Peeking into the future – the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture

By Mohammad al-Asad

Every three years, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture announces a set of winning projects that are exemplars of excellence relating to the built environment in the Islamic world. The award recently announced the winning projects for its 2010 (eleventh) cycle. Out of over 400 projects submitted for the award, the award jury shortlisted nineteen. Of these 19 high-quality finalists, five were selected as winners.

There are numerous ways of reading the significances of this final choice of winning projects made by the award’s nine-member jury. Although small in number, they have much to say. For me, they illustrate the evolution of very interesting strategies for addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the built environment in the Islamic world, and also in emerging countries as a whole. These relate to environmental/ecological issues, to heritage and identity, to industrialisation, as well as to the gradual but definite shift of cultural and economic energy from the West to emerging economies.

The five winning projects are the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands project in Riyadh; the Madinat Al Zahra Museum in Cordoba; the revitalisation of the Ville Nouvelle (new city) of Tunis; the Ipekyol Textile Factory in the Turkish city of Edirne; and the Bridge School in Xiashi in the Chinese province of Fujian (detailed information on these five projects is available at

The Wadi Hanifa project presents a very effective approach for addressing and reversing the all too common environmental degradation caused by excessive and insensitive urban growth. This 120-kilometre-long valley next to Riyadh had functioned as a watershed and an oasis that historically supported the city, providing it with water and arable land. As Riyadh underwent unusually explosive growth during the 1970s and 1980s, Wadi Hanifa suffered tremendously. It essentially became a dumping ground for all sorts of urban waste emanating from Riyadh, including garbage, building debris, and sewage. Over the past decade, a plan aimed at developing Wadi Hanifa as an environmental, recreational and tourist resource has been implemented. The wadi was cleaned of the garbage and debris that had been dumped into it for decades; construction in the wadi was heavily regulated, and illegal building in it was removed.

Also, the wadi has been revived as a natural conduit for flood water. Bio-remediation facilities have been installed to begin purifying the one million cubic metres of wastewater that the city pours into the wadi on a daily basis. In parallel to this, large-scale parks with streams and lakes have been created. The wadi as a result not only has reasserted its historical role as a watershed and an agricultural area, but also has emerged as a spacious green breathing space for the residents of Riyadh.

The Madinat Al Zahra museum is located next to the remains of the royal city that the Umayyad Caliph Abd Al Rahman III began building in 936AD, but that was deserted only eight decades later. In the 1990s, a master plan was developed for this important historical Arab-Muslim site to halt encroaching developments from nearby Cordoba. The plan called for the construction of a museum to be located at Madinat Al Zahra’s historical entrance. The museum, which was completed in 2008, was inserted into the ground, thus maintaining a sense of modesty next to this monument from the past, and fitting seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. Although primarily underground, the museum’s architects have ensured that natural light generously enters the complex through a series of patios that are open to the sky.

The revitalisation of the Ville Nouvelle in Tunis serves a double role. The project aims at upgrading the part of the city of Tunis that was developed under French colonial rule during the late 19thand first half of the 20thcenturies. On the one hand, it is an indicator of how the colonial heritage has been accepted as part of Tunisia’s past now that it has been over two generations since Tunisia gained independence. On another level, the project is one of considerable urban significance. It has rehabilitated a number of dilapidated buildings. It also has created 60,000 square metres of connected public spaces that are primarily reserved for pedestrians. In doing so, it has incorporated the spacious tree-lined pavements of colonial Tunis. Moreover, street lighting has been enhanced to encourage a more active and extensive use of the area after sunset. As a result, this part of Tunis has come to life as a vibrant and highly popular district.

The Epekyol Textile factory is one manifestation of Turkey’s ascendancy as a major industrial force. It also is one of the numerous high-quality industrial buildings that have been realised in Turkey over the past few decades. The factory’s design incorporates a sense of openness that brings both factory workers and administrators into one community where hierarchy is blurred. It creates a very comfortable work environment through features such as an elegant cafeteria, recreational areas, courtyards that bring in light and natural ventilation, and a rainwater collection system that feeds into a spacious and elegant reflecting pool.

The Bridge School is a stunning work of architecture that was built on a limited budget of less than $100,000. Since no site was set aside for a school in the village of Xiashi, the architect situated it over a valley through which a creak passes and that historically separated two sides of the village. The primary school is structurally supported by two steel trusses. This use of steel for the building’s skeleton is beautifully contrasted with the use of wood for its floors and walls. In addition to two classrooms and a library, the school includes a stage that opens to a wide paved area and that serves both the students and the residents of the village. Underneath the school structure is an actual narrow pedestrian bridge that zigzags over the valley. The design presents a beautiful, sensitive, but nonetheless bold solution for architecture within a relatively isolated rural setting. Such a project shows that China is not only a large-scale maker of industrial products, but also is emerging as a source of inventive solutions for the built environment.

These projects have much to say. They show the rising international presence of countries such as China and Turkey. Both not only boast some of the world’s highest rates of economic growth, but also are emerging as centres of cultural production. The inclusion of a project from China in an award primarily dedicated to the Islamic world also indicates that the issues affecting the built environment in both contexts have much in common. The Tunis project illustrates how the definition of heritage is being expanded to include the colonial past. It also provides a very high quality example of urban regeneration. The Madinat Al Zahra Museum, while primarily a heritage project, also is an example of how it is possible to build in a manner that is unobtrusive and sensitive to the surrounding natural and cultural landscape. The Wadi Hanifa project provides a model for how planning authorities can and should reverse the environmental degradation that decades of insensitive and destructive urbanisation have brought to our cities and their surroundings. As we look at those projects collectively, we get a glimpse into the future of the built environment and how we may address the various challenges it is facing.

via Jordon Times

About Ahmad Amirali

I am an educator by profession, pursuing my further career in teaching and learning. I love to read and, even more, love to share what I read.
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