Sustainability, community engagement and traditional values ​​are the cornerstone of any conversation about culture, especially architecture, arts and music. This holistic approach has become synonymous with how we envision, plan and execute projects in these areas.

There was a time when architecture was dominated by a narrow frame of reference – primarily from a Western perspective of form and function. During the early stages of the globalization of culture and architecture, the dominant approach was one-way, with little or no opportunity to intersect thinking and new ways of working. The Aga Khan, Founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, recognized this as a problem in the 1970s. As part of the AKDN’s mission, addressing quality of life meant improving infrastructure, housing, education and health care with an emphasis on alignment with environment, habitat and cultural preservation.

In response to a largely homogenous approach to architecture, the Aga Khan established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1977. The awards encouraged a multidimensional approach to design that responded to the needs and aspirations of areas with large community Muslim. The vision of the Architecture Awards was to create a platform to innovate and share new approaches to design and function, to move from a globalizing approach to ‘glocalizing’. The awards encouraged best practices in design and engineering that would combine with community needs and local craftsmanship in trade and construction. Fundamentally, it also meant capturing knowledge and creating pathways to educate future generations of architects to take a more pluralistic approach to the design of buildings used by members of the public.

The Director of the Aga Khan Awards, Farrokh Derakhshani, speaking to Forbes, explained the entrepreneurial nature of the Awards and the innovative vision of the Aga Khan: “His Highness attended most of the Executive Committee meetings and spent time to ensure the Prize has been developed on a solid basis. Back then, maybe no one understood the magnitude of what we were doing, but now we can see the results after fifty years. Today, we recognize the need to invest in communities. In developing countries, we increasingly recognize the need to build strong institutions in cities and rural areas and to limit the erosion of communities due to migration to capitals and overseas. Working in education and health has emphasized the importance of paying attention to users. This perspective also involved balancing the immediate needs for services in these areas and creating focal points for the wider community.

The awards recognize the value of projects and challenge assumptions to create projects designed to develop a holistic approach to a community’s needs, taking a user-centered approach. A striking example of this in the 2022 laureate cycle is the Rohingya refugee community center in Teknaf, Bangladesh, designed by Rizvi Hassan, Khwaja Fatmi and Saad Ben Mostafa.

Derakhshani explains how the awards encourage us to think differently about refugee arrangements; “People think what you do for refugees or other groups in post-disaster scenarios means creating temporary solutions, temporary buildings. Nothing is more permanent than temporary solutions. We have seen it all over the world, refugee camps are erected as temporary structures, but they remain forever. We know that, and we need to look at these structures from a different perspective. Derakhshani explains, when asked about the different perspectives: “It’s about the quality of the space. We talk about the intangible nature of belonging. You need a sense of belonging as a user and as a community. It’s something you can’t measure, what happens when you enter such a space. You feel like you belong. You are building something.

When building projects for public use, building for longevity means understanding current needs and anticipating future needs of how groups will work and communicate with each other. The degree of precision is impossible, but it is essential to create space for flexibility. At the same time, much of this thinking is aligned with the fields of architecture and design that have flourished in user design thinking over the past few decades. But imagine the environment when the AKAA was designed. European countries were rebuilding rapidly after the destruction of World War II. Inevitably, the academic field of architecture was dominated by European and North American design, which spilled over into academia and teaching. Many countries with Muslim populations were built on the legacy of colonialism. It was virtually unheard of for these countries to share their approaches to design and architecture. The academic field of architecture needed the provision or practice to share resources in their areas of expertise. Countries with similar cultures and challenges could not share their solutions, relying instead on responses that had to consider local needs. This approach reinforced a sense of individualism and hindered the ability to share resources for problem solving. Derakhshani explains this dilemma; “Communities can fall into the trap of feeling proud of having exclusive issues. When you show someone on the other side of the world that they have the same problems, they have solved the problem with a better solution. The excuse of exclusivity quickly falls away. The award focuses on architects, engineers and those involved in the built environment, as architecture touches all levels of society, from the poorest to the wealthiest, government and public.

The process behind the awards was to create a new system of thinking around architecture from a pluralistic perspective. Derakhshani explains how this evolved: “Initially, we had to challenge assumptions relevant to the 1970s periods and in a Muslim context by asking fundamental questions, such as how do the projects support the evolving nature of communities , education and health care needs? Derakhshani continues, “In many cases, we didn’t have clarity and alignment on these conversations on an intellectual level. We recognized the need to engage with academia. Along with the Global Seminars, the Aga Khan decided to provide five architectural endowments to leading universities, including Harvard and MIT. He also created Archnet, which we now recognize as a crowdsourcing platform for people working in this field to upload and share information to expand the scope of good practice. As this field has evolved, the awards have become a catalyst for building and connecting communities, creating bonds and providing different ways for communities to live together. In 2022, the breadth and range of winners reflect the vision laid out by His Highness in 1977.

Of the 463 projects from 55 countries nominated for this year’s prize, the Master Jury selected 20 to visit and evaluate. Six of these projects were chosen to share the $1 million prize. They come from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon and Senegal and also vary widely in execution. The Urban River Spaces project provides residents with access to the Nabaganga River. The six temporary community spaces of the Rohingya Refugee Response program respond to emergency needs. At the same time, Banyuwangi International Airport is looking to the future of East Java. The Argo Museum of Contemporary Art and Cultural Center – a former brewery – is being converted into a private museum of contemporary art, and the Niemeyer guest house has renovated the existing structures. Meanwhile, Kamanar Secondary School is an entirely new creation consisting of classroom modules around existing tree canopies. Each project demonstrates innovation, taking users into account, caring for the environment and preserving historical memory.

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