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Speech by His Highness The Aga Khan at Aga Khan Award for Architecture Ceremony, Solo 1995-11-25

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Event - 1995-11-25
Date: 
Saturday, 1995, November 25
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the.ismaili
Hazar Imam with Princess Zahra at the 1995 Aga Khan Architecture Awards ceremony in Solo, Indonesia  1995-11-25

Your Royal Highness,
Honourable Minister,
Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Guests,

It is with a very special sense of happiness that I open today the sixth prize-giving ceremony of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Since the birth of this Award, eighteen years have passed, and if that is the age of adulthood, then all of us gathered here this evening are witnessing an inspiring event: the growth into maturity of a vision. This vision like the tantalising mirage of water across desert sands, was, in reality a search, and that search was inspired by one question: how to develop new, better, and more appropriate directions for building the physical environment of Muslims and those amongst whom they live.

Let me welcome you all, then, to this celebration. I am particularly happy to see in our midst so many distinguished representatives from the Central Asian Republics, repositories of so much of our built cultural heritage. I thank them and you all for having agreed to join in our rejoicing.

It is hard to imagine a setting more engaging than this palace for a ceremony that celebrates the humanity of an inspired architecture. I am deeply grateful, Your Royal Highness, to you, your family, and the members of Karaton, for your enormous generosity in making it possible for us to be here this evening. I am also most grateful to the President and the Government of Indonesia, to its Ministers and their staff, to the Indonesian Institute of Architects, and to the people of Solo and Yogyakarta who have helped us in so many valuable ways.

If this Award was born, as I have said, from a notion of search, it mirrored in many ways the forces that drive mankind to explore: a sense that what is already there is somehow insufficient, and a conviction that new endeavour will discover what might be more desirable. Eighteen years ago I shared with a small number of Muslims thinkers a simple, but multifaceted question: have the Muslim civilizations of today lost the capability to produce great architecture?

Every three years we gather, in a special and important setting in the Muslim world, to highlight publicly our Award winners, those premiated beacons which have best responded to our search for great architecture; and to renew our understanding of the goals to be sought in our travels.

The twelve projects being honoured tonight bring to sixty-nine the total number of buildings and places to have received the Award since we began the journey. Our debt to those responsible for these projects is incalculable. The architects, planners, builders, crafts people, and sponsors of these projects have provided us all with hard evidence that excellence and relevance in the built environment are achievable goals all over the Islamic world. I congratulate them most sincerely.

The master juries in every cycle of the Award act with singular independence, energy, and imagination. They challenge, and challenge anew, earlier notions within the Award, as well as those of the constituencies the Award addresses. I am grateful to the members of the Master Jury for this sixth cycle who have reinforced and greatly enhanced this tradition. In the selections they have made, we will see buildings and places that are humane, resourceful, and eloquent. They have eschewed monumentalism.

The projects they have selected address central concerns in Muslim societies, indeed problems that also face other societies throughout the world. For this cycle, the Award's Steering Committee made the task of the Master Jury even more challenging by bringing forward for the Jury's consideration nearly twice as many nominated projects.

This Master Jury has also requested that an important departure be made in this cycle. They asked that their proceedings be transcribed and available to scholars in the future as evidence of the Jury's discourse and debate. Excerpts of this debate are available in published form today, and they reveal the fascinating and serious path of challenge and response that led to the Jury's selection. This new transparency, of the debate that underlies the Jury's decision is novel and welcome. Beyond transparency, the intention is to highlight the multiple levels on which the significance of the winners can be appreciated. It is a strong reminder that the broader value of the Award winners is not as final, definitive solutions to be replicated, but as triggers to fire enriching debate, and to generate other exciting solutions.

Finally, the members of the Master Jury make a crucial and extremely positive proposal. They state that the directions for architecture and the built environment that you will see tonight in the twelve winning projects are directions that should be examined throughout the world, and not only within the Muslim world. They first argued persuasively that there are universal issues facing the world at this time. Everywhere we seem to find rising inequities in societies, an emerging urban under-class, homelessness, and strife between neighbours, as well as growing environmental degradation, the sense of alienation in mega-cities that are no longer humane, and the avalanche of images that destroy identity.

The Jury believes that these issues, which are felt with particular force in the Muslim world, can be fruitfully addressed through the critical social and architectural discourse reflected in these winning projects.

It is important to understand that we should not take the message to be that architecture can, of itself, be a remedy or solution to these issues. Rather, we should understand that such remedies or solutions will be gainfully informed by a critical social and architectural discourse that is conducted with comparable values, at as deep a level, and within the same space of freedom, as led to the creation of these winning projects. I am deeply heartened by this message, as I am by the Jury's second statement, which concerns architecture itself, as practised throughout the world: More emphatically than ever before in the history of the Award, the Jury is affirming that the projects they have selected demonstrate the ability of the Islamic world to address with deep competence the major thematic challenges and problems of change in the built environment of our entire world:

The rehabilitation of historic urban spaces, the rejuvenation of their economic base, the integration of different communities, and the opening up of incremental opportunities to the homeless, all addressed by our winners, indicate directions on how to replace urban decay and social chaos with humane environments. The thoughtful symbolism of architectural language from office building to Mosque to rural hospital, all engage our emotions and our dreams. This is what these winners show.

They do not, therefore, represent solutions developed within the Muslim world and exclusively specific to it, but constitute very high-quality solutions to universal problems from which even the most economically advanced societies may take example and profitable insight.

I interpret this view of the Jury to mean that during the lifetime of the Award - 18 years - some of the approaches and solutions of the Muslim world, as judged from those premiated buildings of this cycle, have reached the competence and sophistication to deserve worldwide recognition. It is a statement of cultural strength and quality in the built environment of Muslims, which must have immense importance for the Islamic world, its view of itself, and the way non-Muslims will view it today and in the future. It illustrated that by using its inherited cultural talents from its built environment, and those of other cultures appropriately harnessed, and by using its own ethical vision, and its artistic, ethnic, and geographic plurality, the Muslim world can reinvigorate its historical architectural and art forms, such that they once again represent a significant contribution to world culture.

This could be a massively powerful message of hope to our Muslim world. It deepens the legitimacy of the Award's attention to pluralism across the world. It validates our unflinching confidence in the creativity of Muslims and others, to design for that world in a way that will inspire the future without resorting to mimicry of the past. It deepens our conviction - along with that of the Jury members - that spirituality and architecture, together, become a force that can build bridges between people and communities, and empower them to build a more harmonious and humane future.

I believe that such a message of hope, predicated on the outstanding examples of what has been achieved in the built environment of the Muslim world, can be extended to other central themes in the lives of Muslims today, their societies, and their countries. The proper application of the premises which the Award has demonstrated, a trust in pluralism, a confidence in unfettered debate, a rejoicing in innovation, a deep respect for cultural and physical resources, could well be the basis for developing new approaches to other central needs in these same societies. I have in mind such issues as the appropriate role of civil society; or the desirable size and qualities of modern pluralistic government; or the establishment of new premises for ethical social and economic attitudes in the world's free market economies of tomorrow.

Let me draw my remarks to a close by paying special tribute to the architects, planners, authors, and activists who brought such extraordinary skill to the creating of these twelve projects which we honour today. Let me also salute the wisdom and tenacity of the communities and clients that sponsored these projects.

Tonight the twelve projects we premiate are recognised for their own remarkable qualities. But that is not all. These winners have been judged by eyes and minds deeply respected throughout the world. The Jury has, through its choice and wish, elevated the debate on architecture for Muslim societies to a world level, recommending that those addressing worldwide issues of physical change seek inspiration from tonight's winners.

Buildings for Muslims - after many decades of eclipse - are once again in the front row of thinking and design in man's endeavour to improve and embellish the buildings and spaces in which he lives and works. Perhaps today, therefore, we are witnessing the coming of age of the Muslim world's rejuvenated ability to build exceptionally. And with this feat, the Award too has achieved adulthood, and therefrom greater strength to pursue its journey.

Your Royal Highness, Honourable Ministers, your Excellencies, distinguished guests, please accept again my warm thanks for joining us this evening.

Thank you.


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