Architecture in Dialogue: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Master Jury Statement

Geneva, 6 June 2019

Elizabeth Diller (chair), Anthony Kwamé Appiah, Meisa Batayneh, Sir David Chipperfield, Nondita Correa Mehrotra, Edhem Eldem, Mona Fawaz, Kareem Ibrahim, Ali M. Malkawi

Living in Dignity

More than ever, the conventional practice of architecture faces a crisis of relevance. Recognition in the profession remains globally centred, based on a handful of lavish commissions that produce aesthetically pleasing objects. Yet these projects sit uncomfortably amidst the conditions in which the majority of the planet’s population lives today.

These conditions include the violence that results from climate change, rising economic and digital inequalities, epidemics, greater restrictions on liberties, growing polarisation, raging wars, large waves of population displacements and—amidst all of those—the daunting task of living in dignity.

For architecture to maintain its relevance in relation to today’s challenges, it is imperative that the profession repositions itself in relation to today’s human, societal and environmental challenges. Reflecting that need for repositioning, the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture Master Jury sought to select projects that question the conventional practice of the profession and, more importantly, set in place inspirational and ingenious pathways through which architects can take on societal problems and engage with them seriously.

These pathways require a shift of emphasis from project to design processes. They require recognising architects for both their design skills and their role as facilitators who work closely with communities. In this way, architects can help people and agencies turn their aspirations into material form – despite local challenges, limited resources and stringent political conditions.

To this end, the Master Jury strived to emphasise process without overlooking architectural excellence. In fact, they considered the design quality of a winning project to be a given. They also considered each project’s environmental footprint as a given, but challenged themselves to acknowledge projects that were able to extend their relevance further – to exemplify learning and embody a credible promise that could trigger long-term ripples beyond the moment of the physical intervention.

The Master Jury also paid close attention to leadership, collaborations, open-endedness, good governance. These characteristics led it to focus on the institutional arrangements that produced the architecture, the modes of government through which they were organised, the collaborative teamwork that supported their inception and realisation, and their ability to incorporate community voices and wider societal challenges.

Given its own demographics, the Master Jury also found it important to scrutinise how the projects affected younger generations in at least two ways: [1] the opportunities the projects opened for emerging architects and designers to be involved in building processes and interventions that had an impact on natural and built environments, and [2] the programmatic and architectural organisation of the buildings and how they could foster inclusive multi-generational learning.

These criteria can be applied equally to the 20 short-listed projects that were selected during the Master Jury’s first meeting in January. At that meeting, the Master Jury selected, for inclusion on the shortlist, several interventions by first-time designers who had ambitiously assigned themselves the task of conceiving, fundraising, and designing communal interventions such as a public library amidst a kampung and a temporary school in a refugee camp.  It also selected more experienced architects who recognised the centrality of their mentorship within their local professional communities.

The final selection may have tilted understandably towards more experienced designers, but throughout the process a strong commitment to inclusive design processes and architectural interventions that emphasised cultural plurality and intergenerational responsibility was maintained.

The dominant themes that emerged, and which define the winners of the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture Cycle, are three-fold: [1] living heritage, [2] ecological resiliency and recovery, and [3] thriving and inclusive commons.

These themes are integrated across six projects that span three continents. They include an urban heritage intervention, a national museum, a floating school, a university’s classrooms and halls, an ecological center, and an ambitious programme to introduce public spaces across hundreds of localities.

The themes are reflected in the vocabulary of the Master Jury’s deliberations, which consistently came back to notions of anchorage, cultural identity, adaptability, low-impact design, environment, collaboration, community purpose, empowerment, leadership, dignity, hybridity, and public good. The Master Jury will come back to these notions when it reads the citations for each of the winning projects.

In conclusions, the Master Jury would like to recognise the valuable effort that went into the selection of its members, which brought together a rich, multidisciplinary set of voices. Working  over two sessions, each of which extended for almost a week, members of the Jury found the experience incredibly enriching and stimulating, especially when listening to reactions that built on the group’s respective disciplines and experiences It would also like to acknowledge the remarkable effort of the reviewers whose field visits allowed a thorough screening of all 20 projects and helped eliminate projects that would have otherwise sailed smoothly through the process in this age of virtual reality and fake news. Members of the Master Jury are thankful for this effort and enormously appreciative of the thoroughness and care with which this award selection process is organised.

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