Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016 Ceremony

His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016 ceremony

His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016 ceremony – AKDN / Amir Hakim

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim

Your Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,
Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai
Your Highnesses
Excellencies
Distinguished guests

As-salaam-o-aleikum

It is a genuine pleasure to welcome you to the 2016 ceremony of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

As you may suspect, I have the privilege of attending many wonderful ceremonies as I carry out my responsibilities.  But this Architectural Award Ceremony is one of those that I look forward to with a special sense of anticipation.

Perhaps that is partly because it happens only once every three years – there is more time for the anticipation to build up!   But there is a much more important reason:  Architecture is the only art form which has a direct, daily impact on the quality of human life.

Again this year, the award shines a spotlight on six architectural masterpieces – calling attention to them not only within the professional community, but with the global public as well.  In doing so, we believe the Award can help instruct and inspire those who will shape the future of Global Architecture.   The Award seeks to guide and inspire better building in the future.

At the same time, of course, the Award Ceremony gives us a welcome opportunity to look back.  The purpose of the Award when it was first launched was to help renew one of the world’s great cultural legacies, the rich traditions of Islamic architecture.  Those traditions were being lost, we feared, amid a rush of modernising, westernising enthusiasms – depriving people everywhere of the insights, the intuitions and the idioms of some of the richest cultures in world history. 

There was a genuine sense of urgency about the effort to reclaim that precious heritage.

How appropriate it is that we meet this evening at this magnificent Fort, a beautiful example in its own right of thoughtful historic preservation.

As we gather in this special place – and for this special purpose – we hope to remind people everywhere, of all backgrounds and identities, of a powerful lesson: The way in which a thoughtful concern for the built environment can characterise an entire civilisation.

When I speak of a thoughtful concern for the built environment, I think of several qualities which the Award seeks to honour and to promote.  Let me mention just four of them.

I think, first, of how great architecture can integrate the past and the future – inherited tradition and changing needs.  We need not choose between looking back and looking forward; they are not competing choices, but healthy complements.  We can learn valuable lessons from history without getting lost in history; we can look boldly ahead without ignoring what has gone before.

Secondly, I think of how architectural excellence can integrate the Gifts of Nature and the potentials of the Human Mind.  Natural Blessings and Human Creativity are Divine gifts – and it is wrong to embrace one at the expense of the other.  The best architecture teaches us to engage with Nature respectfully; not by conquering or subduing it, nor by isolating ourselves away from it.  Our host country, the United Arab Emirates, itself offers impressive examples of integrating well the natural and the human environments.

A third quality we see in the projects we honour tonight is the balance between aesthetic inspiration and practical utility.  Throughout history, the challenges of change have been central to the architectural mission.  But today, the pace of change has been accelerating so fast that it sometimes seems overwhelming.

Technological changes have revolutionised our lives in communication and travel, industry and agriculture, medicine and education.  Natural changes – including Global Warming – also present central challenges.  In a globalised world, dangerous threats can circulate more widely and quickly: weapons and pollution, drugs and crime, disease and terrorism, poverty and violence.  One result has been an unprecedented increase in the migration of displaced peoples.

Some of these problems directly challenge the architectural world.  At a time when old ties of community seem to erode, a sense of discipline and personal responsibility can also be diluted.  In such contexts, we hear more about professional incompetence, deteriorating engineering and building standards, and even dishonest contracting practices.

All of these realities – technological, economic, social and ethical – present important challenges for responsible architecture.  The projects we honour tonight have addressed such challenges, each engaging with the particular demands of its own time and place, while expressing the important values of cultural continuity.

A fourth major value that the Award for Architecture seeks to highlight is the Spirit of Pluralism – an approach to life that welcomes difference and diversity – one that embraces diversity itself as a Gift of the Creator, honouring cultural differences as the valued legacies of our predecessors.

The Spirit of Pluralism has been central to the great achievements of past Islamic cultures, and it remains a central principle for these Awards.

One of the questions we addressed four decades ago was how the selection process for the Award could best reflect the pluralism of peoples and of their habitats.

One response was to set up a three year selection cycle – a schedule that would encourage wide-ranging discussion among a diversified array of participants.  Through the years, they have included architects, philosophers, artists, and historians from diverse faiths, cultures and places – people of different generations and genders.  I am happy to underline that three of the awardees this year are women architects.  We have drawn upon governmental and foundation friends, urban planners and village leaders, educators and researchers, engineers and financiers, and builders large and small.

To all who have contributed their time and talents to the Award process over the past three years – and down through all the years – we extend our deepest appreciation. 

The Spirit of the Award has been an inclusive one, valuing all manner of buildings and spaces from skyscrapers to mud huts, from residences to work and gathering spaces, from reforestation and financing projects to cemeteries, bridges and parks, from the accomplishments of signature architects to those of anonymous craftsmen.  This pluralistic approach may not echo the usual definition of the word “architecture”, but it is the closest we can get to the central inclusive message we want this Award to convey.

The jury again this year has explored projects that extend the boundaries of the architectural discipline itself, recognising that new knowledge sometimes emerges in the lines between old categories.  In doing so, they have acknowledged how the architectural endeavour can provide stages on which the tensions of our time can be choreographed and negotiated, bridging, for example, the gap between the cosmopolitan and the local.  Great architecture can remind us that Pluralism begins with difference, and that it does not require us to leave behind our cherished identities.  That is why Pluralism, the fourth of the qualities I have discussed, is so important to the architectural mission.

These four qualities, I would submit, are worth bearing in mind as we mark the Thirteenth Presentation of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture:  The integration of the Past and the Future, the harmony of Nature and Humanity, the Adaptation to Unprecedented Challenges, and the dedication to Pluralistic Ideals.

The six architectural projects we celebrate this evening reaffirm the Award’s Founding Principles, even as they help us project those principles into the programme’s fifth decade. 

The Holy Quran commands humankind to shape our earthly environment, as good stewards of the Divine Creation.  In that spirit, in moments both of elation and  disappointment, we hope that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture will always point towards an architecture of optimism and harmony, a powerful force in elevating the quality of human life. 

Thank you.

Source: AKDN  Org

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