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Interview with Paul Chutkow - THE AGA KHAN'S VISION 1983-09-01

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Event - 1983-09-01
Thursday, 1983, September 1
Chutkow, Paul

THE AGA KHAN'S VISION - To him, architecture is not the mother of the arts; it is the mother of civilization

To many Westerners, he is a dashing prince and one of the richest men on earth. To those in Thoroughbred racing, he is the accomplished owner of one of the world's greatest racing stables. The some fifteen million Ismaili Moslems - a sect of Islam with communities in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the West - he is their spiritual leader, a hereditary descendant of the prophet Mohammed. The Aga Khan is all of these, but what few people know is that there is another Aga Khan, a passionate, meticulous man of vision who has set out to start a peaceful revolution. This is the Aga Khan as architectural patron and master builder, the guiding intelligence behind a complex series of initiatives designed to use architecture to improve the way people live and work.

This month, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is giving international recognition and $500,000 in prize money to exemplary building projects in the developing world. The award was launched only five years ago, and its first fifteen winners were selected in 1980. But already the award is beginning to fulfill its aims. According to a number of architects, builders, and scholars, the award process is having a significant impact on planning and building, not just in the Islamic world but in the West as well.

To help commemorate this second round of awards, the Aga Khan spoke at length with Connoisseur about his deepening commitment to architecture and what he hopes to achieve. The interview took place at his Paris home on the Ile St. Louis, overlooking the river Seine. The house, built around a serene little inner courtyard, is furnished with a quiet elegance, and the atmosphere is formal yet warm. As at his secretariat, near Chantilly, north of Paris, one senses the Aga Khan's remarkable attention to detail and his joy in the play of light and shadow.

The Aga Khan himself is just as understated. At forty-six, he has none of the personal flamboyance for which his father, Prince Aly Khan, and his grandfather, Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, were internationally known. Named Karim at birth, he was only twenty years old when he succeeded his grandfather as the Aga Khan. Starting in July 1982 he marked his twenty-five years as the forty-ninth hereditary imam of the Ismaili community with a year-long celebration. Although personally somewhat self-effacing, the Aga Khan approaches all his work with a fierce concentration, and when the subject turns to architecture, he radiates a passionate intensity.

How did your commitment to architecture begin?

AK-What happened was that I inherited the office of imam in July 1957, at a time when the world was changing rather quickly: decolonization in Africa, new countries coming into existence in Asia. Change was rapid. In order to try to prepare for this change, I was concerned with providing my community with new institutions that would help to prepare it for the future. This meant new schools, new material institutions, banks, insurance companies, venture-capital companies. it meant, in a sense, creating a large number of new buildings in many countries of the Third World.

Whereas I think at that time everyone connected with these programs had a good understanding of what should be the content of the program - the nature of the service rendered - all of us had tense, terrible questions about the physical shape in which these programs should be implemented. The more I worked on this, and the more I saw other agencies doing the same thing, the more I became aware that there was very little questioning about what was happening in terms of the physical environment.

I asked myself, "What will the impact of this be on generations to come? Are the young people in these countries going to recognize their own cultural identity in these building ten, fifteen, or twenty years from now? Or, are they going to find themselves in a situation where they will have achieved political independence but will find it extremely difficult to revive their own cultural traditions?" What would be the consequence of political independence when cultural heritage is lost?

Maybe your interest in architecture really predates those questions. You come from a line of builders, after all, and you also studied engineering at Harvard.

AK-That's right, I had read for many, many years about all aspects of Islam. And certainly its built environment is one of the things one learns about, and the way in which that built environment reflects society, but I can't say that my education prepared me for the question I have just mentioned, for practical realities.

What did you do to answer the questions?

AK-The first thing I did was ask myself whether my concern was shared by other Moslems - and by non-Moslems, for that matter. I put together a group of people in the first seminar, which was at Aiglemont (his secretariat), in March 1978. I tried to bring into that seminar people who had rather traditionalist views and perceptions of Islam, and Moslems who had been educated totally in the Western world, and who had maybe a less traditionalist point of view, and non-Moslems.

The objective of the seminar was to determine whether the Islamic built environment was following what they felt was an appropriate direction, or not. The answer was unanimous. There was a serious doubt as to whether the built environment in the Islamic world - and in the Third World more generally - was going in an appropriate direction.

It was then that you thought of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture?

AK-The people who were with me decided that we would try to do two things. We would try, first of all, to heighten the sensitivity of all decision makers concerning the problems of the built environment in the Islamic world and the Third World. Then we decided to try to identify, within the words "total environment" or "built environment", what were the eight or ten key themes that needed to be discussed.

In other words, we were seeking to create an awareness of the problem, define it in more manageable terms, bring people together who were qualified to discuss the relevant issues, and then let people respond to them.

That was the genesis of the award. We felt that what we should put a premium on was good buildings, so that there was sense in the Islamic World, in the Third World, of what the master jury of the award felt was a good sense of direction.

You intended to teach by example rather than by precept. In looking back on the 1980 awards, do you think they have created prototypes and pointed a direction?

AK-I think they have. But we will need more time to tell what has been the total impact of the first awards. I think the existence of the award has definitely heightened in the Islamic world and in the Third World questions about how the built environment should look in the future. Clients of all forms - individuals, governments, associations, international agencies - don't seem to have the passiveness that there was in the past, at least not to the same extent.

I think the second thing the award has done has been to bring together not only architects, but also thinkers, sociologists, archaeologist, economists. The award has demonstrated that a good building isn't only a structure. A good building has an impact on people's perception of their cultural heritage. It has an impact on social balance or imbalance. It has an impact on people's outlook on life in terms of standards and in terms of awareness about building, building materials, and the construction industries: what is appropriate and what isn't A good building has an impact on ecology.

In other words, the award heightened people's understanding of architecture and its consequences. Were you surprised by that?

AK-I would say awed rather than surprised. Just raising issues wasn't really objective. The award wants to encourages architectural solutions to be different. I think they will definitely be different, for obvious reasons: demographic, economic, climatic - whatever it may be. But I think the awareness and the multiculturalism - or a multidisciplinary approach - are things that have now come across.

One is tempted to think that you see architecture as an instrument of social change.

AK-Yes, I do. I would prefer to call it an instrument for improving the quality of life. And I think you put your finger right on it. I genuinely believe that generations that are born, brought up, and live in better-quality surroundings have a different outlook on life. Architecture is, in my view, a method of creating development, well-being. And I think architecture, if it goes wrong, can be a source of conflict or destabilization.

Certainly it's been true in the past that in developing countries, too rapid a Westernization - be it in architecture or otherwise - has had political consequences.

AK-Yes, and I wouldn't limit the consequences to political consequences. I think some of these building have had very undesirable social consequences. You simply have got to accept the fact that every time you put a building in a community of people, in some way you affect that community of people.

Let's talk about your own building projects. You built a nursing school in Pakistan. Can such a building overcome or change people's attitudes in a positive way - from your standpoint - within an Islamic context?

AK-Yes, I think it can, for this reason: one of the most exhilarating experiences I have had in working in the Third World is people's practically instantaneous and emotional recognition of competence, of professionalism. It is wrong to think that people who do not have a Western education do not recognize competence of professional qualifications. They do.

What one is doing in a school of nursing, for example, is trying to give these young women a professional standard in a cultural context that is theirs. We are not taking them out of Pakistan, we are not educating them in a non-Moslem society. But we are trying to give them within their cultural context a professional education that they have not had access to before. Now, that is an educational experience, but it is also dealing with some of the non-medical aspects of medicine. And that is a process of change.

I find it very interesting that when you set out to heighten the awareness within the Islamic communities, the architects and other people involved in the project always say they had their consciousness heightened as well. There is a duality, a bridge, in your approach, isn't there?

AK-Yes, yes, I think the bridge is teaching people to think in a wider cultural context than they have had access to before. Maybe I should, if you don't mind, just mention the whole issue of teaching.

In the Islamic world, the most active architects are essentially professionals trained in Western schools of architecture in the Western world. Or they are architects who are Moslem, but who have been trained in architecture schools set up in the Islamic world in accordance with Western standards of design and Western methods of teaching. So there are many young architects from the Islamic world today, but they have not necessarily had exposure to the cultural heritage in their learning process.

Also, the Western architects are designing in a cross-cultural situation, one in which they have no previous experience. Their problem is that they haven't even had a reference point. The top Western architects have not known where to go to learn about the cultural expressions of Islam in the built environment, That resulted in my program at Harvard and at MIT.

You mean that you chose Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because they could reach Western architects, educating them to Moslem needs, and because so many Moslem architects attend them. But couldn't you have started the program in the Third World as easily?

Well, I see that the most important buildings in the Third World were high-tech buildings, and those commissions have been and are likely to continue to be practically the prerogative of Western high-tech architectural firms. Besides, it seemed perfectly possible that a program put together at Harvard and MIT could be required to have an outreach element in it, one that would recirculate the teaching material to schools of architecture in the Islamic world.

Thinking of it all - the award, the teaching program, plus your quarterly magazine on Islamic architecture and the architectural documentation service you started - it seems you must have a grand design.

AK-I think it's true to say that the result of all this thinking has created a rather simple question: Where is the built environment of the developing world, of the Islamic world, going? I hope that the questions will be asked, and that the tools and the people with answers will be more available than they have been in the past.

I cannot tell you what will be the built environment of the Islamic world in twenty-five years, because there will be different solutions in different parts of the world. But the grand design, if I could call it that, would be to try to encourage people - decision makers - to build for themselves an environment that is more appropriate, perhaps, than it's been in the past.

Obviously architecture, unlike some of the other arts offers an enormous lasting value, something almost commemorative. Is this part of its attraction for you?

AK-No. I think life changes, people change, buildings change. I think that they must be built to change. What I hope is that a building is permanent because it responds to a certain requirement but is flexible enough that people at a later time can make changes. I have seen a lot of frigid, rigid buildings that are built for a specific purpose at a specific time. Ten years later they no longer serve the function.

Architecture obviously can have an enormous spiritual component. How do you see modern architecture having a spiritual role in your community?

AK-Looking at it from a Moslem point of view, the industrialized world has attached a very great premium to materialism. Has there been, as a consequence to that, a dehumanization of society? Has the individual lost his sense of identity? What has been the impact on ethical standards, generally speaking? Have ethical standards fallen?

These are not just questions Islam raises; these are questions that thinking people around the world are asking. And I think that, insofar as possible, the development of the Islamic world's built environment should seek to answer these questions. Because Islamic architecture historically has paid specific attention to God's creation, particularly his manifestations through the beauty of nature. I think Islamic designers will have the sensitivity to help find creative, new answers.

Your Highness, you've made it very clear that you would like to change the way people live and the way people think.

AK-I'm trying to encourage people to ask questions without having the presumption of saying what the answers are.

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