Byline: Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent
SO BOSTON GLOBE (BOGL)
Section: ARTS AND FILM
LP *The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is the most interesting architectural prize in the world because it deals with an issue that Boston and every other city is going to have to deal with sooner or later. That issue is simply the issue of difference. A world where everything once looked different is now turning, disastrously, into a world where everything looks the same.
TX For Boston, the problem is that our city resembles, more and more, every other modern city in the world. Indeed, some of the same architects who design for Singapore and Dallas design for Boston. It's no wonder the results turn out similar. Boston was once a place of unique qualities, a reddish-colored city made, in its older parts, of brick and granite. It was a city of narrow, sharply defined streets and squares. Certain building types, such as the three-decker, helped give it a special sense of place. Today, Boston is in danger of losing its redness, its streetscapes and its uniqueness.* For the Aga Khan, the problem is simply that Muslim cities just don't look Muslim any more. Like Boston, they tend to look a lot like Houston. * The Aga Khan, at least, is doing something about the problem. His architectural awards come out every three years. They go to buildings that are not only good architecture but also respond in some way to Muslim tradition. Just announced, the 1989 award-winners include 11 works that include a high-tech Arab Institute in Paris, the restoration of a mosque in Lebanon, the master plan for the city of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and slum redevelopment in Indonesia. One winning building was even designed by an American -- the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by the late Philadelphian Louis Khan, who is often regarded as the greatest architect since World War II. * The Aga Khan, now 53, is the leader of a religious sect called the Ismaili Muslims, a people scattered throughout Asia, Africa and * elsewhere. Some readers will recall his grandfather, the former Aga Khan, a fat potentate who appeared annually in American newsreels being ceremonially weighed while his followers piled up an equal weight of gold and jewels as a gift to him. (This practice has been abolished.) * About 15 years ago, the present Aga Khan became upset over the Westernization of Muslim architecture. He felt that Muslim history and culture were being obliterated. He started a progam to solve * that problem, a program now known as the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The trust is headquartered in Geneva, but much of its * activity takes place at Harvard and MIT (the Aga Khan himself is * Harvard '58), which jointly house the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. Here, Muslim scholars and architects meet for research and discussion. Professors Oleg Grabar of Harvard and William Porter of MIT served as members of this year's 9-member * jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. * What's so significant about the Aga Khan Award, what makes it important to a place like Boston, is that it's the only major prize for architecture in the world that tries seriously to look beyond a building's visual pizazz to consider the deeper issues of architecture. It asks two crucial questions: How should the present relate to the past? How should the local relate to the global? Should architects, let's say, in order to preserve the historic character of a place -- its past -- deliberately make their new buildings look like the older ones? Or does that approach lead to the fakery of a Disneyland? * The Aga Khan jury this year tended, rightly, to come down on both sides of both questions. It gave most of its prizes to buildings that were trying to be local and global at once, both contemporary and traditional. Thus, one award goes to the flashy, high-tech Arab Institute in Paris, which attempts, in glass and stainless steel, to update the pierced ceramic screen walls of Arab tradition. (Not at all successfully, in this critic's opinion, but at least it tries). Another goes to a new mosque in Saudi Arabia for what the jury calls "the effort to compose formal elements in a way that bespeaks the present and at the same time reflects the luminous past of Islamic societies." A primary school in Tunisia is praised for its "courageous exploration of traditonal architectural forms." * By raising such questions, the Aga Khan awards are a lesson and a warning to us all. If we don't heed that lesson, we'll soon be living in a worldwide horror show. That's because something basic has changed during this century. In the past, the world was filled with a zillion cultures, each producing a different kind of architecture -- grass huts here, igloos there, temples in Greece, bowfronts in Boston. The result was a built environment of fascinating diversity. Local architects worked within local traditions, governed by local climate, local materials, local skills, local lifestyles. Local comes from the Latin locus, which means place. The old world was a world of places. Different places. But today, all those once-diverse cultures are rapidly converging into a single worldwide culture. And if we don't watch out, the result is going to be a world without difference. A placeless world. A true horror. In Samarkand or San Diego -- or, heaven forbid, Boston -- you'll walk down the same street past the same McDonald's, hearing the same Muzak emanating from the same glass office towers. Our bright diverse planet will have declined into a boring gray soup of sameness and there will be no reason to travel any more. What's changed is that today you have to work to create a sense of place. In the past, you couldn't help it. Old Boston, for example, was a city of red-and pink-toned masonry because there were brickyards in Cambridge and granite quarries in Quincy. But today, if you build a granite building in Boston, as likely as not you've bought the granite in Argentina and had it cut in Italy. If you use brick, it may come from Mississippi. We're all together in one worldwide culture. If you do build here with granite or brick, you do it not because you're constrained by traditions or available materials but because you choose to. That's what's changed. Today, our cities are what we choose them to be. Unless we choose that they shall all be different, they will all look alike. The city must, thus, become a work of art. It must become a work of conscious artistic choice. That has never been true before. Taking all this to an extreme, you could say there are two choices for Boston. Either we can become Bostonland, a self-conscious imitation of our own past. Or we can become Everywhereland, an anonymous chunk of the worldwide sameness. * That's the dilemma the Aga Khan awards are fighting. The right answer, as they suggest, is a creative tension between those two extremes. It isn't easy. But it's the only way.
RCampb;10/31 NKELLY;11/06,19:01 ARCH5 Caption: PHOTO The National Assembly Building at Dhaka, Bangladesh is a winner * of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. @ART: PHOTO
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