Yes, because civil society is changing. If you go back to the 1950s, you see colonialism and poverty in the Islamic world. You also see the effects of the cold war, and essentially government-driven processes of change, such as centralized economic planning. You see the need to create a sense of nation in a number of countries that were not yet independent.
Today you have decision making by independent governments. Nationhood is now an accepted notion. You have economic change resulting from a process of market forces rather than dogmatic attitudes toward economic change. You have areas of extreme wealth in the Islamic world. You have countries that are emerging from a colonial past. The cold war is over. And you have an awareness—perhaps, to me, one of the most important—that in most parts of our world, the rural community dominates. The numbers of people in rural communities in the Islamic world, plus the difficulty of addressing the problems of development in rural communities, is a central issue. For example, people who build for themselves do not know about seismically sound construction. How do you teach people how to build in a safe manner in the rural environment?
Unlike other award programs in which highly touted architects dominate the shortlists, this program regularly confers honor on lesser-known individuals and communities. What effects have these decisions produced?
That’s one of the things which the award has tried to respond to—it’s looked at how society causes change, not how architects cause change, and it’s tried to help societal processes to improve the processes of change.
You’ll see more and more small rural projects, which are considered highly important to be put together by village organizations or non-governmental organizations working in rural environments—because that is an important aspect. We have been driven in the past in the industrialized world by the notion of the urban environment and the architect functioning in the urban environment. I think, at least as far as the Islamic world is concerned, the award has brought a massive change to that (notion).
I think the second area we’ve hopefully had an effect on is the notion of pluralism. You cannot deal with a world like the Islamic world by rejecting the notion of pluralism. Historically, it is part of that world. The faith of Islam recognizes and sustains the right of people to be their own masters of the judgments that they make. By premiating different types of projects and different environments and different countries with different architectural traditions and languages, it’s enhanced the notion that pluralism is an asset.
I think the third one is perhaps one which is less easy to define, but nonetheless important--which I would call high-tech applications, high-tech projects. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many high-tech projects were essentially extrapolations of high-tech buildings in the industrialized world. It has been important to (encourage) those buildings to become more appropriate to their own environments, to their own building industries, and to their own symbolic values: for universities, airports, or hotels.
I certainly wouldn’t want to say that the award has covered all categories—it hasn’t. And there remain areas where the award has not been able to premiate projects that it considered really important. I think that for categories that it felt were very important, buildings which are part of modern civil society, we have not yet succeeded in causing (them) to look at the contextualization… a typical case would be the industrial estate, for example, which is a remarkable phenomenon of economic change. In the industrialized world, you’ve addressed it more and more successfully; but in the Islamic world, not all of it, but in much of it, the whole process of the liberalized economy is the one that’s driving that notion of change, rather than the contextualization of that change. I hope that will happen. We’re beginning to see these questions being addressed, but we’re not there yet.
How did your concern for architecture and planning develop? What previous experiences have prepared you to value the power of architecture and planning? How did you develop this concern for such issues?
As a student of history, you learn about the cultural processes of history. But after my grandfather died, I was looking at the physical environment in the developing world, and I had to ask myself what we were doing correctly or incorrectly, in school construction, hospital construction, housing estates, industrial estates and the commercial buildings. My sense was that while there was a fairly good understanding of programmatic requirements, the contextualization of those programmatic requirements in our part of the world just wasn’t happening.
That had a cultural downside to it; it had a cost downside to it. And, particularly in the poorer countries, it tended to drive society towards things like a consumer environment, towards harnessing the top people in every profession because, obviously, the top hospital people wanted the top hospitals at the time. And, it introduced a value system that I felt had a number of risks to it. But it also had another aspect, which was quite strange.
In the industrialized world, the notion of physical change in urban environments is constant, part of contextual thinking--buildings are torn down, they’re rebuilt, sites get thrown together. In the developing world, land is much, much more constrained than you would expect, in terms of being able to change buildings (with changing) requirements. That caused me to ask, if I built something now, and the life of the building is going to be 25 years or more because we can’t afford to change things every five years, what is the flexibility we need in land management, because programs change. That flexibility was never designed into many of the projects in this part of the world--that notion that you have to be able to mold and remold and mold again—(that) was simply not part of traditional thinking. Yet if you look at the way, for example, health care delivery has changed in hospitals between the 50s and today 50 years later, there’s no commonality.
The same thing has happened in education. The process of educating people has changed so radically. I think the need for a good physical environment for the young is something that has grown also. In fact, the children have got to get exercise and exercise is part of good health and health is part of longevity.
These sorts of issues kept coming back. That’s when I started asking myself, am I alone looking at these questions or are other people looking at them? That’s where the awards started.
Could you describe the contextual question—you mentioned that often, and I assume that you are referring to more than just a stylistic matter.
It’s a value system.
So much of recent international design has embraced the universal—even nostalgia for the International Style. Since these awards are intended for Islamic societies, have they identified places and projects that are responsive to social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, or geographic specifics? I’m trying to get at a definition of what authenticity is or what real, appropriate building for a specific place should be.
I think that the best example of the problem we face is in the architectural schools of the Islamic world. Some years ago we made a survey of the architectural schools, and we looked at the faculties: what was the education that the faculties had received? The answer was 100% in the industrialized world. So, the process of educating had been acculturated. It was another culture, from another part of the world that was being (proposed) as the correct illustration of the architectural profession.
Western, industrialized ideas were being imposed, in a way?
It was a fact and it was related to a number of things. I don’t think it was necessarily an intentional colonial process. If anything it was more linked to the notion of quality of life—that this type of building was likely to be a higher quality building than a traditional building.
Whether it fit or not.
When we went through this process of beginning the award, the group that worked with me came to the conclusion that we all had a whole series of questions. When (the awards group had completed) their work…and we started questioning, we started discussing or communicating (the concerns expressed by the awards committees and) those questions to communities in the Islamic world. Not one of (the communities) asked ‘why are you asking these questions?’ All of them immediately responded by saying these questions are the right questions to ask. They didn’t tell us what answers they wanted, but there was quasi-total identification between the communities and the questions that were being asked.
That meant, in effect, that the processes of change were no longer being driven by architectural schools, which were not asking the questions themselves. People started asking questions. Why do it this way instead of that way?