The Aga Khan's search for tomorrow's Taj Mahals

Gathering entries for $500,000 in prizes for the best contemporary Islamic architecture anywhere in the world has shown up a surprising lack: No clear standard exists for judging good modern Muslim architecture.

Moreover, some of the finest examples of ancient Islamic architecture are rapidly being wiped out by new construction that is turning old Muslim cities, rich in the Islamic tradition, into glass-box clones of any modern Western city.

With these problems in mind, Prince Karim el Hussaini Shah, the Aga Khan IV, one of the biggest builders of Muslim construction, has decided that the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim, needs to learn about the strength and vast diversity of the Islamic environment.

This spiritual leader and temporal guide of some 20 million Is maili Muslims, a sect of the Shia branch of the faith, is now pouring $11.5 million into his alma mater, Harvard University, and into Massachusetts Institute of TEchnology to establish an education and research program. Its formal name is the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture.

He had already (in 1977) set up the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the first 15 winners of which will be announced in Lahore, Pakistan, in late October. Henceforth, winners will be chosen every three years for outstanding Islamic architecture located in any Muslim country or serving any Muslim peoples.

Categories include middle- and low-income housing, community designs, public buildings, landscaped gardens, and restorations that give some imaginative new uses to old buildings.

On the awards steering committee are Harvard's Oleg Grabar, professor of Islamic art and chairman of its deaprtment of fine arts, and MIT's William L. Porter, dean of its School of Architecture and Planning. It was out of their discussions with the Aga Khan that the joint education program emerged.

To deepen scholarship, they will add to the faculty at both institutions highly qualified teachers of Islam's architectural past and present. They intend to build up in these two institutions one of the best collections anywhere of written and visual information on Islamic architecture. And they plan to disseminate this information widely to other institutions and individuals, especially in the Muslim world.

This will help architects, planners, and government officials to design new environments that reflect a sense of Islamic history and culture.

Already 25 graduate students from Muslim countries are studying architecture and urban planning in the new program at the two schools.

As our interview with the two educators began, Professor Grabar blurted out: "This is a day I wish had never existed!"

He pulled out a Persian newspaper. "This gives a list of major monuments that have been leveled by the mullahs in Iran. Pasargadae almost completely destroyed. That's in southern Iran about 30 miles north of Persepolis."

He ran his finger down a long list of casuaties all over the country: a 12 th-century building, a caravan inn, two mosques.

"According to the person who sent this to me, anything that has been restored by the late Shah's regime is being systematically torn down. I do know that shortly after the revolution one ayatollah did try to bulldoze Persepolis, just raze it from existence. He was stopped from doing that , so apparently he instead has destroyed Pasargadae, which is less important."

In Iran, revolutionary motives may be powering the bulldozers. Elsewhere in the vast Muslim realm what is driving them is simply the desire for the new and technologically advanced.

"With cities worldwide becoming more important as centers of commerce and the propagation of modern culture and values," says Dean Port er, "it is not surprising that the leaders of Muslim countries would reach toward the very essence of modernity -- western European and North American models. . . .

"But when you see the same office building repeated in city after city, you suspect that the clients and designers may not be paying much attention to local culture, climate, or ways of life, and may be making a less-than-thinking use of models imported from elsewhere in the world."

Most of the new buildings in the oil-rich Gulf states, he points out, have been designed by architects from other nations.

"What the Aga Khan hopes to find in an architecture," Dean Porter continues, "is an awareness of the past and of local climatic conditions, and that uses materials which take advantage of these factors, as well as eloquently expressing the social patterns, traditions, and rituals of a particular area. . . . That is the art -- seeking for that appropriatenesS."

The Aga Khan's concern for Islamic design stems directly from the position he holds. The Prince's family claims direct descent from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The tall, darkly handsome Aga Kan, or "honored leader," has no temporal powers. But along with the immense privileges of his title, he bears responsibility for the economic wellbeing of all Ismailis.

When he was installed in 1957 at age 20 as Hazar Imam, or Omnipotent Priest, he pledged to devote his life to receive up to 10 percent of their incomes, most of which he returns to them in the form of social-welfare projects.

His own people live in some 25 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia , concentrated mainly in Pakistan, India, and Iran. But because he has a broad sense of social obligation, he is concerned for the welfare of all Muslims in the nearly 70 countries where they constitute either a majority or a substantial minority.

While he was a student at Harvard, he was known simply as "K." A shy, serious-minded, straight-A student, he specialized in Oriental history, taking time out for sports and playing parts in the satirical Hasty Pudding shows.

In 1957 his wealthy grandfather, the Aga Khan III, leapfrogged over his two playboy sons to name his eldest grandson, Prince Karim, as his successor. From the moment he was installed, the new Aga Khan determined to do his utmost to bring education among his followers up to the levels of Christian learning.

Today he is building schools, clinics, hospitals, religious and community buildings, shopping centers, and other structures throughout the Muslim world.

As a change of pace, since 1962 he has been giving the economy of Sardinia a long-term boost by building Costa Smeralda, a beautiful luxury resort on that Mediterranean island, including one enchanting hotel in Islamic style.

Here as elsewhere the Aga Khan is fastidious about architecture. No junky, jazzy, or otherwise unworthy design is permitted in the "Emerald Coast" community. It is his ideal that this same respect for the Islamic culture be shown throughout the Muslim world.

But he has run into a vast ignorance of Muslim culture. Most everyone knows something about the architecture of Islam, if only from gazing at countless pictures of India's Taj Mahal mirrored in its shimmering pools. Jerusalem, architecturally speaking, is the world's best-preserved 14th- century Muslim city. And Hollywood has projected the familiar image of minarets, domes, and crenelated ramparts springing from bone -dry lands of the Middle East and North Africa.

Even though Islamic monuments, mosques, schools, hospitals, palaces, and houses are scattered across the immense sweep from Morocco to China, cover hundreds of years of historic development,serve nearly a billion Muslims, and encompass a fantastically rich assortment of styles that exceed in variety even the many architectural periods of Christian history, most people are woefully uninformed aboutt Islamic architecture. Its scholars are few. And the main trouble is that the best writing about it is avilable only in huge tomes sequestered in dusty archives, and is locked into more than 25 languages.

There are architectural schools in some Muslim countries. But most of them are new, with only Turkey and Egypt possessing comparatively old schools. Teachers have been trained mainly in the Western tradition, and until very recently most of this instruction did not encourage Muslims to study their own architecture -- Turkey being the exception. The main complaint among Muslim students at Harvard and MIT is that they had to come to the United States to learn about their own architectural heritage.

Thus today the Mideast is full of fake Moorish castles, phony parapets, and tasteless ornamentation pasted onto modern structures, and architects are ignorant of their errors.

This lack of knowledge persists. As recently as last January, one Western teacher gave a color-slide presentation at a conference in Saudi Arabia on the principles of design in Per sian cities. And, according to Professor Grabar, "Every identification he made and every date he gave were wrong. It was as if he had showed a picture of Chartres and called it St. Peter's. It simply won't do!

"Yet if I were to tell him, 'You should know better. Look up Isfahan,' I would be hard to put to give him an easy, accessible, cheap book in which information on that Iranian city would be available. I could direct him to very learned works, but not to a simple means of correct information. This is constantly our problem. There is, for instance, not a single book on Muslim architecture in Indonesia, even though Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world."

Professor Grabar says it would never occur to anyone to ask him for an example of Christian or European architecture.

"By now our consciousness of what they are is sufficiently precuse that you would say: 'I would like to see a Romanesque or a Baroque church, or a Russian or an English palace.' Whereas now people say to me, 'I want to see something Islamic.'

"You can give them a picture of the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal and even though they are 5,000 miles apart and separated about 300 years in time, the assumption is that it is all the same thing."

Dr. Grabar has spent 25 years studying Islamic art, mostly in the Middle East , and becomes the Aga Khan Professor at Harvard this academic year. (prof. Dogan Kuban of Istanbul Technical University is MIT's vising Aga Khan Professor for one year beginning this fall.) Yet he confesses that until recently even he was "taken over by the notion that the Islamic world is the dry lands where water is the holy thing which one tries to preserve and control. But in Indonesia water is the enemy, too much of it -- the horror you want to get rid of.

"Obviously dry-lands architecture designed to preserve water couldn't be used there. Something different had to be created. But this variety of the Muslim world is something that most of us, including Muslims, have just not been aware of. . . . One of the problems of Islamic countries now is to start discovering their own internal richness, their own evolution and development. If the West was not the same in the 12th century, why should the Muslim world be the same?"

Now that the Aga Khan has set up his education program and award, the award steering committee must think through the fascinating question of what contemporary Islamic architecture should be. Feeling its way along, the committee has held five seminars in various parts of the world.

Dean Porter points out that the issue is clouded by the fact that almost every Islamic architectural form is drawn from precedents. After all, architectural design was well under way when the Prophet Mohammad received the inspiration in AD 610 on which he based his monotheistic preaching.

For example, Ottoman Turks, much taken by the dome of the Hagia Sophia basilica, built originally as a Christian church, emulated it widely.

"And there is certainly at least a striking visual similarity," the dean says , "between Muslim minarets and the fire towers of the Zoroastrians (followers of the ancient Persian prophet, Zoroaster)."

Instead of merely mimicking motifs from the past, Professor Grabar suggests that architects adopt the following features derived from traditional buildings:

* Spaces where the whole community can gather.

* Signs of identification (a geometric pattern, or calligraphy identifying a building as a mosque, a school, etc.)

* Sophisticated gradation of space between public spaces and private dwellings, and within private dwellings, ranging from public to semupublic, and from semiprivate to private.

* Treatment of wall surfaces.

"Compared with the inventions of Western architecture in the Middle Ages," Professor Grabar says, "there were hardly any technical inventions in Islamic architecture. But there is an unbelievable sophistication in the treatment of surfaces. Piers and columns are very simple. But the complexity of wall surfaces is absolutely staggering. This is done through massive additions of color, tiles, stucco, marble, and so forth."

These common features carry through Muslim lands, though life styles vary from country to country. Urban Turks, for example, live much like Westerners, except that the interiors of their houses are arranged to allow them to face Mecca when they pray.

Saudis, meanwhile, still demand separate entrances and private quarters for women.

The entrance to a traditional Muslim house never leads directly into a courtyard or center of the house. there is always a bend at the entrance, with crooked passages leading into the interior. Back inside is the women's domain, where they do their living separately. And one Muslim house never overlooks the private territory of another.

Professor Grabar stresses that the purpose of the Aga Khan's education and research program, as distinct from the awards program, "is to refine our knowledge of Muslim traditions so that contemporary architects are provided with valid documents from the past."

By attmpting to illuminate an entire ulture, Dean Porter adds, "We hope to shed light on our own. . . . "So we have here what I would call a very satisfying irony in this program. A great donor from the East may help us not only to understand the East better than we do now, and better than the Eastern students who are here now do, but also to help us understand ourselves."

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