The moon was full above I.M. Pei’s lustrous Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar,  as the Aga Khan presented his awards for architecture last night to five special projects.  We attended the triennial ceremony, which has been held in a different location each time since 1977,  and it was worth the 13-½ hour flight. What set them apart?

For one thing, the Aga Khan awards go far beyond looks.  They always have.  Instead, the Master Jury narrows the list of nominees down to a reasonable number, then sends evaluators (trained architects, engineers, and other professionals), to the actual projects, wherever they are in the world.  The evaluators study how the projects work, how they serve their communities, how they feel, how they are standing up.  For critics who complain that architectural awards are often superficial star turns, here’s a wonderful response that almost aches with meaning.

The winners attend the proceedings--sometimes the clients or the builders and the architects themselves. Among this year’s attendees, there was not a starchitect standing, but wonderful, thoughtful solutions to real places for real people by real architects.  Here’s who won:


  • The Chinese architect Li Xiaodong (who may become a starchitect some day) won for a knockout bridge in a remote Chinese city that functions as a school during the day, as a library during the evening.  It cost less than $100,000, and the architect helped raise the funds.  The bridge/school also doubles as a puppet theater, and has a slide for the kids adjacent to the exit stair.
  • Who says factories need to look like prisons? The Turkish architect Emre Arolat designed a textile factory in which management and workers share space and light and an interior garden.  One worker said that she didn’t want to leave, the place made her feel so good.
  • Nieto and Sobijano, Spanish architects, designed a museum for an early Islamic site in Cordoba, Spain, that literally fits into the earth.  The building adds a new level of meaning to the term context.
  • A group in Tunisia that had won the award previously, won again (the Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina de Tunis), this time for conserving wonderful architecture from a transitional period at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
  • And finally, and surprisingly, an architecture and planning firm, Moriyama and Tashima planners from Toronto, with Buro Happold, worked for a decade helping to clean up Saudi Arabia’s primary wetland/waterway, the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, which had been fouled with pollution and encroachment and now serves as a primary enhancement.  Along the way they devised an ingenious water reclamation system that we will be writing more about in our publications.


Different places, different sorts of solutions, different needs fulfilled: The Aga Khan’s program had once again enriched our understanding of architecture, with a worldwide clutch of lessons embodied in buildings and communities.  On Thursday, a seminar of jury members, held in conjunction with Qatar Universtiy, explored the results and brought a level of discourse and speculation that advanced the awards one step further. For a program this special, particularly during a period of economic drought, these special awards seemed like streams in the desert.