Notes on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Excerpts from paper titled ‘Difference as Diversity: Revealing Orientalist Constructs in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture’ submitted for the ISACS 2009 Conference ‘Integrating Diversity’ at Suvarnabhumi

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Academic discourse often celebrates diversity for its conceptual resistance to the homogenizing forces of globalization. It’s fascination with local, regional or authentic interpretations of architecture today also points to it’s acknowledgement of ‘difference’ and a recognition of the distant, marginalized ‘other’ (Bhabha 2006). So inherent to the acceptance of diversity is also the recognition of difference. In fact, as I will explain, diversity is just a euphemism for difference. What becomes ‘appropriate’ for a specific context and in turn constitutes diversity, can also be understood as an embodiment of difference. This postmodern relativism has reinforced (if not created) the concept of diversity where different people have different modes of expression. And in this condition there is no singular basis to assess an architectural (now socio-cultural) product.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) is positioned within this exact postmodern condition. At the launch of the exhibition for the Tenth Award Cycle, 2005-2007 at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, Mohsen Mostafavi explained the role of the award “in bringing the best of the architecture of the Muslim world to the attention of the international community.” The international community recognizes architectural production from the Islamic world. This paper focuses on this act of recognition in awarding architecture from the geographical region defined by the Islamic world. I will argue the formation of a polarity between this entire region (the Islamic world) and that representing it (the west) that tends to localize concerns of the region  and in the bargain de-contextualize itself from them. Socio-cultural supercedes the discussion, forming an ‘other’ of different consistencies – a kind of Orientalism. Consumed by its critical position in western academia and fortifying the postmodern ideals of pluralism and diversity, the AKAA awards a remote concern, and the resultant architectural product, and so receives attention by the west for just that.


I would like to clarify at the outset that this paper is not critical of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, but of a postmodern condition in which the Aga Khan Award, as much as the rest of us, finds itself. I am sympathetic to the award’s ‘cause’ but critical of aestheticization of that cause that amounts only in pronouncing the marginality of architectural production from the geographical region being called the Islamic world.

The AKAA was established in 1977 by His Highness The Aga Khan, leader of the Shi`i Isma`ili Muslims, “to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture.” This might seem a formidable task considering the contemporary understanding between Islam and international media.  But if that were not enough, the award has another, much larger goal in “seek[ing] to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence” (AKAA website). The award attempts to bring these two very different (and I will argue mostly incommensurable) goals seamlessly within a single endeavor. The first clearly involves the international community recognizing architectural production from the Islamic world. And the second, to award those architectural projects that are relevant to their specific context and meet community needs and aspirations. Can these two goals really be conflated into one clear category for an award? And if not, which goal supersedes the other? I will begin by explaining the first and then the second and finally proceed to explain their possible incommensurability as a kind of orientalism.

The Politics of Inclusion

“…the award has successfully promoted a message of pluralism in a world that badly needed it…” (Ismail Serageldin)

How does an award like the AKAA come into existence in the way it does? What about architecture in the Islamic world is so appealing for scholarship in the west today? Should we just consider this interest as a softer-cultural kickback from rampant western (American) presence in the region similar in sense to, ‘since we’ve occupied the region, lets know a little bit about it’? Or as efforts by certain Islamic groups to circulate images of hope and aesthetic beauty within international media, now flooded with images of Islamic terrorism? I will present a brief historiographical background of the study of architecture in the Islamic world that would suffice to contextualize the (surprisingly simple) relationship of the west, the AKAA and architecture from the Islamic world.

The study of Islamic architecture in the west has a history fraught with controversy. In fact, when it comes to Islamic architecture today, the international community of scholars has much to apologize for; for constantly imagining the orient as a monolithic, unchanging, decadent culture; for Delacroix’s fantasies; and for placing Islamic architecture as a degenerate branch in Sir Bannister Fletcher’s genealogical tree; and for further assigning it an anthropological category; and especially for denying it any heredity from antique culture. Western orientalist scholarship, since French colonialism in Africa in the nineteenth century, cannot be seen without its ideological underpinnings. Edward Said, the renowned literary and cultural critic, explained the orient as a social and intellectual ‘construct’ in the minds of western orientalists emphasizing the imperialist prejudice that played itself out in their scholarship and work. In his book Orientalism, he explained the word-title as a mode for defining the presumed cultural inferiority of the Islamic Orient. He claimed that Islamic civilization has been victimized. He occupied a formidable position in western academia and his intellectual contribution was of great importance to the very establishment of Islamic art and architecture as a field of study within the larger discipline of art history in the west. Said’s contribution to the study of the Islamic world can be understood better within a larger trajectory of developments in the post-war era.

Post-war decolonization of the Islamic world (as defined by the award) caused a wave of scholarship amongst western scholars which has now been termed as ‘apologist’ writing. New voices and newer narratives were being heard from around the region. From the fifties and through the sixties scholarship in the west took up the study of Islamic art and architecture in a self-corrective mode – to de-essentialize, pluralize, and secularize studies in Islamic art and architecture. It is within this self-corrective mode in western scholarship that I will position the AKAA. This postmodern intellectualism in the west, in its ‘self-corrective mode’, also allows architecture from the Islamic world to be part of architectural discourse. The award then is a more recent act of apology for over a century of stigmatization of the field of Islamic architecture. This explains the broader relationship between the west and the study of the Islamic world and begins to contextualize the AKAA today. But this relationship needs to be nuanced much further.

Postmodernism privileges the margins. In critiquing modernism’s totalitarian and universalist claim to knowledge and values, postmodernism ‘allows’ a voice to previously marginalized communities (women, blacks, homosexuals, Muslims?). This relativistic position welcomes pluralism and heterogeneity. In the words of Terry Eagleton “consensus is [considered] tyrannical and solidarity nothing but soulless uniformity.” Cultural diversity becomes a mantra. Plurality is the new universalism. We are seeing the trends of secularization, de-essentialization and consequent politicization of western discourse and their direct translation into relevant approaches for the study of Islamic Architecture. The AKAA demands inclusion, in a postmodern condition that allows for inclusion. But I argue that its inclusion is ‘conditioned on’ and also ‘limited to’ the critical position it occupies within western discourse. This implies that the AKAA can exist within western discourse only as long as it maintains its critical position to it.

Since its inception, the award has been committed to issues pertaining to social upliftment, sustainable development, conservation of regional and indigenous architecture and Islamic identity with respect to technology and modernity. Architectural solutions to the various pressing issues of poverty and inadequate infrastructure in various parts of the Islamic world were recognized as pushing the boundaries of the architectural discipline itself. The role of the architect became much more that of a social agent. The award made explicit its critical position towards the entire basis for assessing and awarding architectural excellence by recognizing a gamut of projects that have been simply excluded from the purview of western architectural academia and practice. This is only one of the paradigmatic changes that this award has brought about. However, here also lies the limitation to the representational system of the award. Its inherent political nature, which at times rejects western formats and systematically critiques western discourse, remains within the highly charged political realm of discourse and in the bargain undermines its own capacity to be incorporated in the canon. Since the awarded architecture has great symbolic value, each awarded building must clearly represent symbolically its critique but more often than not, these buildings represent their positions aesthetically. This is in direct reference to images of mud, thatch, bamboo, alternate technologies, ranging into Islamic motif and heritage. The very localness and marginality of the awarded architecture and in most cases, the cultural and regional difference becomes the condition for its inclusion into critical discourse. Difference is the condition for inclusion.

And this difference does not imply the breakdown of modern hegemonic structures. The critical discourse that the awarded architecture provides can also be understood as a western construction (of the other). John Biln, in his article titled (De)forming Self and Other: Towards an Ethics of Distance, describes the Institut Du Monde Arabe, Paris designed by architect Jean Nouvel as a “…self-imposed architectural criticism of western constructions of the other.” By reading the building through its architect’s intentions (who received an AKAA in the fourth cycle), Biln deconstructs the articulation of ‘Arab’ and ‘west’ in the architecture of the building. He claims that both are produced by the same “practices and discourses of the west…and both serve the same cultural community.” What this points to is that in this case the other ‘is constructed by’ and ‘is of’ the west, but is represented as though in opposition (and so eludes its western origins). Difference or diversity is used as a blanket for ‘sameness’. Arab identity, in the case of the Institut Du Monde Arabe is also a product of western discourse.

As a model, the AKAA supports pluralism and diversity with its attentiveness to social and economic need, cultural identity, and encourages practises based on climate, geography, local materials and local cultural traditions. A quick reading of its goals immediately points to the western pedagogical trends from the sixties up to the eighties; tropicalism, traditionalism, vernacularism and critical regionalism; that positioned themselves as resistive to the international style. The award played into each of these categories in its various cycles, evolving with critical discourse produced in the west. The recipients of the AKAA consciously resist the homogenization and internationalization of society and aesthetics and in a highly critical way create diversity. They receive great attention from the west but do they have the desired impact within their own context? It is my contention that what is critical to western discourse is not necessarily coincident with what is relevant to a specific ‘other’ context.

The Aesthetic of Difference

“Architects of the west do not specifically make western buildings. Architects of the non-west are expected to. Even architects of the west working in the non-west in one way or another find themselves obliged to deal with the issue of non-western identity.” (Vikramaditya Prakash)

Hassan Fathy, a noted Egyptian architect and a staunch proponent of vernacularism in architecture, developed a construction system that deployed locally produced, low-cost mud-brick to create domed and vaulted building forms reminiscent of regional architecture of the lower Nile valley. Fathy was celebrated in the west and his book Architecture for the Poor was published by the University of Chicago Press. However, as the problematic aspects of his Gourna project emerge in recent research (Elsheshtawy), we realize that his attempts at appropriating traditional means and forms to create a contemporary Egyptian identity were fervently rejected by the local residents. The houses, they claimed, reminded them of tombs, and were so not livable. The rejection of the project was simply ignored by the west. Fathy himself measured the project’s success in that it caught the imagination of tourists and visitors from other countries (Elsheshtawy). He received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (Chairman’s Award) in 1980 for his contribution to architecture in the Islamic world.

The New Gourna Housing project, Egypt: Mosque (left)

One of the few remaining houses, New Gourna, Egypt

House Interiors, New Gourna, Egypt: Mud arches, squinches and domes

How can we reconcile this fascination with local, regional or authentic interpretations of architecture? And can this fascination be so divorced from the needs and aspirations of the user? I am not claiming that these readings of ‘region’ and ‘west’ are incommensurable in every case; my intent was simply to expose the polarity formed between this region and that representing it – the west – that tends to localize concerns of that entire region and thus de-contextualize itself from them. The criticality of Hassan Fathy’s architecture in western academia and media was incisive. He represented everything the western architect would never be but would always aspire to be. The question, however, is not of success or failure of a project.

Fathy’s architecture for the poor not only employed poor (local) materials and methods, but also aestheticized poverty. The architecture could not just be poor, but it required to represent its being poor. It is not enough that the role of the architect, the social cause for his architecture, and his quest for localizing production were far removed from the western context; but that architectural aesthetic too embodied this difference in its representation of the cause. This ofcourse points to a larger crisis within the discipline of architecture. Architecture cannot only ‘be’ but also must present its ‘being’ in a comprehensible way. The award is no different. Each building represents its cause. In most cases, buildings awarded the AKAA are exceptional symbolic ‘and aesthetic’ responses to their cause. Therefore, architecture for the poor must also represent its cause in its making. Otherwise it would not impact sufficiently the discourse that it was meant to critique.

His Highness The Aga Khan, at the Aga Khan Award ceremony held at Humayun’s Tomb, India on 27th November, 2004, recapitulated what concerned the Aga Khan Award;

“The issues we have been attempting to address through the process of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture are not exclusive to the Muslim world. The non-Muslim world struggles equally with explosive population growth, poverty, environmental degradation, exodus from rural areas, globalization and the impact on cultural identity of new forms of media. I am therefore convinced that supporting diversity and cultures under threat is a worthwhile and fruitful venture.”

In due course of time, the AKAA has begun to represent even the non-Muslim developing world and consequently the geographical regions they occupy. The award could never really be restricted to Muslim society. Since it played into the binaries of traditional/modern, local/international, religious/secular it was only a matter of time that the award would recognize regionalist architecture across the developing world (now interchangeable with Islamic world), attempts at responding to tropical climates, developing national identities for emerging nations, and social and technological sustainability.

Now the ‘region’ embodies difference with the award addressing concerns far removed from those of the west, as an ‘other’, and further aestheticizing this ‘otherness’ by recognizing architectural manifestations of the same. Disguised in the euphemism of cultural diversity a larger ideological politics plays itself out creating a geo-political polarity. An orient is (re)formed as a site of ‘otherness’. Consumed by its critical position in western academia and fortifying the postmodern ideals of pluralism and diversity, the AKAA then reminds us constantly of the presence of those specific ‘conditions’ as to the inclusion of architecture from the Islamic world into the canon of western architectural discourse.

During the sixth award cycle of the AKAA, critical architecture was explained as that which represents the possibility of knowledge, of a better world. The award occupies this position. But in attempting to be critical of a larger discourse and safeguarding its position within it, the award only assumes a critical position towards an ‘imagined’ Islamic World in the west. This in no way ensures its engagement with the Islamic world. In fact it constructs another Islamic world, an orient, a region of different consistencies. In that it awards a remote concern, and its architectural product, and so receives attention by the west for just that.


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Mostafavi, Mohsen. (2008). Event welcome address, Brochure, Aga Khan Award for Architecture Tenth Award Cycle, 2005-2007 Event to launch exhibition at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Bierman, Irene A. Text and Context in Islamic Cities, p. 46.

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. The Islamic city-Historic Myth, Islamic Essence and Contemporary Relevance Source: International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 155-176 Cambridge University Press

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Prakash, Vikaramaditya. Identity Production in Postcolonial Indian Architecture: Re-covering What We Never Had, Postcolonial space(s) G. B. Nalbantoglu and C. T. Wong (Eds.). (1997). New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 39-52.

Biln, John. (De)forming Self and Other: Towards an Ethics of Distance, Postcolonial space(s) G. B. Nalbantoglu and C. T. Wong (Eds.). (1997). New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 25-38.

Nalbantoglu, Gulsum Baydar. Introduction, Postcolonial space(s) G. B. Nalbantoglu and C. T. Wong (Eds.). (1997). New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 7-12.

Holod, Renata. Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Award in Perspective, Architecture Beyond Architecture. Cynthia C. Davidson and Ismail Serageldin, (Eds.). (1995). London: Academy Editions.

Intervention Architecture: Building for Change. (2007). London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd., for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Elsheshtawy, Yasser. The Mythical East: Architectural Metaphors in Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North, Crossing Boundaries: Architecture and the Influence of other Disciplines, Built Environment Vol 31 No.1 pp. 21-30 (

Said, Edward. Intellectuals, p.48

Eagleton, Terry. After Theory:  The Politics of Amnesia, p. 13

Khosla, Romi. (c.2002). The Loneliness of a Long Distant Future: Dilemmas of Contemporary Architecture. New Delhi: Tulika Books, p. 71

AKAA Website

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