On awards (3) Aga Khan Awards for Architecture

Appartments in Tehran, candidate project to the 2013 cycle

I once heard a sentence from an Architecture historian on how difficult it was to define architectural modernity from an Islamic or Arabic viewpoint (I know both terms represent different things, but for what he meant any of them could be used). He said it was still open to debate how an Islamic or Arabic rail station should look like.

In 1977 the Aga Khan, supreme religious leader of the Ismailites, set up an architectural award for projects that could deliver positive results for Islamic societies. The Aga Khan as a character is far from current western stereotypes: he is a monarch without land, spiritual leader for a part of the Islam, living in the west. The aesthetics awarded in this case are quite far from tradition; however, it would be difficult to say what tradition is, as the Islamic world encompasses such a wide array of territories and peoples, with the subsequent array of architectural traditions.

The award is held every three years, and the last edition was that of 2013. The list of awarded architects is not restricted to Muslims, taking into account the names, sometimes well known in the west. There is an Islamic cemetery in the Austrian Alps, a road and public transit project in Rabat- Salé (Morocco), a rehabilitation in Tabriz (Iran), interventions on an historical  city core in Palestine and a heart surgery clinic in Khartoum (Sudan).

I have followed for some years (from a distance…) the results of the awards, and noticed that they encompass a wide geographical variety, addressing contemporary architectural models, without a pre-defined aesthetical framework. I could even say that they seem quality architectures, although I do not know the places in which they sit; and Salé (Morocco) is not Salem (Massachussetts).

In fact I still wonder why an Arab or Islamic rail station should be that different from an European or Christian one… as the later are quite diverse. The idea of a culture that is not a general frame of reference, but rather a rigid set of rules, has always seemed difficult to me.

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