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Award Spurs Debate in 'Desert of Silence' in Muslim World

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LISBON -- There was something truly captivating about sitting in the Castle of São Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal, waiting for the announcement of the 2013 winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Overlooking the cityscape, the citadel is home to both the Christian and Muslim history of the Iberian peninsula, a fitting setting for an event looking to promote common linkages across geographic divides. Held every three years, the Award looks to promote conversation around the themes of development and the built environment in the Muslim world and beyond. Once again, the gathering -- hosted by the President of Portugal and the Aga Khan -- brought together an eclectic array of participants from representatives from around the world, ranging from ministers and diplomats to religious figures (including from the Vatican), to architects and builders, to thinkers and writers.

2013-09-10-AKAA2013AwardRecipients.pngThe Award recipients were equally diverse, with five projects celebrated in this cycle (bringing the number of winners in the history of the Award to 110). They included: the Salam Center for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan; the revitalization of Birzeit in Palestine; the Rabat-Salé Bridge in Morocco; the rehabilitation of the Tabriz Bazaar in Iran; and an Islamic cemetery in Austria (the latter perhaps the most intriguing project). While the initiative represents the largest, in terms of monetary value, architecture award in the world, its objective goes beyond aesthetic design, seeking to identify projects that are on the frontier of sustainable development (in all senses of the term) and that are locally attuned. Yet what was clear this year was the juxtaposition of the contemplative conversation in Lisbon and the "desert of silence "that still characterizes much of the Muslim world, outside specialized or academic circles, on these very themes. And this is the challenge for the Award, and similar such platforms -- to not just hold the conversation but to widen the debate to engage with the multitude of forces shaping and influencing the broader Muslim world (and beyond).

Founded in 1977, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) is part of the wider set of initiatives of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which mobilizes annually over $600 million to support development activities throughout the 30 countries in which it works. The Award shares the holistic approach of the AKDN towards development, whereby local participation, alignment, and empowerment are critical to the viability and impact of any activity. Held every three years, 2013 represented the 13th cycle of the awards. Governed by a nine-person Steering Committee that includes some of the top minds in the field, such as Norman Foster and Glenn Lowry (from the Museum of Modern Art), the Award appoints a new Master Jury for each cycle; this year's Jury, for example, included Mahmoud Mamdani of Uganda and Wang Shu of China.

One of the central purposes of the Award, according to its founder, the Aga Khan, and voiced during this years ceremony was to replace the "vast desert [of] silence [that] had set in" in the Muslim world with lively debate, around the issues of development, architecture, and the built environment. Certainly, this would be no easy challenge. Over the last three decades, the Award has highlighted a number of worthy projects, recognized and encouraged leading architects and builders, and promoted education with the principles of the Award in mind. Yet, it has not been enough to fill the silence. Instead, at the frontier of the built environment in Muslim communities, and places like the Arab world, this silence has been filled by what appears too often like cacophonous chaos. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the holy city of Mecca, where a giant clock tower and monstrous skyscrapers not only cast a shadow over Islam's holiest mosque, the Kaaba, but are systematically destroying the city's historic heritage while contributing very little to community needs, besides increases in property values.

This is emblematic of the challenge of the Award, in particular, but also of other similar initiatives seeking to influence trends in the broader Muslim world, where it is not contemplative conversation that drives change but rather copious (often misallocated) capital that determines development patterns instead. How can you not just fill that vast desert of silence but also ensure that it is not the loudest voices that win the debate?

Given the ongoing shifts throughout the developing world, such as the move from rural to urban environments, political transition, and economic modernization, more engagement will be needed on a number of critical issues, especially the built environment and how it promotes sustainable development. Hopefully the conversations, such as those in Lisbon, begin to move beyond the classroom and into the mainstream.

Photo credit: AKDN