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The Aga Khan Award Architecture: Elegant mix of the old and new

Wednesday October 5 2016

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The six award recipients, arrived at after long and sometimes heated discussion, accurately reflect the wide range of entries: a pedestrian bridge that privileges use over form; a sacred space that plays inventively with tradition; a project that is at once landscape and building; a bold, contemporary insertion into a traditional setting; a diminutive library operating on a much larger micro-urban scale, and an urban park that provides new forms of public space.

They include two buildings in Bangladesh, and one each in China, Denmark, Iran and Lebanon.

“Unique among architecture awards, the Aga Khan Award seeks projects across a vast range of contexts, cultures and conditions. Throughout its history, it has also celebrated works that straddle the sometimes uneasy divide between tradition and modernity," said the master jury chaired by Prof Luis Fernández, a lecturer at the School of Architecture of Madrid’s Universidad Politécnica, and the editor (since 1985) of the journals AV/Arquitectura Viva.

The winners were announced on October 3, 2006, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. A ceremony to celebrate them will be held at the Al Jahili Fort in Al-Ain in November.

In its statement, the jury said that in seeking the winners, they embraced the notion of plurality, exploring not just projects in diverse contexts, but also the boundaries of the discipline itself, recognising that new knowledge sometimes emerges in the lines between categories.

“For established practitioners, this posed a particular dilemma: how to identify merit in projects whose very terms force us to question the limits of our understanding. The traditional categories of our discipline — corporate, cutting-edge, infrastructure, socially responsive, environmentally sound — are not as fixed or concrete as they once seemed.



“How does one push an edge that is continuously shifting? If a woman may never enter a space that she herself has conceived and executed, then can that project be considered ‘cutting-edge’? Or if a building blurs the divide between landscape, dwelling and ecology, can it be considered to push the boundaries of all three? Rather than respect the conventional segregation of architecture into works of different scale and scope, the jury sought to paint a more nuanced and perhaps even pixelated portrait of a world — and a discipline — in a state of flux.

In such a context, a universal language of architecture no longer seems appropriate: what remains are creative and often modest site-specific responses that generate new vocabularies of their own.

The award scheme was set up by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismailia Muslims, in 1977, to venture beyond professional issues in architecture and reward works that add to quality of life, especially for people in the immediate neighbourhood.

In starting the award scheme, the Aga Khan said he wanted to emphasise the selection of architecture that not only provided for people’s physical, social and economic needs, but that also stimulated and responded to their cultural and spiritual expectations.

The award has been given every three years since 1977, and recognises all types of buildings that affect today’s built environment, from modest, small-scale projects to sizable complexes.

It not only rewards architects, but also identifies municipalities, builders, clients, master craftsmen and engineers who have played important roles in the realisation of a project. The award’s mandate is different from that of many other architecture prizes: it selects projects — from innovative mud and bamboo schools to state-of-the-art “green” buildings — that not only exhibit architectural excellence, but also improve the overall quality of life.


1. Bait Ur Rouf Mosque

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh - The
Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh - The Mosque is a perfect square that sits on a high plinth, which prevents floodwater from entering the structure, allows people to sit and talk, and creates a separation between the sacred site and the busy street. PHOTO | AKTC / Rajesh Vora

A refuge for spirituality in urban Dhaka, selected for its beautiful use of natural light.

Location: Dhaka, BangladeshArchitect: Marina TabassumClient: Sufia Khatun

Jury’s comments

In a transitional area caught between urban hyper-density and rural proximity, the terracotta mosque is an exquisitely proportioned building that is both elegant and eternal. Funded primarily by community donors, the mosque design challenges the status quo and understands that a space for prayer should elevate the spirit. The mosque does so through the creation of an interior space that is rich with light and shadow, but at the same time possesses a robust simplicity that allows for deep reflection and contemplation in prayer.

Column free prayer hall is raised on eight
Column free prayer hall is raised on eight peripheral columns, in addition to four light courts, random circular roof openings allows daylight into the prayer hall creating an ornate pattern on the floor enhancing spirituality through light - Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh. PHOTO | AKTC / Rajesh Vora

2. Friendship Centre

A community centre which makes a virtue of an area susceptible to flooding in rural Bangladesh. 

Location: Gaibandha, BangladeshArchitect: Kashef Chowdhury / URBANA

Client: Friendship NGO

Jury’s comments

Looking at the sunken brick compound of the Friendship Centre, one is reminded of the archaeological remains of the nearby Vasu Bihara Buddhist temple, built during the third and fourth century. The Friendship Centre blurs the boundaries between an archaeological site and an architectural and landscape project. Through its configuration and its use of grassed rooftops it becomes part and parcel of the surrounding landscape. This grounding is both literal and metaphorical. The quadrilateral layout and the skilful brickwork reflect continuity with local architectural traditions

Luxury of light and shadows; economy and
Luxury of light and shadows; economy and generosity of small spaces; joy of movement and discovery in the bare and the essential is what makes this gathering space a refuge for some of the poorest population - Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh. PHOTO | AKTC / Rajesh Vora

3. Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre

Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre,
Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre, Beijing, China - Once a typical “Da-Za-Yuan”-big messy courtyard- the architects redesigned, renovated and reused the informal add-on structures instead of eliminating them like most recent renovation practices. PHOTO | AKTC / ZAO/standardarchitecture, Wang Ziling

A children’s library selected for its embodiment of contemporary life in the traditional courtyard residences of Beijing’s Hutongs

Location: Beijing, ChinaArchitect: ZAO / standardarchitecture / Zhang Ke

Client: Dashilar Investment

Jury’s comments

Steps form an elevated reading nook in the
Steps form an elevated reading nook in the library are mimicked by a wide picture window, allowing children to climb up and look out as they flip through a volume or two - Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre, Beijing, China. PHOTO | AKTC / Wang Ziling, ZAO, standardarchitecture

Urbanisation in China has a complex relation with the past. How do you move forward while recognising the values of the built heritage? The response to this question has often led to a stark contrast between the old and the new, with the latter being seen as the sole marker of progress. Yet others have sought alternative strategies for urbanisation.

Increasingly, there is a call for a more nuanced consideration of the old and the existing as potentially indispensable parts of urban developments.

The Micro Yuan’er Children’s Library and Art Centre is an exemplary representative of the modification and adaptive re-use of a historic building.

The 9m² children’s public library built of
The 9m² children’s public library built of concrete mixed with Chinese ink was inserted underneath the pitched roof of an existing building - Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre, Beijing, China. PHOTO | AKTC / Su Shengliang, ZAO, standardarchitecture


Superkilen, Copenhagen, Denmark - Aerial view
Superkilen, Copenhagen, Denmark - Aerial view of Superkilen spreading over 30'000 m², showing Red Square for sports activities, Green Park the children’s playground, and Black Market the food market and picnic area. PHOTO | AKTC / Superflex

A public space promoting integration across lines of ethnicity, religion and culture.

Location: Copenhagen, DenmarkArchitects: BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, Topotek 1 and Superflex

Client: Copenhagen Municipality

Jury’s comments

Living with people who differ — racially, ethnically, religiously or economically — is the most urgent challenge facing contemporary civil society. At a time of growing global uncertainty and insecurity, it has become fashionable to talk in terms of ‘worlds’ – the third world, the Islamic world, the Arab world – as though these occupy a parallel universe, disconnected from the rest and subject to different rules. Superkilen, a new urban park in one of Copenhagen’s most diverse and socially challenged neighbourhoods, emphatically rejects this view with a powerful mixture of humour, history and hubris.

This urban park is identifiable and memorable,
This urban park is identifiable and memorable, Superkilen relates to the human scale and has a sense of activity, complexity and visual richness; all making it a highly walkable experience - Superkilen, Copenhagen, Denmark. AKTC / Kristian Skeie. PHOTO | AKTC / Kristian Skeie

5. Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge

A multi-level bridge spanning a busy motorway has created a dynamic new urban space.

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge, Tehran, Iran - The
Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge, Tehran, Iran - The structural concept resulted in a dynamic 3 dimensional truss with two continuous deck levels; this provided a lower level which is covered and therefore usable in all seasons. PHOTO | AKTC / Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh

Location: Tehran, IranArchitect: Diba Tensile Architecture / Leila Araghian, Alireza Behzadi

Client: Nosazi Abbassabad Co.

Jury’s comments

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise austere and haphazardly built area of Tehran. The challenge of connecting two parks separated by a highway is met with an approach that is exemplary in the context of an infrastructure project, not just in Tehran, but perhaps anywhere in the world.

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge, Tehran, Iran - The
Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge, Tehran, Iran - The structural concept resulted in a dynamic three dimensional truss with two continuous deck levels; this provided a lower level which is covered and therefore usable in all seasons. PHOTO | AKTC / Barzin Baharlouie

6. Issam Fares Institute

Issam Fares Institute, Beirut, Lebanon - The
Issam Fares Institute, Beirut, Lebanon - The design reduces the building's footprint by "floating" a reading room, a workshop conference room and research spaces above the entrance courtyard in the form of a 21-meters-long cantilever in order to preserve the existing landscape. Professionals describe the design as very contemporary, representative of its time and one that pushes the physical abilities of the materials used to the limit, while the art community views the building as a piece of art. PHOTO | AKTC / Cemal EmdenAKTC / Cemal Emden

A new building for the American University of Beirut’s campus, radical in composition but respectful of its traditional context

Location: Beirut, LebanonArchitect: Zaha Hadid ArchitectsClient: American University of Beirut

Jury’s comments

As the last in a series of buildings, the Issam Fares Institute completes the central oval courtyard of the upper campus of the American University of Beirut, located on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. This educational building solves a dense programme within a surprisingly small footprint in a manner that is sensitive to its context. With its contemporary form and the purity of its architectural language, the building differentiates itself from its neighbours, though it is not in conflict with the campus and its architecture.

A ramp leads between the centenary aged ficus
A ramp leads between the centenary aged ficus and cypress trees to connect the research lounges on the second floor directly with the campus - Issam Fares Institute, Beirut, Lebanon. PHOTO | AKTC / Cemal Emden