Why architecture matters: — By Nazim Karim – Part one & two on the Ismaili

Later this week, Mawlana Hazar Imam will preside over the 14th cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. To mark this occasion, we explore some of the important questions surrounding the theme of architecture and the built environment.

In society today, building projects are often seen in terms of cost and return on investment. But the implication of this narrow view of architecture can have lasting consequences on the quality of our lives.

Great architecture has been referred to as a symphony of art and science. Such orchestration requires a balance between form and function. “Architecture is not just to fulfil Man’s need for shelter but also to fulfil Man’s belief in the nobility of his existence on earth,” wrote Eero Saarinen, architect of the iconic TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York City.

What is architecture?

Architecture is the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings and spaces. It refers to the activity of enclosing space for a particular purpose. In the process, it connects us to our physical environment, and organises empty space according to the requirements of a particular community or individual. It may be purely functional or may also have an aesthetic purpose. Most people in the world spend at least half of their lives inside a building, whether it be a home or a workspace, and this environment affects our senses, emotions, and general quality of life.

At various times in history, architecture has been used as a means to represent or legitimate authority, from the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman Coliseum, and the Vatican, which was built to symbolise the power of the Catholic Church.

But architecture is also a medium of communication about what is significant to a society, and is reflective of its identity. Thus, it represents a group’s collective history and memory, portraying its values within a particular framework. “Architecture begins to matter,” writes architect Paul Goldberger, “when it brings delight and sadness and perplexity and awe, along with a roof over our heads.”

In Islamic tradition, architecture has served as an exploration of the relationship between faith, culture, and identity, illustrating the diversity of expression in Muslim cultures and how each of these approach the needs of modern society. The late Professor Mohammed Arkoun had said that architecture is a “totalising activity,” in that it encompasses issues of art, culture, history, urbanism, tradition, modernity, and how all of these elements come to be expressed in physical form.

Memory and Modernity

The debate between tradition and modernity has been a source of tension amongst architects and critics for many decades, no less so in the Muslim world. Every architectural design results from a choice – to emulate and reflect the past; to reformulate the past in a contemporary vision of society;  navigating an in-between course, combining modern technology, materials and styles, with cultural symbols of the past; or to deliberately create a disjunction, to resist or reject the past in an attempt to embrace a future vision for society.

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness,”  said world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, whose designs, such as the Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, while heralded and labeled as contemporary masterpieces, are considered by some as too futuristic, with little reflection of the past or its environs.

In contrast, famed Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy expressed traditional Arab architecture in a modern vocabulary, saying that “If you want to design for the people, you have to go and understand their way of life.” Reference to local traditions, materials, climate, and culture, were paramount for him, especially in his native Egypt, and he said, “Tradition is not necessarily old fashioned, and it is not synonymous with stagnation.”

It is this journey, of choosing the direction between past, present, and future, of retaining a tradition or discarding it, of expressing continuity or advocating change, that confronts each architect when formulating a new design.

Architecture Redefined

It was this tension between traditional design and the impetus to modernise, hence westernise, in the Muslim world, that concerned Mawlana Hazar Imam when he came to building his own institutions. It was also evident that the great Islamic monuments and historic sites had been neglected and were deteriorating; a sad reflection of their past significance and symbolism. The overly-Western styles of many contemporary buildings in parts of the Muslim world was unfortunate, and indigestible to those familiar with, and who appreciated the history and legacy of Islamic architecture.

In response, Hazar Imam established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977, with the purpose of renewing the rich and diverse traditions of Islamic architecture. The Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.

Source: The Ismaili

11 September 2019

Why architecture matters: Part two

We don’t often think about it, but architecture is everywhere. The philosopher and author Alain de Botton has said, “In an odd but quietly very important way, works of architecture ‘speak’ to us. Some buildings, streets and even whole cities seem to speak of chaos, aggression or military pride; others seem to be whispering to us of calm or graceful dignity, generosity or gentleness.”

In the first part of this article, we explored definitions of architecture, and the complexities involved in designing buildings and spaces in the modern world. If buildings and cities do indeed ‘speak’ to us, then what should they speak of?

Over recent years, there has been a broadening of the original definition of architecture and its significance; how it serves as a metaphor for society, a prism through which the several constituent elements that comprise a culture can be viewed with greater clarity; how a society expresses its world view; how it wishes to project its character to others and how, ultimately, it views itself.

“What the Muslim world needs today,” suggested Mawlana Hazar Imam in Cairo in 1989, “is more of those innovative architects that can navigate between the twin dangers of slavishly copying the architecture of the past and of foolishly ignoring its rich legacy.”

When development is viewed “only through the lens of an economic or materialistic conception, we seriously devalue and impoverish the idea,” says Professor Azim Nanji, suggesting that the quality of life of societies and individuals also encompasses their cultural and social lives, cornerstones of their identities. “Architecture is one significant manifestation of that sense of belonging and place,” he says, and reflects or affects how their daily lives are organised around spaces within which people interact with others. “It is through Architecture that they identify markers of their past and present. In a broader sense, it is as part of a total environment that they can explore their sense of being in the world,” he adds.

While extravagant, iconic buildings and their architects are the most celebrated in wider discourse, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is more concerned with recognising projects that: contribute positively to improve the built environment through their use of materials and technology; that reflect a culture’s traditions and history; that reflect a societies aspirations; and, that impact the community’s quality of life in an economic and practical manner. Modernisation, industrialisation, urbanisation, housing, sanitation, education, healthcare, public space, and the natural environment, have all factored in the selection process, over and above the artistic merits or design features of a project.

Architecture has an additional dimension also, as Hazar Imam said in Indonesia in 1995. “Spirituality and architecture, together, become a force that can build bridges between people and communities, and empower them to build a more harmonious and humane future.” The Aga Khan Award seminars and Jury deliberations are opportunities to discuss the objectives of architecture, its symbols, creativity, use, and impact in Muslim cultures.

Perhaps one of the most significant areas in which the Award has made an impact is in “shifting perspectives and thinking about Architecture and its relevance to Muslims and their immediate contexts of rapid change,” notes Professor Nanji, “and that beyond mere design there is a role for Architecture in promoting environmental and social betterment and of the continuing role of inherited architectural practices and spaces.” 

Significantly, he notes that the restoration of the architectural heritage of Muslims has also begun to receive greater attention, based on the activities of the Award. Through its identification of architectural excellence and practices, the Aga Khan Award has also raised awareness of why the built environment remains crucial in the development of Muslim societies and indeed, of all peoples sharing a planet facing multiple risks.

In 1998, Robert Campbell wrote in the Architectural Record that, “the Aga Khan Award is the wisest prize programme in architecture. It’s the most serious, the most thoroughly researched, the most thoughtful.” Maria Bertolucci, in a 1997 Metropolis magazine, went further, writing that the Award is “exceptional,” and that it “attempts to reframe the issues, establishing architecture as an integral element of Islamic culture, and fosters a modernity that embraces intellectual and technological progress, but not at the expense of cultural identity, spirituality or the earth.”

While it is difficult to quantify the impact of the Award on architects and buildings in the Muslim world, and although it is complicated to determine its practical influence on design, there can be little doubt that it has added much intellectual depth to discussions about buildings, urban design, and the built environment, even in countries beyond the Muslim world.

Source: The Ismaili

NAZIM KARIM | 11 September 2019

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