Architecture from the east: the Aga Khan and the carpenter

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The Independent Culture
THE SECURITY guards were so discreet it was impossible to watch anyone else. They stood at the exit to the marquee and whispered into the microphones on the inside of their wrists. Then they slid between the tables and formed a tunnel. The former First Lady walked in front. Then came the 39th President of the United States. As he passed one table, a general manager of the Aga Khan Trust thanked him for coming. "Glad we came," said the former President, giving the former First Lady a little prod in the back, so she didn't break step, "Good time! Good time!"

The Georgia accent is a shock. Earlier on, Jimmy Carter had asked a guest where he was from. There were people here from Indonesia, Iraq, Canada, Malaysia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Belgium, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Iran. "Ghana," came the reply. "Ghana," beamed Carter, "Raaarght".

We were from nearly everywhere. One hundred and fifty of us had been flown in, business class, with or without spouses, to Madrid or Malaga, and then on to Granada. Some had travelled for over 24 hours to sit in the evening cool of the Alhambra and watch the presentation of awards to projects whose names and designs we already knew.

There were several reasons why. It was the culmination of a three year cycle. It was the 20th year of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. And it was the first time this prize-giving for Islamic architecture had been held in Western Europe.

Four hundred and twenty five projects had been nominated. Each nominator had had to fill in a form and send in three slides. The jury had watched 1200 slides twice each. The jury was a cross section. There was a religious intellectual, an avante garde architect, an American cultural theorist and so on. They asked 89 of the nominees to fill in a 12-page form, send in drawings and 20 slides. The jury selected 29 of these and sent out technical reviewers to examine every aspect of the project, including interviewing the people who actually used it. This produced seven winners. Between them, they share the US$500,000. The prestige was worth more.

Tonight the Carters were joining two Majesties, two Highnesses, two Princes, 11 Excellencies and enough professors to launch a major new centre of learning. Which, in a way, is what they were doing. The steering committee included Professor Charles Jencks, the architectural critic, who first defined post-modernism in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. The master jury included Professor Mohammed Arkoum, an emeritus professor at the Sorbonne and author of Rethinking Islam. The prize-winners included Professor Charles Correa, author of The New Landscape, who built the state assembly, Vidhan Bhavan, at Bhopal, where a democratic sense of participation is encouraged by a series of interlocking courtyards and pathways.

That weekend, those veteran democrats, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and their son Steven and his wife, just happened to be tourists in Granada, visiting the palace fortress of the Nasrid Sultans, the climax of Moorish art and architecture in medieval Spain. They were the last people to be invited.

The Carters arrived early. The parents sat in the front row. The son and daughter-in-law sat in the back row. On one side of the open-air amphitheatre the Aga Khan's staff were handing out translations of the speeches. On the other side a presenter for CNN was taking off her coat to show her evening dress while she did her introductory piece to camera. "The awards enhance and..." she dried up, " Enhance and what?" The producer had written the script, so he knew it: "Enhance and elevate the world of Islamic architecture."

Prize-winners, jury members and the steering committee sat in rows waiting on the stage. Behind them was a bank of tall trees. Four throne-like chairs were placed on a dais on the other side, for the King and Queen of Spain, the Aga Khan and the Begum Aga Khan. In the orchestra pit The Quodlibet Ensemble were playing Manuel de Falla. We could have been waiting for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The master of ceremonies was Dr Suha Ozkan, secretary general of the award. According to the press release, he was working to a strict timetable: "20:00 Welcoming remarks by Dr. Suha Ozkan, 20:01 Address by His Highness The Aga Khan".

As we waited, we watched giant projections of some of the previous 76 winners. The state-of-the-art screen was a bank of TV monitors at the back of the stage. It was going to be six by six but ended up as seven by seven. It was a nice touch having a total of 49 monitors. There are an estimated 12 to 15 million Shia Imani Ismaeli Muslims. Their spiritual leader, the Harvard-educated Aga Khan, is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed through his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Iman, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. The Aga Khan - or "HH", as he is known by his staff - is the 49th hereditary Iman.

Their Majesties and their Highnesses arrived. There was the one minute of welcoming remarks. And then the Aga Khan stepped forward. We already knew what the front page of the next Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section had said about this man. A copy was circulating. Its architectural correspondent shares his prose style with Jackie Collins: "Aga Khan: the name shimmers with glamour. Fabulous wealth. Palatial houses. Racehorses. Yachts. Jewels." He was, it said, "the most important figure in the world of architecture today".

My first sighting of this shimmering figure had been the evening before in the 14th century Arab House of Zafra. It was a rare event: the first press reception I'd attended at which the only drink available to journalists had been fruit juice. It wasn't hard to spot the Aga Khan. People in front of him always seem to be walking backwards.

Up on stage, the Aga Khan thanked the King. This award, he said, stemmed from a sense that Islamic societies had lost some of their extraordinary inheritance. Architecture was once a hallmark of Islamic civilisations and central to the identity of its peoples. There were grounds for serious concerns: expanding populations; growth of an underclass; migration to cities; the monopolistic intents of the modern global electronic media and - in response to that - the new vigour of more traditional orthodoxies. "Neither," said the Aga Khan, "nurtures or even respects pluralism." In his diplomatic way, the Aga Khan is taking on both Murdoch and the mullahs.

The King thanked the Aga Khan. There was a short film of each winning entry. The format was similar to that used by stewardesses doing the safety instructions on Iberian Airways. We all knew what was going to be said. First it was said in English, then Spanish. We applauded the values as much as the designs. Winners have an exemplary role to play.

Three years ago, one winner was a reforestation programme of 30 million trees around Ankara. Another was a mosque without a dome. This year one was the rehabilitation of Hebron Old Town, where 127 dwellings and 25 shops have been restored, and another was the Lepers' Hospital in Chopda Taluka, India, which creates a courtyard with trees and flowers outside a village. Social values were again at the centre of architectural practice.

There then followed another five-course meal. Attending the Aga Khan awards is like going to three expensive wedding receptions in a day and a half. You have no idea whom you will sit next to. Or whether you will find a common language. Across the table that evening, at the Carmen de los Martires, sat the leading Indonesian architect Mr Adhi Moersid, a member of the steering committee, whose own buildings place traditional Indonesian elements in a modern context. To my left sat the civil engineer Professor Himanshu Parikh, another of this year's prize-winners, who took 183 slums in the Indian city of Indore and provided sewerage, storm drainage and fresh water infrastructure. Installing toilets in homes had dramatically reduced the incidence of rape and assault. Three of the winning entries were from India. So quite a few guests passed on the fourth course: beef tenderloin with truffles, mushrooms and honey-roasted onions.

On my right sat another prize-winner, Mr Ibrahim bin Adam, the elderly master carpenter from Kelantan, in Malaysia, who for six years had built the Salinger Residence, a modern private house of two equilateral triangles, designed by the Malaysian architect Jimmy Lim. He spoke no English. I spoke no Malaysian. He had no trouble, though, conveying his satirical amusement at the iced melon balls in the Andalusian salad. Bin Abrim only has one arm. So Mrs Ananda Moersid kindly cut up his meat for him. It only underlined his achievement.

At the five-hour seminar the next day, at the Royal Hospital, there were familiar references to clients, tight budgets and deadlines. But there was more. If you're a newcomer to intercultural dialogue, you need to remember that Muslim does not mean Arab. There are (as I was told by a volunteer in the press room) a billion Muslims and only 130 million Arabs. Islamic architecture, in this context, means places where Muslims have a significant presence. France, China and India qualify as much as Saudi Arabia. Don't talk about buildings, talk about "built environments". And landscape is architecture.

During a break we stood in the sunlight of the courtyard of the Royal Hospital. On the tables, the caterers had laid out coffee, yoghurt, fruit, biscuits and a selection of sandwiches. Three days in, and I was getting the hang of these awards. The size of the press kit alone had justified bringing a second suitcase. It was all about vocabulary. Words to use in warm encouraging tones were "sustainable", "inter-creativity", "contextualism", "diversity", "humility" and "architect" with a small "a". Words to use with chilly distaste were "hegemony", "McWorld", "replica", "clash of cultures", "monopoly", "arrogance" and "Architect" with a capital "A".

There had been mutterings about the jury. They hadn't got on. There were too few awards. There was no landscape award. And what about the restoration of the synagogue in Cairo? But the three days had been a formidable mix of hospitality and efficiency. As several of us sipped coffee, one of the Aga Khan's ever-alert staff rushed across and interrupted our conversation. The news looked bad. He held up two slices of white bread. In the centre was a sliver of meat. "Tell me it isn't ham."

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