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Speech by His Highness at the Closing Winners' seminar of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Tuesday, 2001, November 6
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Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

I would wish to begin my closing remarks by first of all expressing my sincere thanks and deep feeling of gratitude on behalf of everyone connected to the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and from myself to the President of the Republic of Syria and to the Prime Minister and his Government for the most generous, thoughtful and constructive way in which they have enabled the Aga Khan Award for Architecture to hold its prize-giving ceremony and related events here in Aleppo.

I would also like to thank the Syrian Order of Architects and Urban Planners for their support. I am particularly touched by your references to my family’s history in your comments.

Next in order is to express my very warm and sincere congratulations to the winners. I think that the projects we saw yesterday, and which you articulated today, all carry in their own way important messages -- and important answers to difficult questions that, with the best of competence, you have been able to construct into physical developments we can all admire. I would also like to thank the Steering Committee that stood by my side these last three years as the Award progressed from one triennium to the next and as we tried to find our way through the issues that face the physical environment of Muslim communities and countries.

I also want to thank the Technical Reviewers. I do not think it has been sufficiently stressed that the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is very fortunate to have a large team of men and women who devote their time and their knowledge to going and examining the projects that are retained for deeper analysis by the Master Jury. It is a difficult assignment and the quality of the Jury’s decision-making process is, to a certain extent -- I would say to a large extent -- dependent on the quality of the detailed analysis carried out by the Technical Reviewers.

The essence of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is to examine, analyse, understand, and try to influence the dynamic of physical change in Islamic societies. The dynamic of physical change in Islamic societies is a very wide notion. It is not limited to cities, and it is not limited to professions. Its focus is the totality of civil society, as we know it.

It is society that is changing every day around the world. Our attempt, our aspiration, our prayer is to try to have the humility, but also the competence, to understand what is happening and to seek to influence it so that future generations can live in a better environment.

In defining the physical environment in these terms, we are including the ultra poor and the ultra-rich. We are covering the full spectrum of poverty and material wealth. In my view, it would be seriously wrong to ignore either end of that spectrum. That is why architecture for the poor, building for the poor, building by the poor, is an extremely important component of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

I have been particularly pleased during this triennium to see how many projects seek to address, competently and intelligently, the different circumstances in which poor people are living.

In looking at the Award, there are two issues that come on to the table: The first is the quality of the individual projects, a topic that was discussed extensively during this seminar today. The second, equally important, is the process. What was the dynamic behind the projects? Who contributed, and how did they contribute to creating the projects that were premiated at this triennium? It is fascinating when you look at the rural projects in terms of this dynamic. They ranged from village organisations that did not exist before to one person who was concerned about the unhealthy diet in an area of Africa.

These issues of the change in the rural environment are issues of deep concern to the Islamic world because, as I said yesterday, more than 50% of the Islamic world lives in a rural environment. We cannot, therefore, afford to ignore asking: What are the processes of change in the rural environment and how we can encourage them to progress? We cannot ignore modern life and the need for Islamic societies to improve their economies. Therefore, we cannot ignore industry, we cannot ignore tourism, and we cannot ignore high-tech infrastructure if we want to have the capacity to respond to those dimensions of physical change. Nor can we afford to ignore our history as expressed in extraordinary buildings. We have to learn and we are learning, but we cannot simply learn and not revitalise at the same time. And as we know, the process of revitalisation is very sensitive.

So I would say this evening that what we are seeking to do -- and I am referring particularly to the winners -- is to join with you as partners in making available your knowledge, your talent, your creativity, to the widest spectrum of people we can reach. We believe that in the decades ahead the process of physical change in the Islamic world will benefit from not only looking at best practices, but also thinking of excellent practices. This emphasis on excellence means making people aware of the exceptionality of quality -- not just best practice -- through your work. If we were able to make it available to decision-makers, town halls, architects, clients, and the media, we would be making your work available to the spectrum of people who actually cause change to occur in the physical environment. We look to you as our partners in this exercise.

I wanted to say that to you this evening because it is going to be your generosity of thought and time that is going to help us take -- to rural communities around the world for example -- case studies of the best that is being done to facilitate the process of positive change in rural environments, the best of what is being done in adapting the leisure industry to our societies, and the best of what is being done adapting infrastructure to our needs.

Today, we have learned some specific lessons about a large number of areas. I will touch on them very briefly.

We have learned about new ways of helping rural societies to change, how to house important activities in small but elegant and cost-conscious quality buildings. We have learned about new approaches to institutionalising the human capacity to educate and to extend its knowledge. We have learned about high quality technology that is affordable for poor environments and communities. We have learned about new materials that are being developed and used, often along with locally available materials. We learned about conservation, restoration and re-use and some of the complexities of revitalisation. We have been told that the role of the architect is not necessarily easy to define because there is some difference of opinion as to whether architects have to come out of schools of architecture or whether they can be brought out from the community with the inherited knowledge of tradition. We have heard about sensitive development in fragile ecological settings. We have also heard about open spaces and recalled that, historically, open spaces were extraordinary places of gathering and spirituality in the Islamic world. Today, they are endangered by demographic pressures that are squeezing them practically out of existence. It has required a real search to find new initiatives in developing quality open spaces in the Islamic world of today.

All of these issues have come out of this cycle of our studies. We hope to make your work and your talent available to the largest number of people, as effectively as possible. I would like to close by assuring you that we will continue on this long search to build a system whereby processes enhance the quality of change in Islamic societies.

Thank you.

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