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April 12, 2005, 1:30AM

Building a better world through architecture

Award honors Muslim buildings around globe

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, have become an instant landmark since they were completed in 1998.
The decrepit elementary school that Diébédo Francis Kéré attended in the tiny African nation of Burkina Faso was crumbling around the students.

So Kéré, the first person from his village to study abroad, became a man with a mission.

He designed a simple contemporary building with a flat raised metal roof, concrete columns, and windows with adjustable shutters. Because the location was remote and heavy construction equipment unavailable, he taught villagers to weld together metal rods to support the roof and to hand-cast earth blocks for walls.

The construction cost: $29,830.

The look on the kids' faces when they walked into their new school: Priceless.

Others took note, too. Kéré recently received the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture and will share in architecture's richest award, with $500,000 split among seven winners.

The awards, which are handed out every three years, were established in 1977 by Prince Karim Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of 20 million Shia Ismaili Muslims.

The awards honor Islamic buildings around the world a broad category. The most recent winners range from the dazzling Petronas Towers, a famous skyscraper in Malaysia, to a temporary igloo shelter made from sandbags.

"It's not about Muslim architecture," explained Peter Rowe, a Harvard University architecture professor and member of the awards steering committee. "It's about architecture in Muslim society."

An Islamic community center or similar building in Houston could qualify for the award, said Rowe, a former director of the Rice University architecture program. He addressed an audience at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Sunday.

"The focus is on architectural achievement," he said.

Prince Karim Aga Khan established architecture's biggest prize in 1977 to honor innovative Islamic buildings throughout the world.
When the awards were first established, they largely centered on the preservation of mosques and historical buildings. The Aga Khan, said Rowe, "was very concerned with the fact that historical context and meaning were being erased from the Muslim world with the move toward modernization."

Since then, the awards have evolved to highlight such quality-of-life issues as low-cost housing and community revitalization.

"It points out directions that might be taken," Rowe said.

Kéré's design for a low-cost school could be adapted to other impoverished areas. Iranian-born California architect Nader Khalili's ingenious sandbag igloo could be used to provide temporary housing for victims of natural disasters and wars throughout the world.

Shiraz Allibhai, a Lewisville, Texas, native who is a fellow of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University, told the audience that Muslim architecture encompasses much more than mosques.

At one point, he noted, the Aga Khan architecture jury considered making an award to a restroom project in a public park in Turkey.

"What's Islamic about a bathroom?" he asked. "Well, you know, Muslims have to pee, as well."

Allibhai said the awards identify solutions not specific only to the Muslim world. "These are guideposts others can look at and say, this is one solution," he said.

(Allibhai will talk about the projects developed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.)

The awards continue to recognize historical conservation. Winners included the revitalization of Palestinian homes in the Old City of Jerusalem; and Yemen's elaborately restored 12th-century Al-Abbas Mosque, whose intricate tile ceiling took three years to complete.

At the same time, the awards look to the future, with three modern projects.

The stunning Bibliotheca Alexandrina, jointly designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta and the Egyptian firm Hamza Associates, is a tilted disc with four levels below ground and seven above. Situated close to the site of the legendary ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, it features a granite wall carved with letters from the world's alphabets.

Cesar Pelli's Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur became an instant landmark when they were completed in 1998. The twin 88-story structure, linked by a skybridge on the 42nd floor, was a key setting in the 1999 movie Entrapment. (Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones high-wired between the two buildings.)

Though the building appears thoroughly modern, each tower's floor plan forms an eight-pointed star a design inspired by traditional Malaysian Islamic patterns.

A starkly modern weekend home built on the Turkish coast by architect Han Tumertekin was also cited for "respecting and allying itself with (nearby) houses through its use of traditional local materials and techniques."

To many Westerners, the Aga Khan remains a mysterious figure. Some recognize the name because his father, Aly Khan, was once married to film star Rita Hayworth. Perhaps because of his father's flamboyant lifestyle, his grandfather's will declared the Aga Khan the 49th iman in 1957, passing over his father, who died in a car crash in 1960. The family traces its lineage from the prophet Muhammad.

While the tabloid media focuses on his lavish lifestyle, which includes an estate outside of Paris and 600 racehorses, the 68-year-old spiritual leader is known for his good works and his desire to advocate modernity in the Muslim world.

The Aga Khan remains passionately devoted to the architecture award that bears his name. Rowe believes that in a way, the award has helped to ease tensions between the Muslim and Western cultures in the post-9/11 world.

"It's probably more important than it was before," said Rowe.



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