The essence of the Aga Khan Award is to premiate outstanding quality in all principal aspects of the built environment for Muslims. We seek to identify excellence in landscaped spaces, restored buildings, social housing, high-tech constructions, and others, all over the world. The single binding theme is that the buildings or spaces be essentially used for those born into, or who have become a part of, the faith of Islam. It is a broad and glorious domain that we have defined. The invisible common thread that runs through it all, the “underlying theme” of that great design, is relevance to the common characteristic of being — in some way — related specially to Muslims….

In this seminar, the Award strives to look to the fountainhead of inspiration on which Muslims and non-Muslims draw to create the spaces and buildings we admire. What aspects of the social or religious backgrounds transpire into their creation? Is it their interpretation of their faith? Is it the ethic of their faith? Is it the rules of social conduct of their faith? And, indeed, the hard question has to be asked, is it their faith at all?

How do they perceive problems of scale, intimacy, regionalism? How do they choose materials, textures, and colours? What use do they make of water, flowers, and scent? Do they relate one or some, all or none, of these considerations to their faith, or to their ethic, or to a secular tradition? Is the secularisation of the modern Western world affecting their professional approach, or, on the contrary, is the search for an Islamic identity encouraging them to learn much more about their history and tradition than what their forefathers knew or learnt? If there is a return to the essence of their background, is it in the form of a search for identity, or is it in the form of a new commitment to their faith?

That at this time of world tension and economic apprehension, we are gathered here today in Jakarta, in the presence of His Excellency the President of the Republic and so many distinguished guests, to debate one of the most sensitive, difficult, and permanent issues of our built environment, is symbolic of much of what the world admires in Indonesia. The peace, the purposeful sense of direction, and the right to think freely about issues of faith are but some of the qualities of Indonesian life which we hope will also characterise our seminar. Your Excellency, thank you for having accepted to open it, and to your Government and the Indonesian Institute of Architects, thank you for making it possible.

A decade ago we met here, in one of the first seminars organised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, to strive together to define the themes and directions that this nascent endeavour was to embrace. It is from meetings such as those, that the vision that animates the Award has taken shape. Our discussions then dealt with Housing, and from their contributions, one of the pillars of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture took shape: the Award’s abiding concern with the built environment of all Muslims, including the many millions of the poor, whose environmental concerns are beyond the domain of conventional architectural practice, and whose plight all too easily escapes the attention of those who could make a difference. Indonesia’s pioneering programmes of community building and kampung improvements were to win several Aga Khan Awards for Architecture and are today fully recognised as major achievements in an area which many thought intractable. Indeed, Indonesia as a whole has shown a remarkable capacity to combine growth with equity. Its great achievement in reducing poverty from about 60 percent a generation ago, to less than 18 percent today is a dazzling achievement that should serve as a source of pride and encouragement for many parts of the world that are desperately struggling with similar problems.

That the Award should have adopted this socially conscious vision [in premiating projects like Indonesia’s pioneering programmes of community building and kampung improvements] is a manifestation of its profound adherence to the universal values of Islam…. [The Award has] striven to promote a certain vision of architecture and the built environment. Cultural adaptation, an authentic resonance for the societies served, honouring the legacy of the past, but looking to the future, those are important convictions that we hold today.

That the Award should have adopted this socially conscious vision is a manifestation of its profound adherence to the universal values of Islam. For what would our architectural concerns be, if they were void of compassion for the poor and of commitment to their cause? We would have retreated to a sterile formalistic debate about the elements of architectural styles, not an active concern with the built environment of living societies.

Thus, the Award’s vision was deeply affected by our discussions in Indonesia a decade ago. Through four cycles and forty-eight prizes, through a dozen seminars and countless meetings along the length and breadth of the Muslim world, we have striven to promote a certain vision of architecture and the built environment. Cultural adaptation, an authentic resonance for the societies served, honouring the legacy of the past, but looking to the future, those are important convictions that we hold today. But there are also others: to encompass the rural and the urban, the old and the new, the permanent and the changing, all those constituencies that are bound in the common web of human relations that constitute the rich and intricate mosaic of today’s Muslim societies.

The essence of the Aga Khan Award is to premiate outstanding quality in all principal aspects of the built environment for Muslims. We seek to identify excellence in landscaped spaces, restored buildings, social housing, high-tech constructions, and others, all over the world. The single binding theme is that the buildings or spaces be essentially used for those born into, or who have become a part of, the faith of Islam. It is a broad and glorious domain that we have defined. The invisible common thread that runs through it all, the “underlying theme” of that great design, is relevance to the common characteristic of being — in some way — related specially to Muslims.

[I]f the search for excellence starts with relevance, authenticity, and striking vibrant resonances in the communities concerned, surely we cannot forestall tackling the issue of that elusive link between the spiritual and the temporal that makes Muslim societies as diverse as Morocco and Indonesia fashion their environments in manners that speak to their Muslim cultural and spiritual being.

We have returned to Indonesia to grapple with that concept. It is indeed fitting that we should come to the largest Muslim country in the world to take stock of past achievements and to measure future challenges, in terms of the “thematic identity” of our endeavour, the link between Islam and building. For if the search for excellence starts with relevance, authenticity, and striking vibrant resonances in the communities concerned, surely we cannot forestall tackling the issue of that elusive link between the spiritual and the temporal that makes Muslim societies as diverse as Morocco and Indonesia fashion their environments in manners that speak to their Muslim cultural and spiritual being.

In this seminar, the Award strives to look to the fountainhead of inspiration on which Muslims and non-Muslims draw to create the spaces and buildings we admire. What aspects of the social or religious backgrounds transpire into their creation? Is it their interpretation of their faith? Is it the ethic of their faith? Is it the rules of social conduct of their faith? And, indeed, the hard question has to be asked, is it their faith at all?

How do they perceive problems of scale, intimacy, regionalism? How do they choose materials, textures, and colours? What use do they make of water, flowers, and scent? Do they relate one or some, all or none, of these considerations to their faith, or to their ethic, or to a secular tradition? Is the secularisation of the modern Western world affecting their professional approach, or, on the contrary, is the search for an Islamic identity encouraging them to learn much more about their history and tradition than what their forefathers knew or learnt? If there is a return to the essence of their background, is it in the form of a search for identity, or is it in the form of a new commitment to their faith?

These are the questions of a “living faith” — a living faith that manifests itself in a myriad of ways, from the lowliest, smallest corner stall in a market, to the inspired grandeur of stately congregational mosques and public buildings which define landmarks and articulate urban spaces, with the many, many in-between.

To address these issues, we have to set them up against a broader, global canvas of which the Muslim culture is an integral part. The worldwide movements of societies in flux, oscillating between secularism and ostentatious religious practice — alternating between strident advocacy and quiet determination, between spiritual hunger and the pursuit of material wealth, with people everywhere reaffirming their right to be themselves, to express themselves in terms of their beliefs, their culture, their aspirations. Architecture speaks to these manifest needs with buildings that unite communities with spiritual bonds and shared identity.

[O]ur seminar is far more than a discussion of the architecture of the contemporary mosque. It really addresses the profound interaction between faith and the environment, between a society’s deep cultural and ethical structure, and the best manifestation of its creative talent …

The congregational mosque, as the traditional centre of community life, plays an important part in this vision, but it is by no means the only relevant structure to be considered here. Even though the symbolic content of Mosque Architecture is so powerful that it plays a dominant role in any taxonomy of the architectural vocabulary of Muslim societies, it remains one, albeit very important, component of the spectrum with which we are concerned here. Thus our seminar is far more than a discussion of the architecture of the contemporary mosque. It really addresses the profound interaction between faith and the environment, between a society’s deep cultural and ethical structure, and the best manifestation of its creative talent, those structures and spaces that speak most directly to the people’s needs and articulate most eloquently their hopes, their aspirations, and their common identity.

Such architecture is not created in a vacuum. It draws upon sources of inspiration from the legacies of the past, the promise of the present, and the inspired visions of talented individuals. Yet it operates within technological and economic constraints that define the space of possible solutions.

Designers of genius are those who have managed to extend that space of possible solutions and to convince the populations concerned of the appropriateness of the solutions that have pushed back the boundaries of the acceptable. Innovations, by getting accepted, expand the domain of the ordinary. But innovations, to be accepted, must be rooted in a profound knowledge of self and of society and its needs if they are not to be mere artifice or caprice. Such knowledge of society and its needs requires an understanding of history and religion as much as of sociology, politics, or economics. Without such a wellspring of knowledge to draw upon, the inspiration of the designers is likely to promote an impoverished vision and produce a pedestrian output.

We can, to be sure, question this font of self-knowledge and seek to define the elusive “divine spark” that ignites the genius of a Sinan. But to understand the nature of inspiration for a society as a whole requires profound self-knowledge. Thus, there is no escape from holding up a truthful mirror to ourselves and to start from there.

We can, to be sure, question this font of self-knowledge and seek to define the elusive “divine spark” that ignites the genius of a Sinan. But to understand the nature of inspiration for a society as a whole requires profound self-knowledge. Thus, there is no escape from holding up a truthful mirror to ourselves and to start from there.

If we are to address the question of the nature of inspiration in design in architecture, and the interfacing between the faith and ethic of Islam and its physical expression, I do not really see how we can reasonably beg the corollary question as to what needs to be known about Islam by architects and builders in order to create within the language of their own religious and ethical background.

This is also part of the task that we have set ourselves in this seminar. Like all our Award activities, this inquiry should be open, candid, and far-reaching, undertaken in “a space of freedom”. For a profound and critical self-examination is indeed in order, that we may build the exemplars of tomorrow, and help shape the built environment of future generations, in a manner befitting the needs of today’s societies and tomorrow’s dreams.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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