National Building Museum Panel Discussion on ‘Design in the Islamic World and Its Impact Beyond’ at the Scully Seminar/Symposium (Washington D.C., USA)
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Today, the absence of public spaces in the Islamic world is something of major concern to me. And, Charles, you were talking about city planning. I think we are, generally speaking, in the Islamic world still very weak on landscape architecture and planning. We will need to do a lot more there. A number of architectural schools actually are linked to schools of engineering. And that, in itself, tends to bring a form of architecture which may not necessarily be what we would be looking for. I’m not criticising that, but I’m saying what used to be a great strength in Islamic design seems to have disappeared. And one of the issues that we’re trying to develop now is to restore value to these traditional forms, and keep in mind that these materials in these forms are not without meaning.
In many, many cases they’re symbols, symbols of interpretation of the faith, symbols of viewing of the future and so on and so forth. So I think it’s very important that this notion of beauty should be respected and developed. Now taste changes so I think we have to be careful not to try to take the sense of taste of the past and stick it on an airport or stick it on a modern building. I mean, I think we have to live in our time and live in the future also.
Other readings related to this event
- Acceptance Address – National Building Museum’s Vincent Scully Prize
- Address to the National Building Museum’s Scully Seminar/Symposium
On Wednesday, January 26, 2005, the National Building Museum held a public program titled “Design in the Islamic World and Its Impact Beyond.” Charles Correa, the internationally distinguished architect from Bombay, India and His Highness The Aga Khan participated in the program, and Robert Ivy, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record moderated the discussion. The program was held in honour of His Highness the Aga Khan being awarded the fifth Vincent Scully Prize Award.
Following an address by each of the panel members, the panel engaged in the conversation whose transcript appears below.
Participants:Chase W. Rynd — Executive Director, National Building Museum
Vincent Scully — Sterling Professor Emeritus, Yale University
Robert Ivy — Editor-in-Chief, Architectural Record
His Highness The Aga Khan
Charles Correa — Architect, Bombay, India
Martin Filler — Architecture Critic
IVY: And now we transform this collegiate stage in front of all of you into a more intimate setting in which we are going to engage in conversation. And I think to add to this conversation we have another member of our panel. Martin Filler. You know, facts are everywhere today. Data’s cheap. Opinions are a dime a dozen. But an informed opinion is worth any price. And Martin Filler provides the world with informed opinions. He is an architecture critic par excellence who will tell us what he thinks. He has done that for the New Republic, for House and Garden for 20 years. And he’s also contributed to the New York Review of Books regularly. You may have been to a museum show that he has guest curated, seen a film he has made, or heard one of his lectures. He’s one of three living Americans in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as an architecture critic. Martin, welcome.
FILLER: Thank you.
IVY: Your Highness, Charles. We have things not to solve but to explore here this evening. And, Your Highness, I must begin with you. Rarely would we have a chance to chat in public like this. You eloquently described many of your programs and your hopes, but we find ourselves in a period, I think, internationally, where government is retreating from the social sphere. In this country that is true. We’ve seen it in Russia as well. Large countries, small countries. And there’s been a return to sort of the individual — the rational individual — as someone who can manage their own affairs and their own lives.
You represent a large religious community scattered throughout the world. And I’m interested in your perspective on how architecture can work, how your programs can interact through a program that is non-governmental. What is the interrelationship, if you will, of this large and vast network of programs that you have and government today?
AGA KHAN: I’m not sure that there’s an interrelationship with a government as a government. I think the interrelationship is with the entities of civil society. And I think it’s the entities of civil society which are going to be the carriers of change in the years ahead.
In fact, this program is attempting to invest in the carriers of civil society. It’s in education, it’s in community organisations, it’s in financing agencies, it’s affecting the pillars of civil society, I think, which will become the anchors of change.
IVY: So rather than relying on your own abilities, you are transforming communities and aspects within communities worldwide? And those changes are then broadening out?
AGA KHAN: Yes. We are trying to assist organisations of civil society to set new standards, to look at cultural history, to look at proper use of resources, to look at what people are looking for from their buildings, because you made the point yourself that the ultimate validation of a building is the way in which it is used and appreciated by its users.
IVY: Uh huh. Vince Scully mentioned that we’ re in a perilous moment in the world. We’ve had natural disaster, political turmoil, we find ourselves at war. It’s a moment that’s fraught with great danger in a sense and a very serious one. And yet we’re looking at architecture, we’re examining architecture, we’ve just emerged from the emergency in India. Well, just informationally, is your organisation engaged? These are communities that you serve. In what ways and how?
AGA KHAN: We’re engaged in a number of situations. We’re engaged in post-conflict situations such as in Afghanistan; we’re engaged in situations where directed economies are becoming liberalised economies; we’re engaged in a new development capacity, particularly in areas such as micro-credit.
But exploring new forms of government alone could be a perilous exercise. And that’s why there is such necessity to build human capacity, to underwrite the processes of change. And that’s what I mean by civil societies.
So we’re engaged in a number of areas which are impacting the quality of life and the way change occurs. And we’re looking at countries in the developing world which are exploring new forms of government. But exploring new forms of government alone could be a perilous exercise. And that’s why there is such necessity to build human capacity, to underwrite the processes of change. And that’s what I mean by civil societies.
IVY: With the awards themselves, let’s broaden this to the group now and talk about The Aga Khan Award for Architecture. I think we’re all admirers of the program. That is a given. But is it possible to characterise these projects collectively? And I throw this to the group, Charles, Martin, as well as Your Highness, is it possible to characterise these as a group? They seem remarkably disparate in scale, scope, type. Charles, what’s your opinion of them as a …
CORREA: I would think that’s actually a virtue because it is a pluralistic world we live in. Architecture addresses many things – technology; it addresses history. But it addresses aspirations. You know? And people have different aspirations and I think you get a great variety of architectural projects, of planning, of housing. And I think that’s very good that we don’t have a kind of approved style. I mean, obviously, you wouldn’t want to do that.
IVY: In thinking about that, I think as a journalist, there’s this group that is quite varied in its scale and scope. Martin, from your perspective as a journalist writing about and thinking about these projects, I’d be interested in your perspective on them as a group. What strikes you about the program or the group of projects?
FILLER: Well, I think it’ s the very diversity of the awards that I find so encouraging. Alfred Barr, the Founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art once said, “That if 10 percent of the works he picked for the permanent collection of the museum stood the test of time, he was ahead of the game.”
And I must say, looking back over almost three decades of The Aga Khan Architectural Award, the percentage is vastly superior to that. Inevitably, any critic will look at any year’s prizes and say, “Well, how could they have given it to that and not to this one.” Quite frankly, in the last cycle there were some of us who felt we could really not see perhaps the justification for the Petronas Towers.
But this particularly has to do with Islamic architecture. Be that as it may, even if one looks at a very well-known cultural award such as the Nobel Prize in Literature, you look over a century of awards and you think more in terms of who is missing from that list than who was included in it.
The other thing that I think is so extraordinary about the awards, and I think it parallels The Aga Khan’s own very strong personal belief of avoiding a cult of personality around himself, in that this is an award not going to star international architects, but to projects honouring, in many cases, patrons, the architects of course, and the communities who represent them.
And I think this is running counter to a cultural phenomenon of out of control international celebrity. I’ve written very caustically about my opinions about the Pritzker Prize, by far the most celebrated of the architectural awards, which to me seems to be confirming the obvious in many cases.
And it’s quite interesting to me that in the late 1970s, just about at the point The Aga Khan board was being founded, the Pritzker gave its very first award to the man who they said we must give it to because we must establish credibility for this award. Unless we give it to this man, no one will believe we’re serious.
And it turned out to be Philip Johnson. And I think looking back now that seems rather shocking given the subsequent history of architecture. So I think in a way it might be easier for lazy journalists to publicise star or celebrity architects. The dumbing down of architectural discourse, the sound byte, the quick news image feeds into that.
It’s not easy to summarise the accomplishments of this award. But once one has a few hundred words extra in your column, I think it’s quite easy to explain it.
IVY: Well, it is an interesting thought because every project has a story. And they’re not chosen simply for their formal characteristics, which most awards programs recognise, which often are based on rather superficial or quick takes by a jury. There’s this tri-annual, three-year, very careful appraisal. But it seems that everyone has a story. And I’m interested, Your Highness, in your own interaction with the juries and how actively you are engaged. I’ve heard you talk about this but I think they’d like to know how much or little do you know about what is going on as these stories are unfolding over a three year period.
When the [Aga Khan Award for Architecture] was founded, the question was asked, “What are the processes of change and who is being affected by the processes of change?” And the decision was taken, I think, correctly, to say that the award wanted to cover the widest spectrum of processes of change in the developing world.
AGA KHAN: Well, let me get back, first of all, to why the award has got such a variety of projects which it looks at. When the award was founded, the question was asked, “What are the processes of change and who is being affected by the processes of change?” And the decision was taken, I think, correctly, to say that the award wanted to cover the widest spectrum of processes of change in the developing world.
And the processes of change are not restricted to the wealthy. They’re not restricted to architect-built buildings. They’re not restricted to urban environments. The majority of the population in many of these countries is rural. Therefore, we took the decision that if the award wanted to impact the processes of change, then it had to have the opportunity and the ability to make decisions on all these different levels of activity.
And this was a decision that was taken after considerable discussion. And I hope and believe time will show that it has been correct. With regard to my own involvement, yes, I’m involved but the jury is totally independent. The relationship between the Steering Committee and the jury is a very interesting one because the Steering Committee has a three year mandate. The jury comes in every three years and looks at what’s happening. And this interrelationship between the continuum of involvement of the Steering Committee and the one-time analysis of the jury keeps the award very much up to date and on its feet. So in a sense, I’m involved with the Steering Committee. I’m involved with obviously knowing who the jury members are. But I’m told about their decisions at the same time as everybody else. For good or less good.
IVY: For good or ill. This year there were seven winners and just to reprise for the group they included the Grand Library at Alexandria in Egypt (which is a bold, new building, very contemporary, very strong, powerful, formal and also theoretical); a primary school in Gando which was a modest school that I think sort of caught people’s imaginations with its own formal story and its human story; a sandbag shelter prototype building that could be built in a number of locales; restoration of a mosque; revitalisation of the old city of Jerusalem; a very powerful house for two brothers in Turkey; and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
This is a diverse group. You say pluralistic, this defines that in architectural terms, let us say. Charles, among those — is there a particular project among those that you think summarises ideas that you have, understandings that you’ve seen over the years about this program?
CORREA: Well, luckily, I wasn’t on the jury this year so I don’t have to justify what they did. But I’d like to ask you a question, Robert. You know what? The point that I was trying to make was that what’s important about this award is how relevant it is to so many societies around the world, including this one right here, and I’d you to comment on that if I may ask you, and Martin too.
I mean, supposing we had the equivalent in America. I think just now that you said… I forgot exactly what you said. Now I forgot what I was saying. Anyway … [Ha, ha, ha, ha]
IVY: The relevance for our society.
CORREA: The relevance for your society. And you have different income groups, you’ve got different lifestyles. And some of them have wonderful ideas but they get lost in the shuffle because of all the media, the superstar thing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had someone here in this country, in this society, or we had someone in India …
And there are people here. There are the MacArthur Awards which I suppose do draw a big net and find the best people. It seems to me that we all need this. We all need to understand the nature of change, the vital role of architecture as an agent of change, as a catalyst because it touches on all these things.
It’s much more than just the brick, than the mortar we see. It’s the passion and it’s all the implication, the culture, etc. I would think that’s what I find interesting about the award. It’s not something that’s happening in a kind of Disneyland which is exotic and worth watching and commenting on.
It’s something which you can passionately connect with where we live.
IVY: I think that part of the attraction for me personally… You asked… You’re turning the tables here on the moderator and that’s okay. But is that, yes, I knew, for instance, about several of these projects. In fact, they had been published in the pages of our magazine.
We had written extensively about the Library of Alexandria and the Petronas Towers, for instance. However, I had never seen the primary school in Gando, nor met the architect who had designed that school. And I happen to be from the poorest State of the United States by birth, Mississippi, which faces, if not analogous situations, very strong challenges there. And I saw what this individual faced and I was moved by it, but also informed and encouraged in the sense that real architecture could change someone’s life in a small town. That’s a basic and fundamental story. The challenge there, I think, is the tree falling in the forest. And that is The Aga Khan Awards, now through their… How many years is this, Your Highness? Is this …
AGA KHAN: Twenty-eight.
IVY: … have built up a reputation that does attract media attention. But the communication of the ideas is part of the challenge. It isn’t merely that the award is excellent; it’s how are those ideas conveyed and how are they perceived. Martin?
FILLER: Well, the other thing that I think is important to stress about The Aga Khan Awards is that they do not look at architecture as an isolated aesthetic phenomenon. Not only are the awards given very diversely to contemporary design, to urban planning, to historic preservation, but they’re part of the larger Aga Khan Network in which architecture, as it correctly should for all of those who believe in the sociological approach to architecture of Lewis Mumford, is part of an economic, political and social fabric of society.
And I think one of the things that makes so much contemporary architecture so shallow is that it is focused so thinly on style. And, yes, there has been a breakdown of the great architectural patrons of the past. The state is no longer doing that except perhaps in France.
But, you know, the great patrons of the Renaissance, of the period of new classicism do not exist in the same way, to say nothing with what you were mentioning about the retreat of the state worldwide through social issues.
So I think by seeing and promoting the idea of architecture as something integrated into larger social developments, that you can’ t have architecture without education, you can’t have education without healthcare, you can’t have healthcare without architecture. It becomes a unified sense of architecture and, therefore, the works that emerge from that point of view, I think, are more resonant.
Yes, we want beauty, we want things that are attractive and are aesthetically pleasing, but not to have that as the final goal of architecture.
IVY: Your Highness, in a previous conversation you mentioned your initial foray into the world of design and the design process, and that it led you (and I think still leads you, in fact, as an observer) into inquiry. You seem to be always asking questions yourself.
What are the questions you are asking today? What are the questions we should be asking today? What are the relevant questions that continue to confront you and that you confront others with?
AGA KHAN: Right. I think from the awards point of view the inquiry processes have not been able to cover all categories of building. And that, in itself, is a source of concern. Let’s keep in mind that the economies of these countries are changing. As they change, more and more development — physical development — will occur under private initiative, corporation initiative, single initiative.
And I am concerned that those processes of change should be analysed and validated so that workplaces become places of quality. That’s not the case at the present time. So industrial buildings, commercial buildings are categories, types of buildings which we, I think, need to do a lot more work on.
[I]n looking to the future there are two areas of concern. One is a critical mass of knowledge of good buildings in rural environments … And then, of course, there’s the economic issue of industry, commercial buildings and housing …
Public space. There’s enormous pressure in these cities on public space. And, yet, it seems to me that by tradition the Islamic world has premiated public space. It’s been an area of real importance. And I would like to see more of that occurring. So I think that in looking to the future there are two areas of concern.
One is a critical mass of knowledge of good buildings in rural environments, for example, so that we can say 10, 15, 20 years from now we understand the processes have changed in the rural environment and we have enough information to share with rural communities so that we can help them improve those processes of change.
And then, of course, there’s the economic issue of industry, commercial buildings and housing, frankly. Housing in-fill is a major problem in our part of the world.
IVY: I want to take those up separately and distinctly, perhaps, in a moment. Let’s just take the issue of housing, for instance. Charles, you face in India, for instance, a burgeoning population that will soon be the world’s largest. What is the role of architecture and how is it addressing sort of this immense growth that is occurring right under your nose?
CORREA: You know, it’s a huge problem. I don’t think it’s an architectural one necessarily though. Architects are absolutely part of the solution. I mean, we have to bring such skills as we have of organising space and layouts, what have you. But the reason we have such a terrible shortage of housing in the Third World is that with the distress migration from the villages — and this goes for Rio de Janeiro, for Brazil, it goes for Indonesia, for India, etc., although we knew that the population — the urban populations — would grow, we did not increase the supply of urban land. So people became squatters. And so the solution goes way beyond designing a house for someone.
In fact, I always feel it’s kind of insulting, you know, like if there’s a famine in India and then I run around writing cookbooks telling people, “This is how you…,” you know, it implies they’re starving because they don’t know how to cook. They’re starving because it’s a game on which I’m on the winning side and they’re on the losing side.
And that’s true of housing too. So it seems to me that if you really want to do something about housing, and that’s what we’re trying to do even in Bombay, you’ve got to increase the supply of urban land on a scale commensurate. And we’re trying to do that with a big land in the centre of the city which is being changed.
Now when I say “urban land,” it’s land which has jobs or access to public transport. People are coming to the cities not for housing. They’ve got houses. But they’re coming for jobs. And where those jobs are located, how you generate them, how you tie them back in a city like Bombay, which I think you saw, it’s a long linear thing.
You’ve got a railway system which goes up; they’re really going up north. But people started to live around the railway stations. And that’s how Bombay still works. People can jump on a train and go up and down. It’s like Bogotá. Now if you subsidise the train, you are indirectly subsidising housing. You understand? You make the housing affordable. So it’s things like that that open up land. So architects are part of this. We should all help with the solution, but the real thing is this business at least of opening up the structures of our cities.
We’ve been very lazy about that. You know, here in this country this sentence of “Go west, young man” is the most politically profound statement of all because it really says, “Don’t hang around this place. Use space as a resource.” And we haven’t done that enough. That’s why you get squatters in these cities, in Rio de Janeiro.
IVY: But this gets to one of those fundamental questions about housing and gets back to the program in a sense because housing, we know, confronts the contemporary civilisation at the economic, the social, as well as the areas that directly affect architecture planning and so forth. The program engages a number of those things that you’ve described, for instance, job creation, I would assume, through Historic Cities Program. Could you comment on that, how you see this interplay affecting ultimately something as discreet as architecture?
AGA KHAN: Well, I would start by saying that I still think there’s a significant disequilibrium between quality of life in rural environments in many of these countries and the perceived quality of life of urban environments. And unless there’s a better equilibrium which is built into the development processes, we’re not [going to] see urbanisation slow.
[W]e’re not [going to] see urbanisation slow. And I don’t think it can be stopped, but I think it can be slowed by better balancing between the [rural and urban] environments.
And I don’t think it can be stopped, but I think it can be slowed by better balancing between the two environments. The second thing is that the Historic Cities traditionally have been transit spaces for newly urbanised populations. And, therefore, they are very often the very poor coming from the countryside going through historic spaces that are degraded by the process of changing hands every two, three, four years.
And I think what we found is that if you invest in those cultural spaces, you can actually turn them into economic generators. And when you turn them into economic generators, you stabilise the population that is in them and you stabilise the value of the cultural asset.
Now that does sometimes mean you have to re-utilise the cultural asset for different purposes and that’s sometimes sensitive. But certainly in areas like Cairo and, I think, Kabul, we are finding that we can, through investment in these cultural environments bring a totally new economic context to, in the case of Cairo, 200,000 people.
So these cultural liabilities become cultural assets and economic assets if you invest in them. The most well-known of these, I think, was Musta — and Musta was the case study situation which taught everybody else that you actually can convert these cultural liabilities into cultural assets.
Now it’s quantifiable. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s not that you can’t measure the improvements in longevity, access to education, disposable incomes and all those issues.
IVY: Martin, this is not the way we normally talk about architecture.
FILLER: More is the pity.
FILLER: No. I was very pleased this summer to have attended the re-dedication of the Musta Bridge in which The Aga Khan Foundation, along with World Bank and World Heritage, helped restore the famous 16th Century bridge, the marvel of pre-modern span masonry engineering.
Now what interested me as a journalist to go there, because the very oversimplified story is the bridge symbolises the Muslim and Christian in this war-torn section. And it was almost a cartoon-like oversimplification thing. When you go there you see still that the terrible social divisions that exist there. That this is not a quick and easy fix. That it’s going to take, you know, many, many years of concerted economic development. And the mere fact that there was such a mass migration of the populations there during the war to all parts of the world (to Scandinavia, to Texas and the United States a large Musta community) — people who will probably never return there. Who will replace those people? What will be the industries that will replace the light industries that were the major source of employment, that were destroyed? These are many things that tend not to get covered in the general press coverage.
I mean, when we’re talking about the oversimplification of architectural criticism, you just look at the kind of newspaper coverage of the aftermath of the war and Musta itself. What was wonderful, though, was to see the painstaking quality with which the restoration around the bridge took place.
What The Aga Khan Foundation did wasn’t just to do the bridge which, in fact, I think, was largely an effort of World Bank, which, by the way, departed from its traditional format of doing dams and other kinds of infrastructure and deemed this, thanks to Jim Wolfensohn, a special case. It was restoration but it was also a bridge, so they could get it in under the rubric. But to see what was being done in the areas around the bridge where the historic structures, which will become restaurants, shops, all employers to help revitalise tourism. Coaches that come now on day trips from the Dalmatian Coast with tourists now will be encouraged to stay overnight to pour some more money back into the local economy.
And this isn’t a solution for revitalising the entire town but it’s the fact that The Aga Khan Foundation is looking at the whole context, and, by the way, restoring those historic, if not architecturally masterful buildings in the immediate environment, with the care and precision that they would a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
IVY: All that gets to another point that you raised earlier and that is the level of contemporary debate and discussion; in fact, the other awards programs, tend to focus on relatively simplistic ideas. Style, for instance, which seems to be the word in coinage right now.
There’s even been a book written called The Substance of Style in which style has its own value and its own validity. Yet, these awards clearly, as you’ve demonstrated, engage something deeper. Charles, what is the relevance of a word like “style” in a, say, East Asia or in Asia?
What place does that rather ephemeral sounding word have in a place where needs are great and the populations are changing?
CORREA: No, I think to design or to create something elegant is a reward in itself. I mean, just because people are poor, they don’t have to lead ugly lives. In fact, the irony is that some of the poorest societies in the world produce the most beautiful handicrafts, as you know.
Mexico right next to you, Nepal, India, other places. I don’t think they live with ugly things. I think in spite of that, you know, they do very well. So I think there is style there. I think what I was saying about housing, I’d just like to return to that, is that I was talking about squatters.
When it comes to housing for people who can afford, let’s say, a three or four story building, which means (I’m not talking about a huge building), that’s really the middle class. And I’m very happy to see that all over the Third World, including the Islamic world, there’s a lot of effort made by architects to deal with housing.
And that’s gone out of some of the best. Certainly gone out of America — North America. And that’s a great shame, I think, Robert. The whole modern movement, as you know, was fuelled by the issue of housing. Everybody, whether it was the futurist, what have you… And it gave the energy now.
So, first of all, there was an idealism. Now today the most important buildings are museums and airports. These are two buildings which are totally culture free. They are green field buildings. They’re unconnected with society. Housing is something developers do despite that.
That’s very sad. When you design housing… It seems to me when you design a — and I’m not against museums and airports,I think it’s wonderful — but we must recognise it’s like producing a beautiful world. It exists in isolation. Housing is connecting worlds because housing means syntax.
It’s a completely different process. It’s the ability to connect things. And, therefore, it informs the rest of your work. In your office if you’re doing some housing, it’s gonna change the way you design that museum. And the other way around too.
So I think it’s very sad that practices of architecture which have this big range have have gradually become very much about this one special object, it seems to me. And that has a huge implication in this part of the world.
But not in India and not in most of the Muslim world, not in China, where in schools of architecture they teach a lot of courses about housing. But it’s really what I would call middle-class housing. It’s housing which people can afford, really walk-up apartments and stuff like that.
IVY: So housing is an area that’s ripe for the awards focus?
AGA KHAN: Yes. Very much so.
IVY: And other areas that you want to see covered or premiated through this process?
AGA KHAN: Housing certainly, workplaces…
AGA KHAN: Industrial buildings. I think commercial buildings, office buildings are an area that we will need to be looking at also.
CORREA: I understand. I wonder if I could add one, and that is something which we might call “urban coherence” or “urban form.” What I find dismaying about India and about much of the world is that our cities are getting uglier and uglier. And people adapt to that. They don’t seem to notice. You know? And that’s really scary because people are learning to live with very ugly things. Buildings are built meaninglessly. And we have to build up some sort of, how to say, coherent way of relating those words of language. Yes.
IVY: And speaking of language, there are a number of words that form a sort of lexicon that surround this program that I’ve plucked here and there from a number of the publications and the conversations that we’ve had. Pluralism is one. Context is another.
The disparity of urban and rural cultures is another. Your Highness, what about this word “pluralism?” That seems to mean a great deal to you and something that you care very much about and that you discuss. Could you talk to us about what that particular word means to you in the context of architecture?
[I]t seems to me that the cultures that have developed in the history of the Islamic world are cultures that deserve to be respected and not washed aside by some normalising process.
AGA KHAN: Yes. Yes. Well, I think the nature of the Muslim world is pluralist. It’s pluralist in terms of its civilisation, it’s pluralist in terms of its language — languages, it’s pluralist in terms of its physical environment. And it seems to me that the cultures that have developed in the history of the Islamic world are cultures that deserve to be respected and not washed aside by some normalising process.
And, therefore, keeping value to historical continuity is an issue which the award, I think, has felt was important. And, therefore, this notion of pluralism is really a notion of respect for cultural identities in a pluralist form. That’s the notion of pluralism in this environment.
IVY: And it’s played out in the very diversity of the choices that we saw on the screen tonight and that have been celebrated in the awards themselves. Another word is context. That seems to be a word that arises. It’s been, obviously, in coinage, in favour for a decade. But here, context… What does context mean to you today?
FILLER: Well, it’s interesting to me that at the time the award was founded in the late 1970s, it was this sort of high water mark of this idea of contextualism that was rising up in reaction against the governing of the international style which was imposing a very bland universal approach to architecture in all kinds of places, without regard for local building traditions and, even worse, local environmental conditions where I think a real complaint could be made.
And there are fashions… We’re talking about styles in architecture, but there are fashions in architecture as well. And the pendulum has swung in recent years away from the idea of contextualism which often could get very literal in terms of vernacular, and the worst kind of toy town dramatic architecture. Now swinging completely away from that towards the dominance of theory in the architecture schools and in architectural practice which, in general, I would characterise as an imposition of certain intellectual constructs that completely ignore the artifact, that completely ignore the object and the visual aspects of the art form.
I would hate to see some of the very important affirmations of context that the award defined in its early years, certainly with awards such as the Masters Awards particularly to Hassan Fathy and to the Jeffrey Bawa. And to move in another direction, I know there’s always the fear we want the award to keep up with the times.
We want it to reflect current developments. We want to encourage younger architects to submit and to make their work available to us. But I think that idea of context, especially in the Islamic world where there are very, very sound reasons for the way building forms emerged, very practical, very environmentally intelligent and sustainable ecologically, that would be disastrous if they were lost if the pendulum goes too far in the opposite direction.
IVY: Let me bring one final question to the group because the hour is drawing on. And this is a word that is much reviled in contemporary discussion, and the word is “beauty.” It’s one that’s whispered among lovers perhaps. But I think it has formed a component of Islamic architecture. I’m interested in the group’s perspective of that word. You said it’s an important part of the life of regular people. So, what is its place in contemporary society, this word?
CORREA: Well, that I don’t but let’s say in the architect’s life it’s very, very important. It’s what motivates you to design. But in that process you realise that there are other issues involved of development, etc. But you certainly would like to do something which is very — which is very elegant, very beautiful. And there’re so many examples of it. I think Hussein Fatti’s work is a great example where just using mud he made things of absolutely ephemeral beauty, just the most beautiful things.
IVY: Your Highness, what works of Islamic architecture move you? What do you love?
AGA KHAN: That’s a difficult question to answer. But there are many buildings and many public spaces which I find very, very powerful. Today, the absence of public spaces in the Islamic world is something of major concern to me. And, Charles, you were talking about city planning.
I think we are, generally speaking, in the Islamic world still very weak on landscape architecture and planning. We will need to do a lot more there. A number of architectural schools actually are linked to schools of engineering. And that, in itself, tends to bring a form of architecture which may not necessarily be what we would be looking for.
I’m not criticising that, but I’m saying what used to be a great strength in Islamic design seems to have disappeared. And one of the issues that we’re trying to develop now is to restore value to these traditional forms, and keep in mind that these materials in these forms are not without meaning.
In many, many cases they’re symbols, symbols of interpretation of the faith, symbols of viewing of the future and so on and so forth. So I think it’s very important that this notion of beauty should be respected and developed. Now taste changes so I think we have to be careful not to try to take the sense of taste of the past and stick it on an airport or stick it on a modern building.
I mean, I think we have to live in our time and live in the future also. And that’s why the award has been very careful and, in fact, the Master Juries have watched this, never to ignore modern building. In all the award cycles that I can recollect there has always been a modern building which has been premiated, dealing with modern issues.
IVY: Well, with that final remark I think the panel has concluded its work for the evening. Thank you both, thank you, Your Highness. And, Mr. Rynd, the evening goes back to you.
RYND: Your Highness, thank you again for honouring us with your presence and your wisdom. It’s been a wonderful evening for all of us. Mr. Filler, Mr. Correa, Mr. Ivy, thank you for such an engaging dialogue. It was really quite wonderful. Thank you so much.
And thank all of you for joining us here this evening for this extraordinary program. Now this does conclude our evening’s program, but I would ask you for your cooperation, and please remain seated while His Highness departs the National Building Museum. Thank you for being here. Have a wonderful evening. Good night.
PDF document: http://www.nbm.org/media/transcripts/agakhannbmtranscript-1.pdf
- Video: http://www.nbm.org/media/video/public-program-with-his.html
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