The Aga Khan
On the occasion of the 2001 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Robert Ivy talked with His Highness the Aga Khan about the architectural, social, and environmental issues facing Islam today. The following interview was conducted at Aiglemont, France, on August 31. Due to the events of September 11, the interview has recently been updated. An abbreviated version of this interview appears in the February, 2002 issue of RECORD.
Robert Ivy: As Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, you lead a far-flung religious community that is an important branch of Islam. You have personally expressed an affinity for Islamic architecture. We fully appreciate your belief in the traditions and teachings of Islam. But, in light of the events of September 11, we must ask how you view the actions of Islamic radicals toward Western culture and its peoples?
His Highness, the Aga Khan: I should start by saying that I have been exposed to several cultural traditions. As you probably know, I have a degree in Islamic history from Harvard. As I said recently in an interview with Connaissance des Arts [interview conducted by Philip Jodidio, Connaissance des Arts, January 2002], I think there is a massive gulf in the understanding and knowledge between Muslims and non-Muslims—I mean particularly the West and the Islamic world. What we are talking about in reality is a strong minority of people committed to their own particular interpretation of Islam, who seek to impose it on others. I do not believe that the totality of the Islamic world recognizes the Taliban interpretation of the faith as being representative of its own view. There is no unanimity in Islam with regard to this interpretation. Generally you will see as much diversity in the Islam as you do in the Christian world today. But the West does not really understand the pluralism of the Islamic world.
Architectural Record: Architecture, which you espouse, can be understood as one of the languages of peace, yet we, the West, are at war.
HH: I also noted in the recent interview that one of the forces of change for all civilizations unfortunately has been war. Conflict situations are driven by concepts of victory, power, and elimination of inherited culture, and not by the underlying values of civilization. There are many interpretations of Islam within the wider Islamic community, but generally we are instructed to leave the world a better place than it was when we came into it. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture seeks to make a better place in physical terms. This means trying to bring values into environments, buildings, and contexts that improve the quality of life for future generations.
The value system of Islam, in terms of the interrelationship between what we call dina and dunia, that’s the world and faith is very particular in Islam. In a sense they relate to each other in an ongoing way. That’s how the value system of Islam carries into everyday life, into the way you exist in society, and clearly into the things that you do in society in a material way.
In what ways do these values permeate the larger world?
This affects not only your family life, it affects your role in society, it affects the way you run your economic affairs, it affects the way you develop your home, and what happens in and around your home. So, there is a continuation of the Islamic value system into the physical environment, which is quite interesting and really special to Islam. I think that much of the great Islamic architecture reflects that.
Some years ago a professor talked to me about a major doctoral thesis at Harvard (in which) a student had demonstrated how the Taj Mahal was a reflection of the conceptualization of heaven on earth--and the relationships between spiritual eternity and the foundational nature of life on this earth.
So, in that sense, I think, the Islamic context is very, very important. I think you can find the premise in many other situations. It’s not specific to the Taj.
The need for global understanding and mutual tolerance has never been more keenly felt. And to those purposes, the awards come into play. You’ve now been conducting the Aga Khan Architectural Award program, administered by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, since 1977, through eight triennial cycles. In what ways has the program evolved over time? From your perspective as founder, has it affected the physical environment? How have the issues you addressed either changed or remained constant?
As the award program has continued, we have learned we needed to have an impact on values—ethical and aesthetic value judgments—and we needed to affect cultural value judgments. Therefore we had to influence opinion leaders.
We also had to accept the reality that the industrialized world was dominating the processes of change in the Third World, in particular in the Islamic world. And, that domination resulted in educational processes that were shaped by the First World. So we felt we had to assume more of an educational role. The award program was not intended to be primarily educational, and we didn’t want the award program to become a school. This is why we established the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Yet you have described the award program’s role as catalyst for improvement of cities and societies in Islamic areas.
The need for addressing issues such as historic cities in the Islamic world was constantly being put back on the table in one form or another. Yet anything connected with my development interests is automatically disallowed in the award process. I ended up by wondering if there could be a bridge between what I was doing in development and the cultural context of, for example, the historic city. This led to the Trust for Culture to create the Historic Cities Support Program. It is a remarkable bridge between cultural support, and, at the same time, development support for communities that very often are marginalized and underprivileged.
How do you see the Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan Architectural Awards interplaying with the need for rural populations to find work and the problems that they face when they get to the city? I’m sure that affects the communities that you deal with.
It’s difficult to summarize such a complex question in a short answer, but one of the driving questions is how people perceive opportunity. They will perceive opportunity through the inherited perception of previous generations in the family, or they will perceive opportunity through communication, or they will perceive the downside, which is risk. If the notion of risk is very high in certain environments, people will try and remove themselves from those environments.
In looking at the rural issues, I think one needs to start with what the risks are. It’s interesting to see how rural communities look at risk--in terms of health, in terms of physical security, in terms of corruption, in terms of conflict. They have a certain number of what I would call downside risks that they’re looking at that affect their attitudes to the rural environment, because they assume that those risks don’t exist in the urban environment. But, because they’re not in the urban environment, they don’t know what are the risks within the urban environment.
You are describing a kind of naïveté’, but a kind that can be changed.
Then comes the issue of opportunity. I think the issue of opportunity is whether the rural environments of the developing world and the Islamic world can change sufficiently positively, so that the sense of opportunity will be stabilized and enhanced and people will say, ‘future generations of my family do have as good or even a better opportunity by staying in the rural environment than by moving to the urban environment.’ That’s a difficult equation, it really is. But, I think that where the award can have an impact is in education, first of all to educate people about changes in the rural environment--which are positive and which ones are damaging.
Secondly, it’s to cause the changes in rural and physical environments to be appropriate to…the rural environment. (As an example), a large part of the Islamic world is in that seismic belt that goes through much of the Islamic world. You can look back in time and you will see thousands of people killed by earthquakes at different times in our history, and yet seismic construction in rural environments is unheard of. People who build for themselves do not know about seismically sound construction. Most of the construction in rural environments is self-built. It’s not architect-built. The question is, how do you get that knowledge into the rural environment? How do you teach people how to build in a safe manner?
Clean water, sewer systems, open spaces, sports areas, you know, they’re all the things that are part of everyday life that need structure in the rural areas. By recognizing small medical centers, handicraft centers, (the awards program is) saying to the rural population of the Islamic world, you don’t have to go through architects and big, mega-projects to improve the quality of the physical environment. You can do magnificent projects that will serve you well.