Bravo, the West approves

It's the richest architectural prize in the world. Peter Popham on how the Aga Khan Award seeks to make a difference
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The images are strikingly various. The slick cylindrical office building in Kuala Lumpur looks like an updated BT Tower. What connection can it have with the brick-lined, catacomb-like corridor of this hospital in Mauritania? Or this scene of Pakistani peasants weaving under a shelter supported by a wonky brick column?

These ill-assorted schemes are winners of this year's Aga Khan Award for Architecture, presented on 23 November. Given every three years, it is the most valuable architectural prize in the world, worth about pounds 500,000. It is also, in the words of one judge, "much the most serious".

The architecture prizes of the West - the RIBA Gold Medal, the Pritzker Award in the US, Japan's Praemium Imperiale - are indications of favour conferred by the architectural establishment, recognition of lifetime achievement, or a way of saluting what is considered a worthwhile trend. It may not be exactly a question of Buggins's turn, but those who award and those who win constitute an awesomely tight-knit community. Their connections with the real world beyond colleges and clients are tenuous.

The Aga Khan Award is more serious because its locus is the developing world. Organisers claim it aims "to recognise outstanding architectural achievements of the Muslim world. Through its efforts, the award hopes to encourage design concepts that successfully address the needs and hopes of Muslim communities today." In other words, it operates at the world's most contentious cultural faultline, where poverty, migration, exploding populations, ecological damage and the impact of the West make a mockery of "progress", and provide easy pickings for religious fanatics.

It is in this realm that the Aga Khan Award seeks to make a difference. This is architecture defined as the most fundamental of building blocks for a saner life. And this year's jury, which includes two celebrated Americans, the architect Peter Eisenman and the critic Charles Jencks, has gone to extremes to reward initiatives that have nothing in common with one another at all.

So a handful of new, architect-designed buildings, are among the winners, although the Kuala Lumpur office building, by Architectural Association- trained Ken Yeang, is the only one that might have a chance in a Western competition. Two conservation projects are acknowledged, including the superb efforts to keep the old city of Sana'a, capital of Yemen, intact. A scheme in Hyderabad, Pakistan, to encourage impoverished immigrants to settle on city land and build simple homes wins a prize, though the rickety structures that result are 100 per cent architect-free. And a prize goes to a reforestation scheme in Ankara, Turkey, which has nothing to do with building - except that it prevents new building from happening.

It takes one's breath away. It's rather as if the Booker shortlist were to include, besides the usual suspects, a household repair manual, a copy of the Daily Mirror, and a ream of typing paper.

The award winners that drew oohs and aahs when previewed at the AA earlier in the month were those which embodied a sort of supercharged version of the African vernacular, as if the local peasant costume were refracted through the vision of Issey Miyake or John Galliano. The Kaedi Regional Hospital in Mauritania is composed of a series of rough brick domes arranged in various configurations, to form single structures, corridors, or doughnut- shaped wards. Photographs make these artless structures look as if they've been here for ever. But, although the bricks were made locally, it is all illusionism: brick is not generally used as a building material here.

The Mauritanian hospital is by a European architect, as is the Alliance Franco-Senegalese in Senegal, which is entirely covered in Senegalese decorative motifs. Both constitute a sort of homage to the African continent. In contrast, the indigenous architects whose work is saluted exhibit quite different characteristics. The Grand Mosque of Riyadh may, as the award says, "evoke a traditional character, even though the materials and the design of the buildings are completely modern". To the Western eye, however, its passe modernity holds up a bleak mirror to Western architectural culture. The cruel perpendiculars and huge, empty, unshaded spaces are part of the heritage of the International Style that present-day architects are hurrying to put behind them.

It is mealy-mouthed to call the Aga Khan Award "worthy". Anyone who has spent time in the magical old city of Sana'a, with its densely packed, high brick houses, many centuries old, their facades decorated with geometrical shapes and horizontal bands picked out in stark white gypsum, with its raucous medieval market life and sudden tranquil vegetable gardens, must applaud anything that lengthens its life and postpones its ruin. It is equally good to see recognition go to imaginative urban development schemes - such as that in Hyderabad and another, comparable one in Indore, India - which imitate the rituals of squatting for the benefit of the poorest new arrivals.

Yet inevitably the award is an imposition, an imposition of approved taste. It would be interesting to see what sort of projects would reach the shortlist if the award were decided by a democratic vote among Muslim peoples. The biggest, most glittering and traditional new mosque would be a strong contender. Likewise, perhaps, Riyadh's most gorgeous new shopping mall, and the palaces of the Aga Khan and the Sultan of Brunei.

Whether any of this year's award-winners would come close - with the possible exception of Ken Yeang's tower in Kuala Lumpur - I rather doubt.

The RIBA Architecture Centre/Independent programme of public lectures on architecture in service of the public realm continues this autumn. The last lecture in the current series given by Sir Richard Rogers looks at a long-term planning and design strategy for the River Thames.

Richard Rogers will be speaking on Thursday, 14 December, at 7pm, Jarvis Theatre, Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London W1N 4AD

Tickets cost pounds 4 (pounds 2.50 students and concessions), available from the RIBA Bookshop by credit-card booking on 0171 251 0791, or by cheque to the RIBA Architecture Centre at the above address.