The Aga Khan Award: Reasons for Hope
The age of colonialism in architecture is finally over. Yes, large firms based in the United States and Europe design buildings for sites all over the world and yes, most of the styles, construction methods, and tricks of appearance still show up first in buildings designed in those developed countries. What is fading away is the notion that there is a central canon or style, a type and a character, that works for the Western world, as we used to know it, and which architects, developers, and clients then impose on other places with little allowances for local climate, site conditions, ways of life, or traditions. We live in a global economy and culture, and it is more the empire of capital that of any one country that sets the tone. Against such domination, strategies of either resistance or just common sense use methods that are equally universal, though tied to specific situations.
The best celebration of the latter strategies I have seen is the recent publication of the Aga Khan's 2010 Award cycle. Entitled Implicate & Explicate, published by the most high-quality art and architecture bookmaker Lars Mueller, and designed by Irma Boom, it presents the award's short list with good photographs, plans and sections, and a wealth of (too-short, alas) essays. It finally makes a convincing case for the now 34-year-old triannual awards program, which focuses on worthy designs for Islamic communities all around the world.
Whereas in past cycles many of the winners and finalists have either looked like attempts to adapt Western modes to local types, producing Postmodern mosques and decorated houses, or had been altogether worthy constructions or planning efforts that never gelled into anything whose form could communicate a sense of place, belonging, or community, the current selection presents a parade of good buildings and planning efforts that make their arguments in coherent form.
Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
The projects range from the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which both restores the riparian conditions and provides a beautifully designed way for residents to explore that landscape, to a factory in Turkey. There are vacation homes and mosques open to the elements, rather than closed off with air conditioning, and a restoration of the city of Tunis that recognizes the layering of modern modern interventions as an integral part of the city, and thus worth preserving.
Bridge School, Xiashi, Fujian Province, China
The most eye-catching project is the Bridge School, which Li Xiaodong designed as a connection not only between two "tulou," or round communal structures, but also as a connection from past forms and ways of learning and the modern age. It uses both modern technology (steel) and local materials (bamboo). It sits lightly on its site and yet make a strong visual argument for connecting a community to learning.
Ipekyol Textile Factory, Edirne, Turkey
I was a bit baffled by some of the of five winners the jury finally selected from its short list as winners. It is great that the Ipekyol Textile Factory in Edirne, Turkey, is a relatively open, simple structure, but it does not seem to rise above a standard deployment of abstract, orthogonal elements, either in appearance or organization. On the other hand, the Green School, in Bali, Indonesia, looks to me like a soaring celebration of learning and community constructed completely out of bamboo and designed to be replicable—and yet it was not one of the chosen five.
Green School, Bali, Indonesia
I was not part of the jury and have not seen most of these buildings in person. Thus I have to judge all of this based on the book's excellent photographs. I also read the essays, which point out the difficulties, both technical and theoretical, not only of designing for the diverse places where you find Islamic communities, but also of judging all of these projects in some coherent manner. It is enough, certainly, that this book, itself an argument for the coherent presentation of a set of ideas and forms in architecture (I am referring to the recent debate on such books on Design Observer and elsewhere), displays the vitality of architecture in ways that give me great optimism for its place in helping to make places and communities better around the world.