhere. If you build a school or a hospital, at least in the case of our activities, they are non-profit institutions. While we try more and more to balance the situation so that we do not create an increasing number of loss operations in health care and education, the buildings were not conceived to generate maximum income in order to create a profit. There is a commonality between the two.

I have always tried to look at the context in which a building was occurring. Personally, I am uncomfortable with what I would call decontextualisation. I feel uncomfortable if an architect wilfully seeks a conflict with the environment. I feel that that is not appropriate. In Sardinia, we had an unusual situation in that there was no building. The only people in the area were shepherds, who cared for their flocks during the summer in sheds which were empty in the winter. It was a total green-field site.

One of the driving factors in the environment was its lack of scale. It was a geophysical area where everything was small. The mountains, the vegetation, even the people were small. If you had gone into that environment with high-rise buildings, you would have created an absolute catastrophe. People talk about the architecture there, but it is much more a question of the management of scale than of the quality of the architectural designs. We started by looking for what was traditional in the region.

The basic premise of the Costa Smeralda was quite interesting, and it has become a case study in a number of schools I think. You have a green-field site, and most developers will go into a site like that and they will say: “How do I optimise my return? I do not care what happens to the site, to the seafront, to the vegetation, I am going to put the maximum density in for the highest return.”

The basic premise of the Costa Smeralda was quite interesting, and it has become a case study in a number of schools I think. You have a green-field site, and most developers … say: “How do I optimise my return? I do not care what happens to the site, to the seafront, to the vegetation, I am going to put the maximum density in for the highest return.” We did exactly the opposite.

We did exactly the opposite. We started with the land planners, which was not the normal order of things at the time. We had them analyse the site, which was a complex task because there were no roads. It was a difficult site even to walk through because of the vegetation. There were no contour maps, we had no working documents. We were able to do the survey and to determine what were the driving parts of the area. If you altered these, you affected the visual impact of the whole area. These were the higher mountain areas, the promontories coming out into the ocean. Once we had done the planning, the next question was: “Is it economic?” That is when the economists came in and studied the land plans; they looked at the buildability of each type of activity, and their answer was: “Yes, it can be an economically viable venture.” There were so many conditions, such as access, which was a major problem. There was an absence of normal leisure area facilities, medical facilities, infrastructure, the need for water, the fact that there was no commerce and therefore no access to food or household goods. We started from absolute zero. Even the city that we were leaning on, which was Olbia, was not a leisure city.

What was done there was very different from the institutional work that I was doing in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the mid 1960s the question of the nature of economic change in the developing world came up. What are the forces that can come into play to diversify national economies, to create foreign exchange income, to create more employment? One response was the leisure industry.

I had created an agency that was at first called IPS, the Industrial Promotion Services. There the premise was that you wanted to develop new entrepreneurship, but away from commerce and into the high levels of production. We started in the industrial field, but very soon it became apparent, in East Africa for example, that the leisure industry was going to be a powerful driver of economic change, if it was developed properly. That is where the Sardinia experience came to be very significant because we had developed the knowledge about how to create a leisure industry from nothing.

We had the professional partners that we needed, the land analysts, the economists, we had some human resources that we could rely on. What came out of a private sector engagement in the leisure field has been folded back into the development of these countries, and that is why we were one of the first organisations to get seriously involved in the leisure industry in East Africa. A lot of the environmental and architectural thinking that you see today in the leisure field was in a sense created or learnt about in Sardinia.

PJ: Your own interest in landscape design has been expressed on many occasions. Does that interest also come from Sardinia?

Landscape design really came to me first as an interest in the appropriate use of land. It came first from the notion of land planning. It affected the size of a site that you negotiated with a government for a school or a housing estate…. You cannot go to a place like the Taj Mahal without being acutely aware of the site use and that is true of most of these great historic buildings.

AK: No. Landscape design really came to me first as an interest in the appropriate use of land. It came first from the notion of land planning. It affected the size of a site that you negotiated with a government for a school or a housing estate. It affected the way people live. The ability to move out of buildings and the ability to move in a pleasant environment was seen very early on as a necessity in our housing estates. I used to fight quite hard to make sure that we had enough land so that a housing estate would have enough land for people to be able to go out and get together. Then there was the question of taking that land and adapting it to the use of sick people who were ambulant for the first time and needed to be able to walk around in an appropriate space, or children who were playing outdoors and not just locked into buildings.

The notion of upgrading that sort of space was very much a result of the language of the architecture of the world we are living in. You cannot go to a place like the Taj Mahal without being acutely aware of the site use and that is true of most of these great historic buildings.

The use of gardens and water is a very strong part of Islam, in its references in the theological context to the quality of the environment. This is true in literature, poetry and art as well. That, in a sense, was a part of the inheritance, it was not anything particularly new. The thing that was new was the question: “Where do we have that talent?” We did not have it. Architectural offices were not particularly well-equipped for landscape design in the 1950s or 1960s.

PJ: It seems that there was a transition in the nature of the projects you were undertaking when you created the Aga Khan University in Karachi, beginning in the early 1970s.

AK: Building the University was really a part of a process. It started with requests from leaders of civil society in the government of Pakistan, or from provincial governments in the country. They were acutely aware of the insufficient availability of doctors and the insufficiency of the quality of education. That national need was also reflected in the Ismaili community. I made an offer to the city authorities to build a medical school in Karachi. We had hospitals elsewhere so it was not outside our domain of work. The more we developed the project, the more it became clear that the notion of a medical school in a country like Pakistan was not viable. This was because a medical school not affiliated with a university did not have degree-giving powers. In order to give medical or nursing degrees, the school would have had to have been linked to an existing university. We determined that we had to negotiate to obtain the right for this medical school to be a university in its own right, an independent degree-giving institution. That was something I had not envisaged when I talked about building a medical school.

The first step was to see if this idea was realistic. At the time, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq was in power. He was acutely aware of the medical problems of his country because he had a daughter who had limitations. I went to see him and I thought it was going to be an extremely complex discussion. Here was somebody going to the President of the country saying: “For the first time in the history of your country will you agree that a self-governing private university should come into existence?”

[In Karachi at the Aga Khan University] were looking at the quality of life. We were looking at the way in which Islamic architecture uses open spaces, the way temperature or heat is managed. We were also looking at the way users congregate or do not congregate, the way women will be with women and men with men. All of these things became the driving concepts.

I thought that he would have to face a completely negative response from the public universities, and that he would therefore find it quite difficult to move forward on this idea. However, when he became President, he kept one ministry under his direct control, and that was the Ministry of Health. He was President and Minister of Health at the time that I spoke to him. I expected the discussion to last well over an hour and I obviously had a number of arguments to put forward. After the first sentence and a half, he cut me off, and he said: “Yes.” It was an absolutely remarkable situation. At that stage, the whole process started going the other way. We were no longer talking about a medical school, we were talking about a university. The question became: “What should be the nature of a new self-governing university, with no academic limitations, coming into Pakistan and functioning within the context of the Ismaili Imamat?”

That is when Derek Bok and Harvard became involved. The actual programme of the medical school was now seen as part of a wider scheme of things and it was not just about medicine in Pakistan. It was a host of other subjects, in Pakistan, in the Ummah (2) and even outside the Ummah, in the developing world.

If you are going to build a new university campus, within what context do you build it in Pakistan? That is when we initiated an extensive search for architects. We did not find any architects qualified in university design who had ever undertaken such a task in the Islamic world. We were looking for the unfindable, and we ran a competition. Tom Payette and his team were willing to learn. They carried out a number of journeys at our request to go and see the pluralism of architecture in the Islamic world, to try to synthesise some of the lessons that it taught us, and to bring some of these ideas of the quality of life that come out of Islamic society into the design of the university.

We were looking at the quality of life. We were looking at the way in which Islamic architecture uses open spaces, the way temperature or heat is managed. We were also looking at the way users congregate or do not congregate, the way women will be with women and men with men. All of these things became the driving concepts. We were concerned with getting the concepts identified before designing the buildings, and that is what has caused the complex that you see there today.

PJ: Many of the buildings Tom Payette went to see were religious ones. Do you see a religious significance in architecture even where a religious function is not part of the programme, in the Aga Khan University for example?

AK: In much of Islamic architecture you find a sense of spirituality. You find that spirituality not only in religious buildings. If you think of the history of landscape architecture and you relate that to references to heaven in the Qur’an, you find very strong statements about the value of the environment, the response to the senses, to scent, to noise, music or water.

I think that in a number of spaces in the Islamic world, which are not religious buildings, there is a heightened sense of spirituality. You do not treat these spaces as theological spaces, you treat them as spaces that aim to give you a sense of spiritual happiness, of spiritual enjoyment.

I think that in a number of spaces in the Islamic world, which are not religious buildings, there is a heightened sense of spirituality. You do not treat these spaces as theological spaces, you treat them as spaces that aim to give you a sense of spiritual happiness, of spiritual enjoyment. In a funny way, Azhar Park has some of that. We have carried out surveys on visitor reactions and a large percentage of visitors to this park in Cairo talk about spirituality. These are everyday visitors.

PJ: Might this be a spirituality that is not related only to Islam?

AK: Yes. It is in a much wider sense. Many faiths have such forces that manifest themselves. You can enter a non-Muslim space that has a strong spiritual meaning and you will recognise it.

PJ: Many of the projects selected for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture have put an emphasis on the well-being of people. Is the Award not more about the well-being of people than it is about architecture in the sense usually used by the professional community, particularly in the West?

AK: Yes, I think that is correct. The Award was born out of concern for the quality of life, rather than just the professional dynamics of architecture as it has been known in the Western world. In fact, we saw that as a moral obligation. Had we restricted this notion only to parts of the developing world which were “architectured”, we would have been dealing with five per cent of the buildings.

The vast majority of buildings in the developing world are not “architectured” buildings in the sense of the Western profession. That does not mean that quality buildings do not happen. They happen through a whole series of different processes, and not just the architectural process. The inherited knowledge of builders is remarkable. There is a whole body of inherited knowledge in developing countries, and in the Islamic world in particular, which is not driven by Western definitions of architecture.

When the Award started, the question arose about whether we were talking about that small window of “architectured” buildings in this enormous environment or whether we were talking about the whole process of change of that environment? This was an issue that was debated extensively by people involved with the Award, in the Steering Committee in particular.

Very early on there was consensus that the Aga Khan Award could not be just for “architectured” buildings, it had to be an award for quality buildings no matter what the process of their creation. We were looking at bringing those processes on board and enhancing them, rather than saying there is a divide between the professionally trained architect and the builder who comes out of a traditional society, who is a fantastic artist, but who may not have all the technical niceties of the modern architect. The Award was very definitely an initiative to recognise the processes of building quality.

PJ: The situation has changed a great deal since you created the Award in the late 1970s. Do you feel a need for the Award to evolve?

AK: I think that the Award must evolve. Institutions that do not evolve tend to get marginalised. There are needs ahead of us which must be addressed by the Award. The biggest concern I would have is to recognise the processes of change, and to be certain that the Award plays an appropriate role in working with those processes so that they are not exclusive of quality in design or environmental concerns. There is a massive change in what I would call the symbols of high profile.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government was almost the only major client in these countries for high-profile buildings. That has changed enormously. There are private-sector buildings or mixed-use structures, but high-profile architecture is no longer reserved to governments. Secondly, there have been massive changes in the economies. Economies are being liberalised and housing estates are driven by property developers more than by government ministries. Even hospitals and schools are no longer driven by governments, but by others. Cities have become totally different from what they were fifty years ago.

I think what we should be talking about is the absolute need to improve the quality of life in rural environments. In the Western world, people tend to forget that seventy to eighty per cent of the populations of these countries live in rural environments.

The process of urbanisation is having an impact. I think what we should be talking about is the absolute need to improve the quality of life in rural environments. In the Western world, people tend to forget that seventy to eighty per cent of the populations of these countries live in rural environments. Of course the process of urbanisation is taking place, but to go from seventy per cent to the situation in the United States where perhaps two to three per cent of the population is really rural, that swing is decades ahead in the developing world, and hopefully it will never happen. If it did, cities would be unliveable.

As we enhance the productivity of agriculture, small commerce and leisure activities, we have to bring a better quality of life to the rural environments. The Award has already asked for nominators to give us the good village school or medical centre. Whatever we can do to improve the quality of life in the rural environment is critical.

PJ: I understood that one of the reasons you created the Award was because the modern architecture in certain areas was getting out of hand, perhaps giving far more importance to superficial style than to substance and quality. Has not a new variant of that trend come back today in an even stronger way in some cities in the Persian Gulf for example?

AK: One of the factors leading to the Award was what I would call the deconstruction of the cultural inheritance. This was part of the initial discussions of the Award. We were worried about the loss of cultural continuity in the physical environment. Problems came from a number of areas such as education. There was no serious analysis of traditions and how they came into place, or how they could be revived and used in modern buildings. That involved us in restoration as well, because we needed to learn about these great buildings. The pedagogical aspects and the idea of continuity were very important for the Award.

One of the factors leading to the Award was what I would call the deconstruction of the cultural inheritance. This was part of the initial discussions of the Award. We were worried about the loss of cultural continuity in the physical environment…. The pedagogical aspects and the idea of continuity were very important for the Award.

The issue of modernity, which is the one you are addressing, was an extremely complex issue for us, and remains so. What we are talking about is forces in building that did not really exist at the time when the great buildings of the past were built. Airports, business complexes, housing estates, industries, office buildings, many phenomena of modern life clearly do not have a link with the past. How do you deal with that?

You are stuck because you want these buildings to reflect the highest level of programmatic competence. I would be very unhappy if somebody were to put USD 50 million into a modern hospital without worrying about the quality of the medical care it was going to give. First and foremost an airport has to be functional. It can have a lovely design, but if it is dysfunctional, you are in trouble. We ran into the problem of wanting to underwrite the full acceptance of the modern programme and the modern building. But then the question arises of how you make that culturally appropriate, or do you ignore that issue completely? That is what we are dealing with all the time in the Award today.

We do not want to be seen as an institution that draws its inspiration only from the past. The inspiration is part of society, it is part of design. Our interest is to generate new inspirations for modern architecture, and I think that that is happening.

We do not want to be seen as an institution that draws its inspiration only from the past. The inspiration is part of society, it is part of design. Our interest is to generate new inspirations for modern architecture, and I think that that is happening. One of the basic questions we have asked for which no Jury has given an answer is: “Is there one building which is so exceptional from a global point of view that the Award might select just that one building?” That question has been on the table since the Award was founded, and the answer has been: “No.” This is, in a sense, evidence that the processes of change are underway, but they have not created, in the view of the Juries, that exceptional building which is of global meaning. It is true that the Gulf has taken in a number of the forces that play on Western societies, economics in particular.

PJ: You have just completed a new Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana in Dubai that calls on Fatimid tradition in the design conceived by Rami El Dahan and Soheir Farid. In a way this building is at the opposite end of the scale from the towers presently rising in Dubai. Is it a deliberate gesture on your part to point out that there is another direction for architecture, or is that not the message?

AK: The great expansion in construction there has to do with buildings that do not have a religious function. Economics are causing this to happen. I certainly did not want to create anything other than a human-scale building. The Award has sometimes discussed the question of scale. The whole debate about the tallest building in the world concerns ambition, vanity, pride, or whatever you want to call it. These are not particularly strong forces in our value system. I wanted a building there that was historically correct, and, secondly, I wanted it to be on a human scale.

PJ: Although not for a religious building, you are calling on the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki to create two very contemporary structures in Canada, the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Might Dubai not have been a place for an extremely modern design?

AK: Absolutely. The fact is, however, that in the Middle East we are in a region that better justified such contextualisation. In Canada the question was what issues the members of the community felt should be addressed. There was a sense that they wanted to be seen as forward-looking, educated people who could remain true to their traditions but were not fearful of modernity or the future. They wanted in a sense to Islamicise modernity rather than to have modernity impact Islam.

[For the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto] there was a sense that [the community] wanted to be seen as forward-looking, educated people who could remain true to their traditions but were not fearful of modernity or the future. They wanted in a sense to Islamicise modernity rather than to have modernity impact Islam.

We did a survey to try to understand what the younger generations in Canada were thinking. If we were going to build a building that was going to be there for fifty years or whatever, what should that building be? They were talking about aspirations for the future; they were talking about integrating themselves with the environment in which they live, which is an environment of quality modern buildings. They were looking for modernity, but they were also looking for empathy with Islamic traditions. We have that empathy. We have not gone to an anti-cultural building, but rather a cultural building where the inspiration is modernity plus some of the value systems from the Islamic world. One of them is open space.

PJ: You also wrote to Professor Maki, in the context of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat building in Ottawa, about the value of light.

One of the issues in the Islamic world is the relationship between an ability to create and what we see of that creation. Nature is one of the evidences for a Muslim of God’s creation. I am personally very sensitive to that.

AK: One of the issues in the Islamic world is the relationship between an ability to create and what we see of that creation. Nature is one of the evidences for a Muslim of God’s creation. I am personally very sensitive to that. That is why, for example, in the Delegation building I gave Professor Maki the idea of rock crystal. Rock crystal is an extraordinary natural phenomenon. It plays with light, and in our world that is very important; it has a quasi-mystical component because, depending on the angle under which it is viewed, you see it differently. It has many facets both literally and figuratively that are fascinating.

PJ: With Fumihiko Maki are you not calling on a different type of architect than the ones you have worked with in the past? Is he not more of an international ‘star’ than some others you have called on? For the University of Central Asia you have selected another well-known Japanese figure, the architect Arata Isozaki.

AK: If the mandate to the architect is to be as good as any in modern architecture, using modern materials and concepts but at the same time having the sensitivity to bring in external value systems, Maki was the obvious choice, because of the sensitivity of Japanese architects to their own cultural history. Linking cultural history to modernity is probably something that Japanese architects are as good at as anyone. They understand that. Maki seemed to be one to whom you could give a mandate and say, I am trying to bridge a number of different forces by building this modern building, and one of them is to take some of the value systems of the past, put them into this building, but not make it so esoteric that it overburdens you. It has to be inspirational and subtle. It is not a theological building, but if, within that building, there are spaces of spirituality, which we like to see as part of everyday life — it is not the exception, it should be part of everyday life — then you are bringing that into that building. His concept of the chahar-bagh and the roof of the Delegation building which plays with light and facets of glass, to me is very inspirational. I am the client. Most of the people working in that building will be working for what I would call human purposes. They are not working for capitalist purposes. They will be there to serve people, and that is a different exercise. Even the staff of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) in that building will be trying to build economic change in societies that need it.

The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development is not a holding company, it is a development company. It takes risks, some of them very severe, and very few venture capital companies are still doing that today. We believe that there is a whole category of least-developed countries which are greatly in need of economic change. Therefore, the venture capital company of the past still needs to exist.

With Mr Isozaki the mandate is much less driven by architectural inheritance than it would have been in other places. The reason for that is the wish of local governments. The wish of the local governments, and I should think of society generally, has been to disconnect from the past. They are looking for the “disconnect” that is inspirational for their future, drawn from creation as it is today in the architectural context, rather than the inherited past, because the inherited past represents a large number of symbols that they do not like.

The point with Isozaki was to come up with something that is specific to the future without a connection to the past. It has to be specific and desirable in three different countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). What we are trying to do is to create spaces and places that are disconnected from the past, but bring a value system for the future. What are those value systems?

PJ: Is it fair to state that building has become one of the most significant parts of your action as Imam?

AK: That is for others to say. This part of my work enters and exits my daily existence according to what needs to be done. It is part of the mandate of the Imam to improve the quality of life of members of the community. As I told you at the beginning of our discussion, that fact causes you to look at the physical environment. You cannot conceive of quality-of-life change without integrating the physical environment. Everyday you live under a roof.

PJ: Building is, in a sense, a way of bringing people together.

AK: Yes, or of giving them a sense of individuality. Sometimes they also need that. I think spirituality is not necessarily experienced only in a societal context, it can be very much an individual thing. There are certain times when you need to create space where spirituality can be experienced individually. I think of parks as places where the individual is very powerful. We have also worked recently on dormitories for universities. What the West would think of as secular spaces, in our context are very often not exclusively secular. They actually seek to contain, in an area or in the totality of the building, a space which has an additional message or an additional sense to it. If you walk through the Aga Khan University in Karachi, there are a number of spaces on that campus that are very unique I think.

In the Islamic world we always look at the relation between din (3) and dunya (4) and we cannot tolerate that one functions without the other. The notion of din and dunya and the integrity of human life is a very important issue.

Supplemental quote cited

“I have selected two of America’s most distinguished architectural schools — Harvard and MIT — and established a program for Islamic architecture. This program will not only utilise their immense intellectual resources for the benefit of scholars seeking to understand Islamic architecture, but also circulate this expertise among students, teachers, and universities in Muslim and Western countries.” (pp 144)

NOTES

  1. The Karakoram is a mountain range spanning the borders between Pakistan, China and India, located in the regions of Gilgit, Ladakh and Baltistan.
  2. The all-embracing Islamic community.
  3. Usually translated as “religion”.
  4. Usually translated as “this world”.

SOURCES

POSSIBLY RELATED READINGS (GENERATED AUTOMATICALLY)