The anti-formula way to award-winning architecture


  • Design
  • Friday, 27 Jan 2017

The form of the support columns resembles trees, making it possible to have a minimal footprint on the ground but, as with trees, opening up with branches so that it can offer a broad span of support. The design was also about minimising the footprint of the project on the site with a minimal number of columns and finding the points with a minimal number or no trees. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie

A sacred space that plays inventively with tradition; a pedestrian bridge that emphasises use over form; a project that is at once landscape and building; a bold, contemporary insertion into a traditional setting; a diminutive library operating at a much larger micro-urban scale, and an urban park that provides new forms of public space.

These are brief descriptions provided by the jury of the six projects that received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016.

The US$1mil (RM4.4mil) prize is awarded every three years to honour architectural projects that address the needs of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence. That requirement makes this unlike most architecture awards, as it “seeks projects across a vast range of contexts, cultures and conditions”.

What this means is that, historically, the award has celebrated works that incorporate both tradition and modernity. The jury of the 2014-2016 cycle acknowledge this, noting that these often opposing forces are “perhaps most keenly felt in societies undergoing rapid transformation, where the aspirations of the future confront the lessons of the past in complex and testing ways”.

Continuity has historically been one of the cornerstones of Islamic societies throughout the world, the jury adds, but the enormous shifts over the past 50 years, whether as a result of war, migration or advances in communication, present new challenges and opportunities for architects and those involved in shaping the built environment.

The jury for the 13th cycle embraced “the notion of plurality, exploring not just projects in diverse contexts but the boundaries of the discipline itself, recognising that new knowledge sometimes emerges in the lines between categories”.

How does one push an edge that is continuously shifting? If a woman may never enter a space that she herself has conceived and executed, then can that project be considered “cutting-edge”? Or if a building blurs the divide between landscape, dwelling and ecology, can it be considered to push the boundaries of all three?

Rather than respect the conventional segregation of architecture into works of different scale and scope, the jury sought to paint a more nuanced and perhaps even pixelated portrait of a world – and a discipline – in a state of flux.


The column-free prayer hall is raised on eight peripheral columns; four light courts and random circular roof openings allow daylight into the hall, creating an ornate pattern on the floor and enhancing spirituality through light. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora
The column-free prayer hall is raised on eight peripheral columns; four light courts and random circular roof openings allow daylight into the hall, creating an ornate pattern on the floor and enhancing spirituality through light. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Architect: Marina Tabassum

Description: A refuge for spirituality in urban Dhaka built on land donated by the architect’s grandmother with funds – just US$150,000 (RM665,000) – raised by the local community, this square mosque sits on a high plinth that protects against flooding and provides a gathering place set apart from the crowded street below.

Jury citation: In a transitional area caught between urban hyper-density and rural proximity, the terracotta mosque is an exquisitely proportioned building that is both elegant and eternal. Funded primarily by community donors, the design challenges the status quo and understands that a space for prayer should elevate the spirit.

The mosque appears to be inspired by multiple sources: one essentially traditional reference is to the heritage of the formal terracotta brick structures of the Bengal Sultanate of the 15th century; another inspiration is the Capitol complex built by Louis Kahn in Dhaka.

Qiblat direction is elegantly marked by a slit of light penetrating the cylindrical brick wall that forms a light court with the facing flat wall. — Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora
Qiblat direction is elegantly marked by a slit of light penetrating the cylindrical brick wall that forms a light court with the facing flat wall. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora

The structure contains an intricate geometric layering of space: a square prayer chamber contained within cylindrical walls, which are in turn enclosed by a square terracotta brick structure that serves as the building’s austere public face.

Within the prayer chamber, the architect has created a delicate interplay of bare walls textured in red brick and pierced by shafts of light that create an abstract, almost primeval symbolism when viewed in conjunction with the spots of light that punctuate the surface of the bare floors at different moments of the day.

This abstract symbolism is undiluted by conventional forms of mosque architecture. Gone are the dome and the ever-prevalent minarets, the decorative panels of designed relief and calligraphy. In their place stand intricately structured brick walls that imbue the structure with a unique aura of spirituality.


Located in rural Gaibandha where agriculture is predominant, the Friendship Centre's roofscape merges with its environment. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora
Located in rural Gaibandha where agriculture is predominant, the Friendship Centre's roofscape merges with its environment. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora

Friendship Centre, Gaibandha, Bangladesh

Architect: Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury/Urbana

Description: A rural training centre inspired by one of the country’s oldest urban archaeological sites, the centre has offices, a library, meeting rooms, and prayer and tea rooms in pavilion-like buildings.

Structural elements are of reinforced concrete while local hand-made bricks are the primary construction and finishing material; other finishes include timber and stone.

Jury citation: Looking at the sunken brick compound of the Friendship Centre, one is reminded of the archaeological remains of the nearby Vasu Bihara Buddhist temple, built in the third and fourth centuries.

The centre offers simple spaces like this one as well as rooms set up for classes with desks and electronic assistance. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora
The centre offers simple spaces like this one as well as rooms set up for classes with desks and electronic assistance. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora

The quadrilateral layout and the skilful brickwork reflect continuity with local architectural traditions.

With its spaces sunk into the ground and the vegetation growing on its roofs, the compound blends beautifully into the natural surroundings. Its relationship to the landscape and to history and archaeology is remarkable in every way.

While every aspect of this project is local – local inspiration, local builders, local materials, local architect, local NGO (the Friendship NGO) – its architectural value and qualities are undeniably universal and merit both appreciation and attention.


By inserting an outdoor staircase alongside each structure, the architect created viewing platforms to survey the neighbourhood while enjoying a breath of rare chlorophyll-laced air among the tree’s branches. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Wang Ziling
By inserting an outdoor staircase alongside each structure at the Hutong Children's Library & Art Centre in Beijing, the architect created viewing platforms to survey the neighbourhood while enjoying a breath of rare chlorophyll-laced air among the tree’s branches. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Wang Ziling

Hutong Children’s Library & Art Centre, Beijing, China

Architect: ZAO/ standardarchitecture / Zhang Ke

Description: In this centuries old hutong (a traditional courtyard house), a small children’s library built of plywood was inserted underneath the pitched roof of an existing building; and a former built-on space was redesigned into an art space made from traditional bluish-grey brick.

Jury citation: How do you move forward while recognising the value of built heritage? While most see the newly built as the sole marker of progress, some are considering a more nuanced approach to melding the old and new in urban developments.

The children's library and art space were built beneath and around an ancient scholar tree.
Steps form elevated reading nooks in the tiny library. Photos: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Wang Ziling

The Micro Yuan’er Children’s Library and Art Centre is an exemplary representative of adaptive re-use of a historic building.

The architectural strategy was to use the existing buildings and landscape as the framework for the new construction. The use of a limited palette of materials, such as brick, wood and glass, helps the space of the courtyard to become denser through the addition of the new structures.

The hutong provides an example of how the adaptive re-use of an older building can become the basis for a new form of micro-urbanism that constructs productive reciprocities between the private and the public. This is an approach that can be potentially replicated in other locations and within a diversity of communities.”


The design reduces the building’s footprint by ‘floating’ part of the building above the entrance courtyard in the form of a 21m-long cantilever. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Cemal Emden
The design reduces the building’s footprint by ‘floating’ part of the building above the entrance courtyard in the form of a 21m-long cantilever. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Cemal Emden

Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Beirut, Lebanon

Architect: Zaha Hadid Architects

Description: Chosen from an international competition, this design for a think-tank at the American University of Beirut remains in harmony with the rest of the institution and is especially mindful of existing sightlines to the Mediterranean.

A ramp leads between the centenary aged ficus and cypress trees to connect the research lounges on the second floor directly with the rest of the campus.
The lounge, lobby and terrace promote interaction between users. Photos: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Cemal Emden

Jury citation: This building has a surprisingly small footprint that is sensitive to its context. With its contemporary form and the purity of its architectural language the building differentiates itself from its neighbours, though it is not in conflict with the campus and its architecture.

Cantilevering over the courtyard and overlooking the old cypress and ficus trees, the building presents an extremely powerful structure without obstructing the view of the buildings behind. The building’s height, matched with that of the trees and the surrounding structures, serves to strengthen the powerful relationship it creates with its environs.

A welcoming environment has been created by providing entrances at various levels via ramps that weave through existing trees, in the process becoming part of the landscape themselves.


The parallel yet diverging white stripes guide the movement of people on the site around and towards objects. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Kristian Skeie
The parallel yet diverging white stripes guide the movement of people on the site around and towards objects. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Kristian Skeie

Superkilen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Architect: BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, Superflex (artists), Topotek 1 (landscape architect)

Description: Superkilen is a 1km-long urban park divided into zones for a variety of activities; its name refers to the site’s physical constraints, a narrow “wedge” (kilen) between two traffic arteries.

Jury citation: Living with people who differ – racially, ethnically, religiously or economically – is the most urgent challenge facing contemporary civil society. At a time of growing global uncertainty and insecurity, it has become fashionable to talk in terms of “worlds” – the Third World, the Islamic world, the Arab world – as though these occupy a parallel universe, disconnected from the rest and subject to different rules. This urban park in one of Copenhagen’s most diverse and socially challenged neighbourhoods, emphatically rejects this view with a powerful mixture of humour, history and hubris.

By locating the park in the heart of Denmark’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood, the space becomes a vehicle for integration by aiming for extreme public participation. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Kristian Skeie

It is at once a highly personal yet deeply collective experience, marrying the experiences of migration with an eclectic assembly of displaced objects and innovative landscaping. Here architecture, landscape and art are fused in a truly interdisciplinary manner, providing new opportunities for shared public engagement.

A number of different activities – cycling, walking, basketball, hockey – are offered in three separate but connected parks which together form a continuous surface with a marketplace, cafés, retail spaces and open-air gathering spots. In this way, the urban park becomes a public “stage” where neighbours, strangers and visitors meet.

Diversity, as the architects have noted, was not seen as a “problem” that required a solution, but rather as a tool in a fluid, creative process that allowed the park to become both a powerful marker of identity and a subtle cultural mediator for the residents of this historically challenged neighbourhood.


The 3D-truss was designed to not block the view to the mountains. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie
The 3D-truss was designed to not block the view to the mountains. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge, Tehran, Iran

Architect: Diba Tensile Architecture / Leila Araghian, Alireza Behzadi

Description: This two-to-three-level, 270m-long curved pedestrian bridge of varying width and a complex steel structure featuring a three-dimensional truss was designed to not block the view to the Alborz Mountains.

Jury citation: The Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise austere and haphazardly built area of Tehran. The challenge of connecting two parks separated by a highway is met with an approach that is exemplary in the context of an infrastructure project, not just in Tehran but perhaps anywhere in the world.

Creating a curved path with variable width and changes in slopes between two parks, the bridge was designed to avoid a single point perspective. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie
Creating a curved path with variable width and changes in slopes between two parks, the bridge was designed to avoid a single point perspective. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie

The reinterpretation of the original brief, which called for a straightforward connection between two parks, has transformed a “bridge” into a “destination”. Inviting people to congregate, interact and appreciate the vista in every direction, the bridge has become a promenade and one of the most successful public spaces in modern Tehran.

The bridge’s use of technology and integration of architecture and structure is commendable, particularly in the light of the challenges the team would have faced in the design and procurement stages of the project. Though the jury felt that there was scope for further aesthetic refinement of the structure, it acknowledged that some design decisions may have been influenced by the fact that the bridge lies in an area of high seismic activity.

The form of the support columns resembles trees, making it possible to have a minimal footprint on the ground but, as with trees, opening up with branches so that it can offer a broad span of support. The design was also about minimising the footprint of the project on the site with a minimal number of columns and finding the points with a minimal number or no trees. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie
The form of the support columns resembles trees. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie

In spite of this, the bridge displays a structural logic that is at once simple yet robust, orderly yet chaotic, but always functional, provocative and inviting.

The physical footprint of the structure is minimised, with respect shown towards the existing trees and topography. The sophisticated layering of the bridge deck, which allows and encourages different activities, is commended by the jury.

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge is a successful example of a calculated risk taken by a client, met with the youth and enthusiasm of a group of competent professionals whose work is commendable and deserving of recognition. – Aga Khan Development Network

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 1
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3
Join our Telegram channel to get our Evening Alerts and breaking news highlights
   

Stories You'll Enjoy


Vouchers