Aga Khan Honored for Contributions to Islamic Architecture

Aga Khan Honored for Contributions to Islamic Architecture

Spiritual leader is recipient of 2005 Vincent Scully Award

Kids play in al-Azhar park
Egyptian kids play in Al-Azhar park in Cairo. The park, which had served as a garbage dump, is now a shining example of urban renewal thanks to support from the Aga Khan foundation. (©AP/WWP)

By Najwa Saad
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington — The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims and the head of one of the world’s largest private development agencies, has received the prestigious 2005 Vincent Scully Award for his contributions to architecture and historic preservation in the Muslim world.

At a recent ceremony in the National Building Museum in Washington, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, Carolyn Schwenker Brody, said the Aga Khan has been chosen for the 2005 Scully award “in tribute to the immense impact the Aga Khan is making, creating a beautiful window through which we can view the Muslim world.”

The Aga Khan has been a patron of Muslim architecture and urban planning since 1977, when he founded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. With prizes of $500,000, it is the world’s richest architectural award.

According to its Web site, the Aga Khan award strives to “enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture.” The award is given for “contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, restoration, reuse, and area conservation, as well as landscaping and environmental issues.” The award is a collaborative study program at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an online community of architects, urban planners, interior designers, and scholars called

In accepting the Scully prize, the Aga Khan said, “I profoundly believe architecture is not just about building but about improving the quality of life.”

He stressed that Muslim countries must preserve the architectural continuity of their past as they modernize. He said that Islamic tradition values public space, but the pressures of economic and urban development are threatening this tradition.

“This used to be an important form; we need to restore materials, form and symbols of interpretation of faith, of viewing the future. Beauty should be respected and developed. We’ve lost this link with the past of the Islamic world,” the Aga Khan said at a seminar, “Design in the Islamic World and its Impact Beyond,” the day after he received the award.

During the seminar, the Aga Khan said Islamic architecture is for pluralist societies.

Aerial view of al-Azhar park
Al-Azhar park, shown in this aerial view, is expected to have a long-range beneficial impact, including providing the benefits of tourism to the neighborhood. (AKTC/Gary Otte)

“The nature of the Muslim world is pluralistic: languages, culture, and environment … cultures deserve to be respected and not washed aside”

“[T]he whole notion of pluralism is tied to respect for cultural identities,” he said. “In the Qur’an, man is God’s noblest creation to whom he has entrusted … the environment.”

The Aga Khan said that, through his support for Islamic architecture, he works “with people from all faiths and nationalities to examine issues in the built environment.” He said the projects he supports offer designs that strive to “improve the daily lives of users and beneficiaries.”

He explained how the right architecture can “result in new economic activity and better quality of life,” adding: “we have created a momentum that has been a sustaining, unstoppable force for change in the Muslim world.”

Al-Azhar Garden in Cairo, Egypt, which will open to the public on March 25, is the most recent example of an Aga Khan-supported project that will have a long-range beneficial impact. For more than a decade, the Geneva-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture provided inspiration, funding and management, working with local authorities to make the 30-hectare park a reality. The park, which had served as a dump with garbage piled 7.5 meters deep for over 500 years, is now a shining example of urban renewal.

“If you invest in these spaces, you can turn them into economic generators,” said the Aga Khan. He said the garden is “bringing a totally new economic context to 250,000 people” in the area.

The garden is expected to provide the benefits of tourism to the neighborhood. During the construction of the garden, the Aga Khan Development Network invested in economic development outside the garden by offering micro-credit for small businesses, rehabilitating buildings and setting up community organizations to create gathering places.

In 2004 the Aga Khan Award for Architecture was given for the Alexandria Library of Egypt, the Gando Primary School in Burkina Faso, Sandbag Shelter Prototypes in various locations, the Old City Revitalization Program in Jerusalem and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Past awards have gone to rehabilitation projects such as Hebron Old Town in the West Bank, the Salinger Residence in Malaysia and the Slum Networking area in India. It has also been granted to the restoration of Bukhara Old City in Uzbekistan, the conservation of Old Sana’a in Yemen and construction of the Mosque of the Grand National Assembly in Turkey. Complete multi-media information may be found at:

The Scully award was established in 1999 in honor of Vincent Scully, professor emeritus of art history at Yale University, who taught generations of architects, planners, art historians and politicians. Scully has defined architecture as “continuing dialogue between generations that creates an environment across time.”

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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