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Thursday, 2005, February 10
Aga Khan receives National Building Museum's Vincent Scully Prize  2005-01-26

The National Building Museum in Washington features a colossal hall with Corinthian columns measuring 75 feet high and eight feet wide -- they are among the tallest interior columns in the world. This is where American veterans once lined up to receive their pensions and where most of the presidential inaugurations have taken place since the late 1800s. But, recently, the who's who of architecture gathered in the Great Hall to honour one man and his profound impact on architecture.
His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has been awarded the 2005 Vincent Scully Prize for his dedication to improving the built environment in the Islamic world.

Thirty years ago, the Aga Khan was troubled by what he saw: fast, gaudy skyscrapers sprouting in oil-rich, instant cities. There was little relevance or connection to the history or sophistication of Islamic culture -- climate and site were virtually ignored. Since then, largely because the work of the Aga Khan Foundation is an epic of aid and inspiration, architecture by Muslims for Muslims has been brought into a new order of sensitivity and intelligence.

The Vincent Scully Prize, created in 1999 and named for Yale University's revered professor emeritus of architectural history, recognizes scholarship, criticism or exemplary practice in historic preservation, planning or urban design. Jane Jacobs, the Toronto urbanist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, received the award in 2000, followed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, as well as Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, in subsequent years. For the Washington gala feting the Aga Khan, Venturi was in the crowd, as was Robert Stern, dean of Yale University's school of architecture, David Childs, the architect of the so-called Freedom Tower at Ground Zero and hundreds of business leaders, diplomats and practitioners.

One of the most obvious reasons for awarding the Aga Khan the Scully prize has to do with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, possibly the most serious and generous of international design awards. Unlike others, the award places the strictest emphasis on actual buildings rather than personality and offers triennial prizes totalling up to $500,000 (U.S.).

The latest cycle in 2004 awarded a diversity of projects from the Islamic world that promote careful, sometimes daring advances in contemporary architecture as well as serious restoration projects. There was the Gando primary school in Burkina Faso, designed and constructed through the fundraising efforts of Diebedo Francis Kere, who left his village of Gando to study architecture in Berlin before returning to improve conditions in his hometown. There was the exquisitely detailed Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, designed by Snohetta Hamza Consortium of Egypt and Norway.

And, among several other prize winners, there was the revitalization of the Old City of Jerusalem, spearheaded since 1996 by the planning department of the Old City.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is a deeply sophisticated exercise involving some of the world's leading lights in architecture. For each cycle, a steering committee is appointed, as well as a master jury. For 2004, the steering committee included Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Charles Correa, the great Indian modernist, Jacques Herzog of Herzog and de Meuron Architects, and the Harvard professor Peter Rowe. The master jury members for 2004 included Farshid Moussavi, partner in the edgy London studio Foreign Office Architects, Elias Torres Tur, principal of Torres Arquitectos of Barcelona and New York's Billie Tsien of the masterful Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

Short-listed submissions are reviewed on site before the jury makes its final cut. To date, there have been 2,261 projects in 88 countries that have been short-listed over the last 27 years.

And now the Aga Khan is staging a significant incursion into Canada. To honour the presence of Ismailis (who number about 75,000 across Canada) and all Muslims who arrive daily to Canada from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the Aga Khan has commissioned three new works in architecture designed by extraordinary architects: the Ottawa Centre for the Aga Khan Development Network and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, both designed by the sublime Japanese modernist Fumihiko Maki; and the Ismaili Centre, with its vast prayer hall to be designed by Charles Correa and constructed on the same site as the Toronto museum. This is the first time for Maki and Correa to build in Canada.

Their contributions to the built legacy rising up in this country are much anticipated.

Maki and Correa are both elder statesmen of modernism although their architecture and their personalities differ dramatically. Maki is a reserved, gentle presence who sat upright with arms crossed for much of the gala dinner honouring the Aga Khan. He is currently designing the new United Nations building in New York City. His anthropomorphic structures in Japan have embraced the wonders of high technology. The Fujisawa Gymnasium (1984) is a shell structure in which layered membranes of stainless steel float on long-span steel trusses like silver clouds. The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium (1990) is another of Maki's famous shell structures.

For the Ottawa Centre, Maki offers a more restrained modern form that is carefully sited along Sussex Drive next to the Saudi Arabian embassy. The building -- part embassy, part private residence -- has been conceived as a pavilion in a park with terraces, plazas and balconies extending into the landscape. A billowing glass roof covers the interior courtyard. Schematic design is currently being completed, and construction will start within the next year.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto by Maki will be the first of its kind in the English-speaking world and is expected to house artifacts from renowned collections that include ceramics, metalwork and paintings from all periods of Islamic history. This has the potential to be a remarkable forum for Torontonians and tourists to the city. The collection will include a 1052 edition of Avicenna's Qanun fi'l Tibb (The Canon of Medicine).

In contrast to Maki's restrained manner, Correa is an effusive man with a larger-than-life persona. A major urbanist in India, his architectural legacy has to do with interpreting modern architecture through the rich, vernacular traditions of building in India -- contemporary art centres conceived as gardens within gardens and high-rise apartment towers with plenty of cross-ventilation. He has worked at all scales, from the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial to master-planning the New Bombay, an edge city for two-million people. Five years ago, Correa won an international competition to design the Ismaili Centre in Toronto.

Both Toronto buildings, scheduled to open by 2008, will share a site on Wynford Drive located to the east of the Don Valley Parkway. Moriyama & Teshima Architects are the Toronto-based joint venture partners for all three Aga Khan projects.

War and earthquake produce untold stories of devastation. But, through a vast network of independent institutions, the Aga Khan has countered devastation with a manmade force of reinvention. To give a sense of how deep the work of the Aga Khan runs, beyond his work in advancing architecture, you need to appreciate that there is the Aga Khan Development Network that has started cellphone companies in Kabul, Afghanistan and redeveloped flagging hotels in East Africa and Asia. Credit co-operatives in India and Pakistan have been initiated to make credit available to poor rural and urban communities. They're important so that poor people with trickling incomes and no assets can secure loans just like the middle class. The Aga Khan health-services network provides primary and curative health care in India, Kenya, Pakistan, through 325 health centres, dispensaries, hospitals and diagnostic centres. The Aga Khan University has been developed in Karachi, while the University of Central Asia is located on three campuses in some of the most remote areas of the world where computer networks allow post-secondary classes to be held in the mountainous Khorog, Tajikista; Tekeli, Kazakhstan, and Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic.

The Aga Khan is many personas wrapped into a single man. He is a spiritual leader for the approximately 25-million Ismailis who live in two dozen countries around the world. He is one of the world's greatest leaders in development, whose work caused the president of the World Bank James Wolfensohn to heap sincere thanks and praise on the Aga Khan during his tribute speech at the Vincent Scully awards gala. Wolfensohn described himself as 'the leader of the groupies of the Aga Khan' and looking back on his 10 years as World Bank leader, concluded that the Aga Khan's dedication to improving the human environment made him stand out as an icon.

The Aga Khan is a Harvard-educated man who exudes the authority and calm that come from a privileged life. But he has also seen the dehumanizing grit of poverty and decided long ago to do something about it.

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