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Volume 38, Number 4July/August 1987

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A Worldwide Perspective

Written by Arthur Clark

An international jury was busy in Istanbul's historic Yıldız Palace last August, judging what sponsors termed a "suprisingly high" number of entries in a brand new architectural competition: the $100,000 King Fahd Award for Design and Research in Islamic Architecture.

Some 30 young winners from places as far apart as Canada and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and China, were selected in the contest's two categories from among approximately 360 entries received from 40 countries. Prizewinning topics spanned an equally wide spectrum: In research, they ranged from Istanbul's Topkapı Palace to Cordoba's 10th-century Madinat al-Zahra; in design, from a foundation complex in Cairo to a secondary school in Malaysia.

That is exactly how contest organizers hoped it would turn out, for this competition is meant to stimulate thought - concrete and abstract - on architectural issues, single buildings, and towns and cities.

The awards were established by the International Commission for the Preservation of Islamic Cultural Heritage, headquartered in Istanbul; they are funded by Saudi Arabia's King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, who, as guardian of Islam's two preeminent mosques in Makkah and Medina, has a particular interest in protecting the Muslim cultural heritage. The commission was established in 1982 by the 46-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, and is chaired by Prince Faysal ibn Fahd, president of Saudi Arabia's wide-ranging Youth Welfare organization.

The territory the awards have staked out lie in the borderland between anthropology and architecture, between culture and construction. Their objectives, the commission says, are to promote "the discovery of the creative spirit of Islam as embodied in its cultural and artistic legacy"; to encourage "the search for the formative principles of architecture as inspired by the Islamic way of life"; to promote debate "on the architectural design issues that challenge ... contemporary Muslim societies"; and to further "the pursuit of compatibility and continuity" between the historic traditions of Muslim societies and modern visions of their future.

The first triennial contest was promoted around the world, in Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike, says Dr. Mohammad Gazdar, director of the commission's Riyadh office. "The idea is to encourage Islamic architecture more and more. It makes no difference where it comes from."

The number and range of entries were "more than the jury or anybody else expected," he says. Prizewinning submissions even came from the Soviet Union - on tower dwellings in Yemen - and the People's Republic of China.

The awards, established "to recognize the emerging talent of individuals excelling in the field," were designed to promote the work of young people, not well-established professionals. In fact, entry was restricted to students and recent graduates of schools and institutes of architecture, giving the awards a sharply different stamp from most other major architectural competitions. The prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for example, honors individuals for completed works - something far beyond the means and the experience of most young architectural practitioners.

To further the Award's educational aspect, advisors to the prizewinning entrants are also honored with cash awards. Moreover, the commission urged participating institutions to offer studio design courses for students taking part.

Although most of the winners were Muslims, the majority of the institutions which sponsored them were located in North America and Europe. They included Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, U.S. schools whose up-to-date architectural resources arguably give their students a natural advantage over their counterparts in the Muslim world.

But that may be changing.

After years of decline under foreign influence, Gazdar notes, there has been a recent resurgence of Islamic design visible throughout the Muslim world today, and the Award is intended to fuel that resurgence. "The basic aim of this prize is to preserve Islamic architecture, and to bring it alive as well," he says.

From his desk in Riyadh, Gazdar points to a good example of what he means: an entrant's plan to revitalize the crowded Zine el-Abidine district in the heart of Meknes, Morocco. The traditional urban framework of the town's medina, or old city, highlighted by multitudes of minarets and green expanses of tiled mosque roofs, has been shattered by an "influx of Western urban planning and architecture," writes prizewinner Gaetano Arcuri of the University of Rome.

Arcuri's plan calls for the creation of a grid-pattern district comprising a neighborhood mosque surrounded by traditional two- and four-storied dwellings with inner courtyards and windows with mash-rabiya - wooden screens - for privacy. By using both traditional elements and the technical and cultural progress of the last century, Arcuri says, he aims to create a link "between the historical fabric of the city and the more recent expansions on the edges of the medina."

Arcuri's name, and the names of 30 other King Fahd Award prizewinners, were announced last August. The formal award ceremony was planned for this summer - possibly in Riyadh - to enable as many of the award-winning students as possible to attend during their vacations.

Ten prizes of $4,000 each were awarded in the field of design. One of the winners, Ahmet Ergelen, a Turk at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, received special attention from the jury for his plan to develop new housing in Zeyrek, a section of Istanbul on the Golden Horn occupied by recent, low-income immigrants from rural provinces. A flood of village immigrants to Istanbul has turned the city into a battleground between Turkey's widely differing rural and urban cultures.

"Zeyrek is now a slum district that still contains examples of traditional Turkish-Islamic town structure, as well as a relatively intact stock of wooden houses dating back to the late Ottoman era," Ergelen wrote. In his proposal, new housing would be built on unused land nearby. It would retain many traditional elements, including projecting alcoves and multifunctional rooms, and would face on narrow streets.

The point of such design is to make the development itself act as "the medium of transition from the rural habits of its residents to urban life," notes Ergelen. "Special care has been given to preservation and nurturing the idea of neighborhood in the traditional Islamic society Ramps, steps and narrow streets connect the home groups with the rest of the district."

Ergelen's scheme answered one of two key design challenges posed by the prize board: to submit a project reflecting and nourishing "an Islamic self." Rather than limiting the scope of projects, that issue stretched it across architectural horizons. For in Islam, noted the commission, self is "simultaneous" with the family, the local community, the nation and the ummah, the one Muslim nation worldwide.

Other prizewinning entries included the Kedah Islamic secondary school in Malaysia, which uses the traditional Southeast Asian roof in the mosque; a proposal for a  waqf complex, or group of buildings established by an Islamic trust, in Cairo; and a project for a "source dwelling," or basic housing unit, from Dan Zhou of the People's Republic of China.

The second design issue had a sharp contemporary focus. Contestants were asked to design a structure for an Islamic nation or group in a non-Islamic context. The facility might be an embassy or a mosque and community center in a non-Muslim country "where Islam as a religion and culture is expressed through a recently converted Muslim community - such as North America or Western Europe - or an old minority - such as southeastern Europe."

"The mood of internationalism in our architectural experience of the past half-century has demonstrated that the pursuit ''of a mythical international style will result only in grayness and boredom," said the commission. "History, culture and ethnicity are again receiving their deserved attention. Pursuit of meaning is once again a respectable aim in architecture."

Here, prizes went to designs for an Islamic center in Antwerp, Belgium, and a Muslim community center in the United States. An ambitious design for an Islamic studies center at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, received one of four honorable-mention awards.

In the Award's research branch, suggested topics included "Islam and its view of man and the man-made," "responsibilities and challenges facing man as God's vice-regent on earth," and "the potential role of architects and planners in alleviating the crises associated with urbanization in the Muslim world."

The two winners of the grand prize, both entered in the research category, were Gülru Necipoğlu, a Turk sponsored by Harvard University, and Morteza Sajadian, an Iranian sponsored by the University of Wisconsin. They will share a $10,000 award, Necipoğlu for work on the evolution of Topkapı Palace in Istanbul in the 15th and 16th centuries, and Sajadian for his thesis on the architecture and decoration of the city palace of Cordoba, Madinat al-Zahra. While Topkapı still stands, Madinat al-Zahra was destroyed by invaders in the 11th century; its restoration is continuing today.

Ten other researchers were honored with merit awards; each of them will receive $2,500.

The research paper presented by Jamel Akbar, a Saudi who was both a prizewinner and an adviser to students in his architecture classes at the King Faysal University School of Architecture in Dammam, will probably fulfill a key objective of the King Fahd Award by sparking more than a few debates. Called "Responsibility and the Traditional Muslim Built Environment" - the title of his doctoral thesis at his sponsoring institution, MIT - Akbar's paper looks to the homes, meeting places and alleyways of Muslim cities of the past to gain a perspective on architecture for the future, he says.

Many architects today "look romantically at the traditional environment," Akbar says, but often fail to understand it. What was good for people a century ago won't necessarily be practical now. "We are different, with different resources and different needs.

"Our ancestors' buildings can serve as a resource to enlighten the future [generations]," said Akbar, but only if architects look at the process that led to their creation. "Now we are copying the process, sometimes blindly.

"Most elements in the traditional environment were used, owned or controlled by the adjacent individuals," he noted. "The dead end street, for example, was considered by the law to be owned by the people who owned homes on the street, just like a living room."

Nowadays, he said, an expanded government looks after myriad public interests - including dead-end streets - resulting in "a built environment that maybe people wouldn't care about."

Traditionally, an official called a muhtasib stood guard over local construction, controlling the quality of building materials to ensure the strength of structures. (See Aramco World, September-October 1977) "These days it's exactly the opposite," said Akbar. "There is more concern about the facade, ignoring the quality."

For Akbar, who is writing a book on his subject, the contest has already paid off handsomely. While few knew about his work before, "suddenly everybody is interested - students, other faculties, daily newspapers," he says.

He predicts the King Fahd Award will have a "very powerful impact" on institutes of architecture. "I can assure you that a lot of students will be sharpening their pencils to win in the future."

Arthur Clark has lived in Ireland and Morocco, and is now an Aramco staff writer in Dhahran.

This article appeared on pages 6-10 of the July/August 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1987 images.