MHI on numerous occasions has attempted to explain Islamic Architecture particularly at the Awards for Architecture ceremonies. The following is the link to one of his speeches in which he explains the key concepts that drive Islamic Architecture and its revival in the world.
The article highlights some of the architectural concerns that MHI deals with on an ongoing basis through the Agakhan Awards for Architecture. In this respect MHI is well ahead.
Take the time to be timeless
For The Calgary Herald
Monday, January 08, 2007
Over the holidays, I reflected on Calgary's obsession with wanting to become a city noted for its iconic architecture. It seems as if every new building is being touted as iconic -- EnCana's The Bow and Germain Hotel to name just two.
"Iconic architecture" is the buzzword today not only for architects and developers, but also for those promoting economic development and tourism. The term was coined by Charles Jencks, author of Iconic Buildings: The Power of Enigma, published in 2005. In it, he discusses how, since the unveiling of Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, a number of international architects have created iconic buildings that equally court publicity and controversy for their cities.
To me, the quest for iconic architecture has become a challenge to see who can create more media attention for the weirdest, wildest or wackiest building in the world. What is touted as iconic today may well be moronic in a decade or so. Instead, I think we should strive for timeless architecture, something where public appreciation grows, not declines over time.
This led me to research "what is timeless architecture?" A quick Google search resulted in thousands of sites, most of which were architectural firms promising timeless architecture, but none defining what that is.
One of the questions I asked is, "What is the period of time needed to determine that a building is timeless?" In Calgary, we have only 100 years of architectural history or four generations, while other cities have more than 1,000 years of history and 40 generations. In the ArchNet discussion forum, one contributor thought you should wait at least 500 years to determine if a building is timeless.
In another article, Frieda le Roux indicated appearance is only one factor which contributes to timelessness of an architectural design. Others include how the building is linked to its site and how it incorporates local materials and craftsmanship. She also pointed out all architecture styles which have withstood the test of time take the local climate and landscape into account.
Nikos Salingaros and Terry Mikiten in an academic article looked at how natural selection over time determines which architectural buildings and styles survive and which become extinct. They identified Francis Heylighen's (a professor at the Free University of Brussels) seven factors for architectural fundamentals -- simplicity, novelty, utility, formality, authority, publicity and conformity -- as key to the natural selection of architecture. The authors suggested an eighth factor -- encapsulation. It got more complex from there, so I decided to create a layman's checklist for timeless architecture.
My seven characteristics of "timeless" architecture are:
- Visual: This is the "WOW" factor so often talked about. Like any good piece of public art, the building must capture the public's imagination visually, which in turn causes you to study it longer. It is not something dismissed at a glance;
- 5-I's: It must inspire community pride. The design must be intelligent from a functional perspective. Does it function well for its intended use, as well as being adaptable to future uses? It must be imaginative in its integration of design, technology and materials. It must be inviting i.e. does it have a welcoming entrance? It must be designed with integrity. Is it with community values such as the environment and sustainability;
- Evolutionary: The building must build on the existing principles of architectural practice and design. It should link the present with the past in a meaningful way, locally, nationally and internationally;
- Revolutionary: The building should in some way break or challenge the rules of architectural practice, so that it is unique;
- Catalytic: The architecture must inspire architects and developers to rethink the way they design buildings. It should set standards which future generations of architects and developers aspire to achieve;
- Memorable: There must be something about the building's design, the site and/or materials used that allow you to instantly recall the building months, even years later;
- Sense of Place: It should enhance the sense of place specific to its site, by building on the architecture in the immediate area. A good example is how all the sandstone buildings along Stephen Avenue each have their own character, yet they work together to create a unique sense of place in Calgary and Canada.
Here's hoping that over the next few years, Calgary will have some new "timeless" buildings that we'll want to preserve for, not only 50 years, but 500 years.
Richard White is the director of operations and communications at Riddell Kurczaba Architecture.
He is the hereditary imam of Shiite Ismaili Muslims – and known for his development network and wealth. But Karim Aga Khan is also well-versed in architecture. Philip Jodidio spoke with him
Karim Aga Khan: "I have always tried to keep in mind the environment in which the building will exist. I personally don't like decontextualization"
How did you become interested in architecture so early on?
Karim Aga Khan: I traveled a lot between the years 1957 and 1967. During my travels I encountered a form of poverty that I had not known before. Anyone who visited the slums of Karachi, the mountains in Karakoram, or even the suburbs of Bombay or Calcutta in 1957 saw an indescribable poverty, which was visible foremost in people's living conditions. My interest in architecture focused therefore on the question of how to improve the quality of life among the poorest of the poor.
How did you want to achieve this?
Aga Khan: Back then building was all about realizing the highest possible profit for investments – whether in a school, a hospital, or an apartment. But my attitude towards building projects changed completely. While consumer societies can build something and then tear it down, poor societies cannot afford to do this. And architecture is the only art which directly reflects poverty. Music and literature do not reflect poverty in a comprehensible manner. Architecture, however, inevitably shows quality of life or the absence thereof.
The late 18th century mausoleum of Timur Shah Durrani, Shah of Afghanistan. The building was recently reconstruced with the aid of the Aga Khan Trust (photo)
In the 1950s you had the Aga Khan School built in Nairobi.
Aga Khan: What was difficult back then was considering further development. If you built a hospital in 1958, what would happen to it twenty or thirty years later? Many things were foreseeable, others were not. Foreseeable was only the worsening of the destitution.
You personally visited the construction sites...
Aga Khan: The Imamate was responsible for most of what was being built there. So I went and saw what was happening there. You learn a lot about poverty when you see how the people in these countries live – and when you speak with them. You don't learn that in books.
If you were to name a building that had influenced you the most, which would it be?
Aga Khan: I couldn't name an individual architect, but I have worked a lot with architects who have specialized in "programmatic" buildings, as I would call them, that is, buildings such as hospitals and universities. It was hardly possible to work very closely together with them, because too many projects were being built at the same time. In response to the question about which buildings have impressed me, I would say the Ahmad-Ibn-Tulun Mosque in Cairo is one example. It is unbelievably plain, yet no building is more impressive.
Modern Islamic Art: The entrance of the congregation hall of the Ismaili Muslims in Dubai | (photo)
In the 1960s you built your Costa Smeralda Resort on Sardinia. Do you draw a clear dividing line between this project and the architecture you dealt with as Imam?
Aga Khan: On the one hand, yes, on the other hand, no. If you build on private initiative, you are looking for economic profits. Schools and hospitals, on the other hand, at least ours, are non-profit projects. As a rule, these buildings are not constructed in order to obtain a maximum of profit. My building projects have one thing in common: I have always tried to keep in mind the environment in which the building will exist. I personally do not like "decontextualization."
How do you understand the term?
Aga Khan: I don't like it when an architect seeks conflict with nature. It is not appropriate. On Sardinia we had the unusual situation that there was no housing at all at the time. The only people in the area were shepherds, who kept their herds there in the summer. One green pasture. And everything in this area was small: the mountains, the vegetation, even the people. If skyscrapers had been built in this environment, the outcome would have been an absolute disaster.
It seems as if your projects clearly changed when you built the Aga Kahn University in Karachi at the beginning of the 1970s.
Aga Khan: The search for suitable architects was very time-consuming back then. We couldn't find anyone who was experienced in building universities, and in the Islamic world. So we had a competition. The Boston architecture agency Tom Payette followed our request and undertook numerous trips to explore the architectural diversity of the Islamic world.
Many of the buildings that Tom Payette's people studied were ecclesiastical buildings. In your view, does architecture have religious expression – even with buildings such as the Aga Khan University?
Cover of "Under the Eaves of Architecture"(photo)
Aga Khan: In Islamic architecture you can often sense a spirituality – not only in buildings that serve as houses of worship. There is an explicit reference in the Koran between architecture and references to the afterlife. Buildings make a statement on the value of the environment. Sensory impressions also play a role: fragrances, sounds, music or water. The Azhar Park is a good example of this. Many visitors to this Cairo park can feel its spirituality.
Many of the projects selected for your prize, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, value the well-being of the people. Is it at all concerned with architecture as it is understood in the West?
Aga Khan: Yes, it's true. The award was created to honor quality of life. In fact, we see this as a moral obligation. Most buildings in developing countries cannot be measured with Western standards.
Recently you finished a new Ismaelite center in Dubai. It is the opposite of the skyscraper architecture that is currently popular there. Did you want to make a statement with it?
Aga Khan: The building boom there has purely economic grounds and does not concern religious buildings. What I build should be oriented on human standards. The debate about the highest building in the world has to do with ambition, vanity, and pride, or whatever you want to call it. These motives play no role in our value system.
You have given two contracts to Japanese star architect Fumihiko Maki – the delegation building of the Ismaelite Imamate in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. For your conditions a surprising decision.
Aga Khan: Maki was the obvious choice, for a specialty of Japanese architects is to combine cultural legacy with modernity. I can say to Maki: I would like this building to incorporate the value system of the past, but don't design it so esoterically that the effect is overwhelming.
"Under the Eaves of Architecture. The Aga Khan: Builder and Patron." Prestel Verlag, Munich, 59 euros. Translated from English by Martin Wittmann.
Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce
Interview Prince Karim Aga Khan IV
"The Core of the Terrorist Problem Is Political"
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the hereditary imam of Shiite Ismaili Muslims, argues that today's Middle Eastern terrorists are fueled by political motivations and not religion.
Rasem Badran's Architecture
Building in Context
An architecture exhibition in Germany shows works by Rasem Badran, one of the most influential architects in the Arab world. Youssef Hijazi introduces the artist
Building Things the World Has Never Seen Before
Having been awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, Zaha Hadid is currently at the zenith of her success. Melanie Weidemüller met the star architect, artist, and diva at a press conference in London
Published: 10.08.2007 - Last modified: 10.08.2007
A different version of the same interview.
THE PROCESSES OF CHANGE
INTERVIEW WITH HIS HIGHNESS
THE AGA KHAN
LONDON, 6 MARCH 2007
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.
P J: Is it true that you had originally considered studying architecture or engineering?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 specialize 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 year 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: Yes.
PJ: At that time, did you have a specific interest in the architecture of Islam?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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, 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. 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 organizations.
Obviously these were programmes that were running and, therefore, what 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. 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 lsmaili community?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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.
Today, the nature of medicine has changed enormously. The duration of hospitalization 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, hospitalization 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...
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 lbn 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 more remarkable space.
PJ: The notion of space you refer to not necessarily only ancient, it could be modern as well.
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 decontextualization. I feel uncomfortable if an architect willfully 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 optimize 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 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 organizations 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 veryearly on as a necessbuildings and the ability to move in a pleasant environment was seen ity 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 1 960s.
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.
His Highness the Aga Khan: cy 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 givBuilding 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 insufficiene 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-uI-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?”
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 lmamat?”
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 umma and even outside the umma, 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 synthesize 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 Koran, 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. 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 recognize 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 Age 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 recognize 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: I think that the Award must evolve. Institutions that do not evolve tend to get marginalized. There are needs ahead of us which must be addressed by the Award. The biggest concern I would have is to recognize 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 liberalized 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.
The process of urbanization 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 urbanization 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.
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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: One of the factors leading to the Award was what 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.
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 problem of wanting to underwrite the full acceptance of the modern programme and the modern building 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 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 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, they have not created, in the view of the Juries, that exceptional building which is of global meaning. It is true 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 Jamatkhana in Dubai that calls on Fatimid tradition in design conceived by Rami El Dahan and Soheir Farid 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan: The great expansion in construction there has to do with buildings that do 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?
His Highness the Aga Khan; Absolutely. The fact is, however, that in the Middle East we are in a region that better justified such contexualization. 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 lslamicize 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 anticultural 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 lsmaili Imamat building in Ottawa, about the value of light.
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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.
His Highness the Aga Khan: is tlf the mandate to the architect o 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 lsozaki 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 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 lmam?
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 lmam 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.
His Highness the Aga Khan: 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 and dunya 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.
From “Under the Eaves of Architecture” by Philip Jodidio, Pages 36-45
Last edited by kmaherali on Tue Sep 21, 2010 4:34 pm, edited 3 times in total
Spiritual isles in an urban sea
Houses of worship
From Friday's Globe and Mail
August 16, 2007 at 6:06 PM EDT
For Islamic communities, mosques are more than places of worship. These buildings have always been spiritual hubs, and the urban mosque was historically also the foundation for public health and education (through attached clinics and madrassas), the birthplace of the idea of the university, and the locus of civic waterworks (obligatory ablutions for worship meant Islamic cities had potable water when medieval European towns had no clean water, drinking weak wine and beer to cut bacteria).
The squares in front of large mosques served to focus both political expression and commercial vitality, with endless souks ranging around them. To visit the Masjid Al-Jami in Old Delhi, the Great Mosque of Aleppo in Syria, or the architect Sinan's intimate Sokullu Mehmet Pasha in Istanbul is to see a religious building in organic unity with its urban context.
Two new Lower Mainland mosques by the Vancouver architectural firm of Studio Senbel demonstrate a new confidence in the place of the mosque in Canadian cities, and an emerging conviction that these are now institutions at ease with the diverse neighbourhoods in which they sit.
What is intriguing is that one of the two Studio Senbel mosques reaches out to nature, while the other speaks quietly to the polyglot streets around it.
On a tour of Burnaby's Masjid Al-Salaam with Sharif Senbel, I was intrigued by how his design balances engagement with the city's Canada Way-linked civic centre on one side, and on the other ties to a range of municipal parkland.
With a noble courtyard facing onto the city and a buff-coloured, curving brick wall along the main avenue, the mosque enters the orbit of other important public buildings in Vancouver's most architecturally interesting suburb, a presence that will be even more evident when the mosque's minaret is completed.
But the real surprise is on its other, park side. The mosque's main prayer hall has large windows looking out to the changing seasons of the park behind it. There are theological reasons for this aspect of the Senbel design. The Koran is filled with passages describing human ambition humbled before the power of nature — manifestations of the will of Allah — and many of its Suras (sections) are named after animals, giving the messages universal resonance.
Islam, it should also be noted, describes paradise as a garden. It is no accident that the colour green appears on the flags of many countries where Muslims predominate.
The second Studio Senbel building can be found in Port Coquitlam, where the corner of Kingsway and Jane has to be one of the most unlikely sites imaginable for a bold new mosque drawing on a wide range of Islamic architectural traditions.
On one side of Al-Hidayah Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre is a church and Christian daycare, on another a string of auto-repair joints, on the third newish condos, and on the fourth, an industrial zone. In this heterogeneous setting, the new mosque is quietly assertive in its rich historical references and splendid small garden, an island of architectural integrity in a sea of suburban banality.
Mr. Senbel's design (winner of a 2004 Faith and Form Religious Architecture Award) here marks a certain maturing of the place of mosques in the neighbourhoods of the Lower Mainland. No one driving along Kingsway could miss the building, and none could miss the symbols and shapes that denote it as a place of Islamic worship. The Cairo-born architect says he had the support of local planners, politicians and most neighbours at every stage of the rezoning and construction process, and wanted a mosque that did not hide or apologize for its presence.
The quiet confidence of the Studio Senbel design (the firm includes his architect father, Wagdy, and brother Maged, a professor of urban design) and its intimate insertion between commercial strip and residential zone demonstrate rising confidence among Muslims, even in a place like Port Coquitlam, where they are a small minority.
Many mosques in the Lower Mainland are subdued to the point of invisibility. Some are in converted halls or former Vancouver churches, such as the one on 8th Avenue west of Cambie; aside from the period just after Friday prayers, few realize the mosque is there. Richmond granted exemptions to Agricultural Land Reserve restrictions for religious buildings, and a number of mosques and related schools moved there. But these religious buildings are far from Richmond's daily life, all but invisible to their host communities save for quick glimpses from Highway 99.
Vancouver's Ismaili community is responsible for two of the most architecturally ambitious Islamic religious buildings in the area. The North Shore Jamatkhana (which means both community and place of prayer) is a conversion by architect Farouk Noormohamed of a former West Vancouver tennis club into a splendidly detailed, architecturally focused centre of worship.
Because it is a conversion surrounded by a parking lot, little of the splendour within is evident from the street.
Following on the Ismaili Centre near the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, Burnaby is home to the second of the major Jamatkhanas to be built in Western countries under the direction of the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili community. Now known as the Darkhana Jamatkhana, it was designed by Telus Science Centre architect Bruno Freschi and completed in 1984. The Burnaby prayer hall is one of the most splendid contemporary interiors in British Columbia, with a powerfully expressed cast-concrete structure and richly ornamented window surrounds.
The exterior, however, is low key to a fault, lacking the urban presence one might expect for a key Canadian building for this branch of Shia Islam. Reflecting on his design, Mr. Freschi is frank in opining that he may have "toned down" too many of the more assertive exterior architectural features, anticipating a reaction by residents of nearby neighbourhoods that never really gathered steam. His design was even "sunk" somewhat to reduce its profile and visual impact on local residents.
But Canada's Ismaili community is now much more secure and architecturally assertive, as demonstrated by the next of these hub Jamatkhanas, now under construction in Toronto and designed by India's most prominent architect, Charles Correa of Mumbai.
For the Port Coquitlam mosque, Sharif Senbel had a fraction of the per-square-foot budget of Lower Mainland Jamatkhanas, or even some of the Richmond mosques.
Attitudes about the Islamic fact of the new Canada have evolved substantially in the past quarter-century. I, for one, am proud that a bold mosque with a tall, gold-topped minaret can now take its place beside auto-body shops, stucco condos and a good-neighbour Christian church.
The Aga Khan builds a better world
Kelvin Browne, National Post
Published: Saturday, January 12, 2008
UNDER THE EAVES OF ARCHITECTURE
THE AGA KHAN: BUILDER AND PATRON
By Philip Jodidio
Prestel 206 pp., $97
"This book is not about architecture," says Philip Jodidio, author of Under the Eaves of Architecture, the Aga Khan: Builder and Patron. He explains that, "It's about a man and his commitment to bettering the life of many through improvements to the physical environment."
The man is Prince Karim Aga Khan. He's the 49th hereditary iman, or spiritual leader, of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He succeeded his grandfather in this role in 1957 at the age of 20. Approximately 15 million Ismailis live in more than 25 countries, including Canada and the United States.
Among other things, the book documents the winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that began in 1977, illustrates the successes of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Program, and describes four fascinating new projects in Canada. These include the delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, the Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana, the Aga Khan Museum, and the gardens that unite these two projects on a single site in Toronto. What's unexpected is not the architecture the book showcases, which is mostly excellent, but the philosophy of the Aga Khan that maintains good architecture is a foundation for a better life.
This belief is beyond a narrow sense of architecture contributing to a spiritual life via religious buildings as you might as sume the Aga Khan's focus might be. In an interview in the book from March, 2007, His Highness says, "In much of Islamic architecture you find a sense of spirituality. You find that spirituality not only in religious building. If you think of the history of landscape architecture and you relate that to references to heaven in the Koran, you find very strong statements about the value of the environment, the responses to the senses, to scent, to noise, music or water. You do not treat these spaces as theological spaces, you treat them as spaces that aim to give you a sense of spiritual happiness."
The environment, built and natural, is intrinsic to our quality of life. This isn't just rhetoric or someone getting on a trendy bandwagon. The Aga Khan was a pioneer environmentalist. One of his first projects in the early 1960s was on the beautiful but largely undeveloped Costa Smeralda. He gave himself the dual mandate of raising the standard of living of people there and, at the same time, protecting the remarkable landscape. Only recently have other developers tried to do both.
The Aga Khan says that when he first assumed his role and began to travel the world, he came into contact with poverty that was indescribable. Because of this, it's understandable his interest in architecture was initially driven by how it could help improve the quality of life of the really poor. Ahead of his time again, he then realizes that, "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 into place has to be conceived with a different view of time than it would be in other parts of the world."
He goes on to explain the difficulties of a western conception of architecture in poor countries and how important it is not impose this approach in terms of what is needed from a programmatic perspective or how a building should look. With the overwhelming influence of the modern (and western) approach to building in the 1960s and '70s, literally using the local vernacular or the lessons it could give vis-a-vis sustainability seldom happened. While it seems obvious now, this insight was truly enlightened 40 years ago.
When Mr. Jodidio asks why the Aga Khan created an award for architecture, the notion of sustainability is implicit in his response. "One of the factors leading to the award was what I would call the deconstruction of the cultural inheritance … We worried about the loss of cultural continuity in the physical environment … there was no serious analysis of traditions and how they came into place, or how they could be revived and used in modern buildings."
At the conclusion of the interview, the Aga Khan reiterates his holistic notion of the place of architecture in life. He says, "You cannot conceive of quality of life change without integrating the physical environment. Everyday you live under a roof."
Islamic traditions influence American architecture, culture, says speaker
Published: Sunday, April 24, 2011
Updated: Sunday, April 24, 2011 22:04
Although it seems that Arab presence in America is recent, Dr. Hussein Rashid would argue to the contrary. In his lecture, "Everyday Art: the Islamic Contribution on American Arts," Rashid argues that America has a long tradition of Islamic influence in art and culture.
Rashid's lecture Thursday afternoon focused around the portrayal and significance of Islam in architecture, graphic art, literary art, television and music.
Fatima Hassan Ali, public relations for Aga Khan Council of Northern Texas, explained that the purpose of these lectures is to "engage" and "educate" non-Muslim audiences about Islamic topics.
The vision behind the design was to showcase Malaysia as a global power. It was to symbolize the nation’s “courage, ingenuity, initiative, determination, energy, confidence, optimism, advancement and zest,” said the prime minister of the time. Whew, those were high expectations! But the Petronas Towers went on to win the international Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004.
A travelling exhibition on Islamic architecture happened to be on display at the Museum of Art when I was there. Interestingly, it was from the Aga Khan Museum so there was a connection between that and the Petronas Towers. The Aga Khan himself had opened the exhibit and in his remarks said that while the architectural heritage in the Muslim world was rich and diverse it was often neglected; he wanted to change that through his organization’s awards.
The Aga Khan exhibition was a crash course on Islamic architecture, explaining, for example, that although figurative images are restricted in the Muslim religion, other high art forms were developed, particularly calligraphy and geometry.
The article highlights some of the architectural concerns that MHI deals with on an ongoing basis through the Agakhan Awards for Architecture.
How to Rebuild Architecture
"Architecture’s disconnect is both physical and spiritual. We’re attempting to sell the public buildings and neighborhoods they don’t particularly want, in a language they don’t understand. In the meantime, we’ve ceded the rest of the built environment to hacks, with sprawl and dreck rolling out all around us.
It wasn’t always like this. For millenniums, architects, artist and craftspeople — a surprisingly sophisticated set of collaborators, none of them conversant with architectural software — created buildings that resonated deeply across a wide spectrum of the population. They drew on myriad styles that had one thing in common: reliance on the physical laws and mathematical principles that undergird the fundamental elegance and practicality of the natural world."
"When we look around us tonight there can be no question about the power of architecture to lift a people's heart. We believe that each of the nine projects that we celebrate will do the same for its users. As we continue our journey, we hope to help others understand how architecture in Muslim societies can be invested with this same power to serve and to move those who experience its form and the places it makes." (MHI, Samarkand, Saturday, 1992, September 19 )
The article below echoes the sentiments expressed above.
When Beauty Strikes
Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.
It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day. But it also reminds me of a worldview, which was more common in eras more romantic than our own.
This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.
By arousing the senses, beauty arouses thought and spirit. A person who has appreciated physical grace may have a finer sense of how to move with graciousness through the tribulations of life. A person who has appreciated the Pietà has a greater capacity for empathy, a more refined sense of the different forms of sadness and a wider awareness of the repertoire of emotions.
John O’Donohue, a modern proponent of this humanistic viewpoint, writes in his book “Beauty: The Invisible Embrace”: “Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. … Without beauty the search for truth, the desire for goodness and the love of order and unity would be sterile exploits. Beauty brings warmth, elegance and grandeur.”
The art critic Frederick Turner wrote that beauty “is the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action. It enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe.”
By this philosophy, beauty incites spiritual longing.
Today the word eros refers to sex, but to the Greeks it meant the fervent desire to reach excellence and deepen the voyage of life. This eros is a powerful longing. Whenever you see people doing art, whether they are amateurs at a swing dance class or a professional painter, you invariably see them trying to get better. “I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart,” Vincent van Gogh wrote.
Some people call eros the fierce longing for truth. “Making your unknown known is the important thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote. Mathematicians talk about their solutions in aesthetic terms, as beautiful or elegant.
Others describe eros as a more spiritual or religious longing. They note that beauty is numinous and fleeting, a passing experience that enlarges the soul and gives us a glimpse of the sacred. As the painter Paul Klee put it, “Color links us with cosmic regions.”
These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.
Over the past century, artists have had suspicious and varied attitudes toward beauty. Some regard all that aesthetics-can-save-your-soul mumbo jumbo as sentimental claptrap. They want something grittier and more confrontational. In the academy, theory washed like an avalanche over the celebration of sheer beauty — at least for a time.
For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence). Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?
In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.
The shift to post-humanism has left the world beauty-poor and meaning-deprived. It’s not so much that we need more artists and bigger audiences, though that would be nice. It’s that we accidentally abandoned a worldview that showed how art can be used to cultivate the fullest inner life. We left behind an ethos that reminded people of the links between the beautiful, the true and the good — the way pleasure and love can lead to nobility.
In the history of things, gardens come first and last: the Garden of Eden at the beginning of Creation and the Garden of Paradise at the end of time for those who have done good works. These garden bookends promise shelter, sustenance, and experiences beyond human comprehension.
Much of the Qur’an is concerned with humans leading a righteous life in order to prepare for the Day of Judgement, when they will enter Heaven or Hell. Heaven is described in the Qur’an as jannat, a word also translated as garden. Thus, the connection between Paradise and cool, green gardens with running water and fruit trees runs through the entire history of Islam.
Humayun’s Tomb (Image: Archnet)
Royal patrons created historically important pleasure gardens in many parts of the Islamic world. In his Kitab al-majalis wa’l-musayarat (Book of Homiletic Sessions and Accomplishments on Journeys), the jurist-scholar Qadi al-Numan reports on the Fatimid Caliph-Imam as a great constructor of gardens, irrigation works, canals, and reservoirs.
Painting from the Diwan of Sultan Mirza, dated Iran, 1582. This courtly party may be seen as an earthly paradise which evokes heaven. (Image & text: Spirit & Life catalogue
The monumental pavilions in Islamic architecture often looked out upon a flat open space, known as a maydan, that often included waterworks and paths. In some instances gardens created backdrops for architectural monuments such as the mausoleum of Emperor Humayun in Delhi, India. Often, there was a vibrant interaction between the designers of the gardens due to trade across vast territories and the mobility of the craftsmen.
In both secular and sacred contexts flowers, fruits, and trees were considered acceptable forms of ornament. Even in cemeteries where the tombstones are inscribed with the names of the deceased and prayers, the surroundings were planted as gardens with grass and trees.
Several paintings depicted figures enjoying picnics, concerts, and philosophical discussions in garden settings while flowers, birds, and animals decorated pottery and metalworks across the Islamic world.
Bowl, early 13th century Iran (Image: Aga Khan Museum)
This bowl in the collection of the Aga Khan Museum, has an aquatic theme where leaves and stems fill the sides and the fish swim in the base portrayed as the sea. ‘Water is an important symbol in Islam and gardens with axial pools filled with fish were seen as metaphors for the heavenly garden.’1
James L. Westcoat Jr. “Gardens, pavilions and tents: The arts of shelter,” Architecture in Islamic Arts: Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum, published by Aga Khan Trust for Culture
1Spirit & Life Catalogue, Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, published by Aga Khan Trust for Culture
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