If the right questions are raised, the right answers will emerge, you hope.
It was amazing because it went through the whole of the Islamic world. The questions could address themselves to Sub-Saharan Africa, to the Arab world, to Central Asia; they could address themselves to Western China. But there was a sense of where is our culture? Not culture in the sense of a capital "C"—it was a culture owned by the people. Where is our culture? What is its place?
Is that where authentic architecture comes from? By asking a culture to define itself?
I think so. When you generate questions, one of the phenomena in doing so is that people come back to you and say, ‘give us the answers!’ That’s where it became a great deal more difficult. I think one of the answers came from the award, which was to give a new sense of value to traditional cultures, traditional forms of expression, to show that modern materials didn’t have to be used to achieve the desired results. It was, in a sense, repositioning these cultures in a value system, or value systems. I think the award did that.
And then you come back to how fine this issue of repositioning of cultures is. It may be achieved, but then the question is, what are the sources of inspiration? And the sources of inspiration, the sources of knowledge, come back to education. Education had to be part of the overall process, not part of the award, but part of the overall process.
And how has the education component played out at Harvard and MIT at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture?
(The question was) how to design an educational resource that would have the maximum possible impact and at the same time have a legitimacy to it, which would make it acceptable to much of the Islamic world. I was a Harvard graduate, therefore I knew about Islamic studies at Harvard. In the arts and sciences I had been involved with MIT. I knew that their school of architecture was very strong. Ultimately, people who are trying to reposition what they’re doing will be looking at the most credible, most competent resources. They are not going to address themselves to a third rate institution.
I asked MIT whether they would be willing to put the entire program together—with Harvard addressing what I would call, in generic terms, a cultural component, and MIT addressing the professional component. (They would be) building a system whereby we would be able to educate people who are already practitioners, or people who wanted to become practitioners. The whole program went into place and the two universities had worked in a very solid way. I think that the graduates from these programs are now having an impact, whether they are museum conservationists or whether they are practicing architects, or whether they are research students. These individuals are having an impact wherever they are.
At the time the Islamic world was not saying we only want Muslim students in this program. There was considerable support that the program should be open to all people from all backgrounds that had a reason to want to work in Islamic societies, whether they were Muslim or not. I think the split at this time is at least 50-50 of people from the Islamic world and people from outside the Islamic world.
Right from the first days of the award, (it was exciting that there) was the intellectual acceptance by non-Muslims of the cultural questions that were being asked. And, I have to tell you I’m enormously grateful to the men and women who worked with me from outside the Islamic societies, who said we will bring our knowledge and our judgment and our competencies to sustain these, to develop answers to the questions you’ve been asking, because we consider that they’re very important. I remember the people from Harvard and MIT saying this is a format that can be asked of other cultures of our world. You have started within the Islamic world, but it could very well apply to the Hispanic world, it could apply to other parts of the world. There was no sense of "normatizing" this towards the Islamic world. The questions and the concepts were far outside the Islamic world.
Since these awards are intended for Islamic societies, have they identified places and projects that are responsive to specific social, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, or geographic issues? What is authentic or real for building in a specific place?
The award program gives a new sense of value to traditional cultures and forms of expression that show modern materials don’t have to be used to achieve desired results.
You include hotels among the premiated buildings.
We have premiated a number of projects in tourism, and there’s a downside and an upside. In principle, tourism can be managed if the right questions are asked. Beyond a point, tourists can create a problem. But a lot of ministers of tourism, and a lot of people running hotels or historic areas, don’t look at that, nor do they plan for it. You need to define what sort of tourism you want. Cultural tourism is the most interesting to us because we want to underscore the value of pluralism. Having people visit sites or complexes that they would not normally see or learn about can be very positive for societies that tend to be rigid in their attitudes.We have to recognize the need for tourism, but we also have to recognize that it needs to be managed. Absolute freedom in the tourism field will end up with serious consequences.
And now you’ve established a new Web site [ArchNet.org], which makes the full range of information so much more accessible to a larger group of people. How do you see it functioning?
I didn’t want the Harvard-MIT program to be an ivory tower, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had to articulate its worth toward the Islamic world. We used to publish the magazine Mimar. It was good, but we still wondered if this was the best way to communicate this information outside MIT to the Islamic community. Then, of course, the Internet broke down those barriers; it provided an extraordinary opportunity. Since MIT is so qualified in these areas of communication, it was the right resource to make use of this activity. I’m hopeful that when ArchNet.org is officially launched, it will become a global resource to people working for change in the physical environment in Islamic societies.
You presented the Chairman’s Award this year, which is not an annual event, to Geoffrey Bawa, the Sri Lankan architect. What is the significance of that?
It is an award that, after this year, will only have been given three times. This award stems from the consensus of the steering committee and does not have an independent jury. The people who run the award, who watch how the awards work, and who note over one or several cycles that a certain individual has had a massive, lifelong impact, make the selection.
I personally discovered Geoffrey Bawa through Mimar, which put a name and a face to the architectural award program. In terms of public recognition, however, award winners in the rural cultures are more difficult to identify with. Names and faces are part of contemporary media reality, where we tend to focus on people rather than on ideas. Can you comment on that?
You are correct, but constituencies react differently to the prizes. Many village constituencies tend to look at other villages. The process of change is not through an architect. It is through people or through government programs. One of the things the award has tried to do is get away from the notion that only architects can bring about change.
Creating thought leaders in villages is very, very important. It indicates to village organizations, isolated peoples, that there are certain directions that they can follow in terms of enhancing their own local cultures, (setting standards) in terms of the basic quality that is required for the purpose of the project, if it’s a place for the children or it’s a school or a medical center. So, we’re not addressing ourselves to the high profile architectural profession. We’re addressing ourselves to the majority population of the Islamic world. That’s the target. When you go to the high profile project, we’re talking about the major award, the Chairman’s award, and high profile projects in universities, or airports, hotels. But please go back to the notion of civil society; after all, the award has got to try to address as many aspects of civil society as possible. One of the things the award has tried to do is to get away from the notion of architects as the only constituency that causes change.