The Spirit Behind the Aga Khan Awards

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page C01

In the West, the Aga Khan has an outsize profile as a multibillionaire,
owner of fast horses and fixture on British society pages, where the
odds are being weighed that divorce from his second wife, the Begum
Inaara, a former German pop singer with a law degree, could trim his
highness's fortune by $1 billion.

In the Muslim world, the Aga Khan is also larger than life. As a direct
descendant of the prophet Muhammad, the 67-year-old holds the hereditary
title of 49th spiritual leader to an estimated 20 million Shiite Ismaili
Muslims in 25 countries. In that role, he oversees a complex of
Geneva-based trusts dedicated to education and development.

Over nearly three decades, design has become an essential tool in his
efforts to bridge the gap between traditional Islamic societies and
today's world. In Cairo, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture funded the $30
million, 74-acre Al-Azhar Park, which was completed this summer. The
massive urban revitalization project transformed a 500-year-old dump
into an oasis of citrus and palms, with lake, waterfalls, sports
facilities and a restaurant.

At a ceremony today in Delhi, India, the ninth triennial Aga Khan Awards
for Architecture will be conferred on seven winners. With a payout of
$500,000, it's the world's most lavish design prize. Winning entries
combine design excellence with the humanistic spirit of Islam.
Worthiness can trump glamour.

The awards, which began in 1977, do not require that designers be
Muslim, only that their projects benefit Muslims. Thus the 2004 awards
include the tapering polygonal Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia, at 1,483 feet among the tallest buildings in the world. The
designer is Cesar Pelli, an Argentine architect with offices in New
Haven, Conn. An iconic library in Alexandria, Egypt, which resembles an
immense granite discus, was designed by Snohetta, a Norwegian team
recently chosen to design the museum complex at the World Trade Center
site in New York. For humanism, there is a prototype "earth dome"
emergency shelter made of sandbags, Velcro and barbed wire. The
structural system was devised by Nader Khalili, an Iranian-born
architect whose Cal-Earth Institute is based in Hesperia, Calif. He once
consulted with NASA to develop housing on the moon and dreams of
improving the living conditions of the "one-third of the planet" that
lacks adequate shelter.

The Aga Khan's efforts recently caught the attention of the National
Building Museum, which has decided to award him its top honor, the
Vincent Scully Prize, at a Washington gala Jan. 25. Museum director
Chase Rynd said the decision was based on design and scholarship, but he
acknowledged "the extra benefit" of promoting Muslim-Western dialogue.

"We did not choose him for any political reason but for what he is doing
in the design world," Rynd said. "There is such heightened interest in
the Muslim world, this hopefully will contribute to people's knowledge
and understanding."

To Khalili, the act of building is not apolitical. The architect
expressed awe that his modest mud homes had been linked with Pelli's
glistening towers. But in a telephone conversation from the construction
site of a deluxe four-bedroom dome -- being made with earth excavated
for a backyard swimming pool -- Khalili segued effortlessly into a
tirade against the intransigence of Third World bureaucracies, which for
years have refused to give his low-tech earth domes a chance.

We had talked last January, when he was trying to interest earthquake
relief agencies in Bam, Iran, in his shelters. They would have provided
quick, affordable, environmentally and culturally appropriate temporary
housing, he believes.

"Give me 1,000 soldiers and 100 architecture students, and I will build
a big part of Bam with the rubble," he repeated over the din of
construction. "Our biggest problem is that the bureaucracy is choking
the work we are doing."

The Aga Khan awards also will honor a weekend house on the Aegean coast
of Turkey, by architect Han Tumertekin, that is a model of progressive
regional modernism -- spare and glassy without appearing too Western.
Two restoration projects, a 12th-century Yemeni mosque and the
rehabilitation of Palestinian housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, won
praise, as did a primary school in Burkina Faso constructed by village
residents under the leadership of the chief's son, who studied
architecture in Berlin.

In a statement from his Aiglemont, his chateau in France, the Aga Khan
traced his interest in modern architecture to the 1970s. Originally the
point of the awards was to encourage a modern tradition in Islamic
architecture, one that did not mimic its glorious past or copy from
Western culture. The definition of architecture has been expanded to
include social progress and ecology, although no hospitals or industrial
plants have yet won awards. But buildings such as the Petronas Towers
and the Alexandria library are distinguished elements of contemporary
Islamic heritage.

"By mobilizing the best of its talents in association with those from
other religious backgrounds," the Aga Khan said, the Islamic world has
reversed "one of the greatest losses . . . namely the quality of its
physical expressions in buildings, public spaces and gardens."

Data on the 7,500 nominees and more than 85 winners since the inception
of the awards are being put online at, the Web site of
the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT. An
estimated 350,000 images of contemporary architecture from 1960 to the
present will be included.

"Where there was once a lack of direction, there is now a clear sense of
promise," the Aga Khan said. "The essence of this adventure may prove to
be valuable as we address other issues of great importance in the
Islamic world."

The Building Museum's Scully award carries a $25,000 stipend, which the
museum expects will go to charity.

"He does not need it," Rynd said, referring to the prize money.
"Apparently he doesn't. If he does, we're all in trouble."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company