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Volume 40, Number 6November/December 1989

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Better by Design

Written by Gerry Loughran
Photographs courtesy of Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Of 241 architectural projects proposed to receive the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 11 have been selected by an international jury of leading architects and academics. Three of the winning projects were built in Saudi Arabia.

Other winners range from the restoration of a 13th-century mosque in Lebanon to a construction program comprising thousands of $350 peasant homes in Bangladesh. All are outstanding, the jury said, "in terms of the issues they reflect, the questions they pose and the messages they send."

The Diplomatic Quarter of Riyadh, for example, is hailed as "a model for cities in Islamic and Arab societies."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also in Riyadh, and the Corniche Mosque in Jiddah are the other two Saudi projects to win world-wide recognition and a share in the $500,000 award.

The triennial competition, first held in 1980, was organized to curb the damage that inappropriate design - often unrelated to its context and its users - was doing to the built environment in the Islamic world. Its aim is to promote architectural excellence appropriate to the times by encouraging projects grounded in good design, in particular those that make innovative use of local resources and appropriate technology.

Under competition rules, nominated projects must either be located in the Islamic world or be intended for use primarily by Muslims, and must have been completed and in use for at least two years. The latter requirement distinguishes the Aga Khan Award from the Muslim world's other prestigious architecture prize, the King Fahd Awajrd for Design and Research in Islamic Architecture, which considers research and unbuilt projects, including those of students and "emerging talents" (See Aramco World, July-August 1987).

The nine-member jury noted broad changes in Muslim-world architecture that have taken place in the decade since the Aga Khan Award began. Projects, and the planning, selection and design processes leading up to them, are generally of better quality; thus the jury selected 11 of  241 projects for the awards, compared with six out of 213 in the previous cycle. The physical, social and economic components of social and community building projects have become more complex. Architects and builders are more aware of the existence and the needs of the large Muslim communities located within non-Muslim countries; thus the jury welcomed the first nominations ever received from the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. And, the jurors stated, there has been an enormous increase in the number and quality of nominated projects actually built by Muslims.

The first of the three Saudi locations to appear in the prize list is the Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter, the city's ambassadorial precinct that includes residential areas, urban spaces and parks.

Specifically, the jury honored the al-Kindi Plaza, whose architects were Ali Shuaibi and Abdul-Rahman Hussaini of the Beeah Group in Riyadh, and the landscaping of the whole quarter, carried out by Richard Bodeker, Horst Wagenfeld, Klaus Steinhauer and Jurgen Baer of the German firm Bodecker, Boyer, Wagenfeld & Partner (See Aramco World, September-October 1988).

Al-Kindi Plaza comprises a mosque, library and garden, a government services complex, shops and other services, all linked by covered passages and arcades. Courtyards and open spaces are scattered among the buildings, which are centered on a triangular maidan, or public square. The ground level is reserved for pedestrian movement, and vehicle traffic and parking is located underground. The plaza complexes "can be considered ideal models for cities in Islamic and Arab societies," the award citation reads. "They have attractively preserved the traditional link between the mosque and the other public services."

The landscaping of the DQ, of which al-Kindi Plaza is a part, demonstrates what the jury called "a realistic and imaginative understanding" of Riyadh's desert environment by using dry-climate, often local, plants and flowers whose water requirements are relatively low to create "a totally genuine environment," and by using recycled sewage water for irrigation. For this project, the jury commended not only the architects and planners but also the client, the Riyadh Development Authority, whose "enlightened ... understanding of the local environment and heritage" made it possible.

Of the Corniche Mosque in Jiddah, designed by London-based architect Abdel Wahed El-Wakil, the jury said, "Siting and technology distinguish this building from the great majority of mosques built today."

Jurors hailed the "unconventional but visually arresting" arrangement in which the mosque is one of three set as pavilions along the city's seafront road or corniche, and recognized that it was built according to methods the architect developed after researching the construction of a group of Egyptian mosques.

"The architect should be cited for innovative siting, for rethinking classical methods of building and for the effort to compose formal elements in ways that bespeak the present and reflect the luminous past of Islamic societies" the jury's citation reads.

The third Saudi winner is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Riyadh. Its architect, Henning Larsen of Copenhagen, was chosen by international competition in 1979. Situated in the Masrujah district, two kilometers (1.2 miles) northwest of the old center of Riyadh, the project provides office space for 1000 workers as well as meeting, conference and prayer rooms, a banquet hall, library, auditorium and exhibition hall.

The jury cited the project for "its intelligent use and interpretation of traditional architecture and of general Islamic urban concepts.... It is a contemporary work of architecture in harmony with the international architectural mainstream."

The citation described aspects of the project as "lively, exciting and spectacular" and said, "Simplicity and complexity are outstanding features of the design."

The other winners were:

Restoration of the Great Omari Mosque, Sidon, Lebanon. After the 13th-century mosque was damaged during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, local people refused an offer to construct a new building, insisting on restoration of the old one. The jury described the result as "a beacon in a tortured land."

Rehabilitation of Asilah, Morocco. Under the impetus of an annual cultural festival, the biggest in the Islamic world, this town on the Atlantic coast has been notably upgraded: Old buildings have been restored, new ones built and maintenance improved.

Grameen Bank Housing Program, Bangladesh. The bank is a cooperative association lending to the rural poor. Under a scheme to help landless people build flood-resistant homes, 45,000 houses have been erected. Loans average $350 for four concrete pillars, corrugated iron roofing and a latrine.

Citra Niaga Urban Development, Indonesia. Commercial development of shops and workshops financed public and recreational facilities which transformed a slum area. The project showed how commercial interests can be harnessed for public benefit in the process of urban development, the jury said.

Gurel Family Summer Residence, Canakkale, Turkey. A cluster of seven units on Turkey's Aegean coast whose living, sleeping and service functions were arranged so as to reproduce a traditional Turkish village on a smaller scale.

Sidi el-Aloui Primary School, Tunis, Tunisia. A "courageous exploration of traditional architectural forms," according to the jury, and a prototype of considerable value to developing countries. The design was developed by a group of local citizens as an alternative to standard government designs.

National Assembly Building, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The lavishness of this building in one of the world's poorest countries raised questions, but the jury reported that visits, surveys and discussions "reveal that over time it has come to enjoy overwhelming approval . . . and has influenced the country in a number of beneficial ways."

Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France. Intended to serve as a cultural bridge between the Arab world and France, the Institute (See Aramco World, January-February 1989) is located on the left bank of the River Seine and houses exhibition space, a museum, library, meeting rooms and a documentation center. "A showcase of contemporary architecture which has become a source of pride among the community of Arabs and other Muslims," the jury said. Architectural consultant on the Institute was Ziyad Ahmed Zaidan of Jiddah.

Gerard Loughrnn, former foreign editor of UPI, is managing editor of Compass News Features, a third-world feature agency now based in London.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the November/December 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1989 images.