On Monday morning, international news journalists, members of the architectural press and representatives from the UAE’s tourism and heritage community gathered at Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain for the announcement of the world’s richest architecture prize, the US$1 million (Dh3.67m) Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
The award’s director, Farrokh Derakhshani, revealed that a master jury had chosen six winners, whittled down over three years from an initial list of 348 nominations, as projects that not only set new standards in architectural excellence but also make a significant contribution – social as well as cultural – to communities in which Muslims or the heritage of Islam have a significant presence.
In their own way, the success of each project came down not just to the quality of their design but to more profound acts of reinvention.
In Copenhagen, an urban park turned traditional, well-mannered notions of modern Danish design on their head by including elements borrowed from the city’s new ethnic communities, raising questions about contemporary Danish identity in the process.
In Iran a new pedestrian bridge has helped redefine what infrastructure can achieve by doubling as one of Tehran’s newest and most popular open spaces; while in Beijing, the sensitive renovation of a traditional hutong, or courtyard house, recognises the wisdom of including residents’ ideas and existing living patterns in housing design.
Of the six winners, however, the project that engages most directly with the culture and heritage of Islam is the humble and transcendentally beautiful Bait Ur Rouf mosque.
Located on the periphery of Dhaka in Bangladesh, the mosque, which cost $150,000, was funded entirely by private donations, and its flexible design allows the building to act as a school, meeting room and informal playground as well as a place of worship in an area where community facilities are notable by their absence.
“It’s a community mosque that is a space for contemplation and getting closer to God which is cooler, calmer and more comfortable, and it’s location is also interesting,” explains Derakhshani.
“It isn’t in the city centre, it’s on the periphery, and the role and importance of these spaces – urban villages as they are sometimes known – is just starting to be recognised.”
With no dome, minaret or mihrab, the building also stands in contrast to popular notions of what a mosque should look like.
“At the beginning of my design process I wanted to look deeper into the rich architectural legacy of Islam,” says the mosque’s architect Marina Tabassum.
“Domes and minarets are symbolic gestures [and] symbols are not the essence of devotion or faith. At times they can detract from the main essence of Islam, which is about complete submission to one God omnipresent.
“To be in complete communion with God one needs a space that evokes a feeling of spirituality, a space where people can connect with the divine. I find symbols a distraction and I wanted to focus instead on the sense of spirituality.”
A 12-year project, the Bait Ur Rouf mosque, or House of the Compassionate, was more than just another commission for Tabassum. Not only was the architect’s grandmother, Sufia Khatun, the client, but Khatun’s decision to donate land and money toward the mosque’s development was born of a tragedy that affected the whole family.
“My mother passed away in 2002, she was my grandmother’s eldest born, and then the next year she lost another child, my aunt, so she experienced two of her children passing away in two years,” says Tabassum.
“She asked me to design it because I am an architect and she could also sense my suffering. In a way, designing the mosque became a kind of a healing process for both of us.”
By 2005, Tabassum’s grandmother had become very ill, so the architect decided to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the project even though there was only enough money to build its foundations.
The event took place in September 2006, but by the end of that year, Khatun was dead and Tabassum was left with sole responsibility for raising the funds that would allow the project to be completed, a process that took another six years.
“When we had a good sum of money and we could buy, say, five trucks of bricks or some bags of cement, then we went about doing the construction,” the architect says.
“But you can’t really forecast when you are going to get some fund to keep it going. So, at times we had to stop construction for some months because there was no material to go on building.”
In choosing to use local, handmade bricks, Tabassum used a vernacular material that looked back to a golden age of Bengali architecture, the Sultanate period of the 14th to 16th centuries, but also sought to keep construction and maintenance costs to a minimum, a factor that led to the exclusion of costly features such as extra storeys and air conditioning from the design.
The thinking and research that Tabassum went through in designing the Bait Ur Rouf had a profound influence on a UAE-based project that she embarked on just as the Dhaka building was nearing its completion.
As part of a project team at Hyder Consulting, Tabassum conducted six weeks of research that was used to inform the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council’s mosque development regulations.
“My investigation of mosques in Bangladesh and of how it is possible to move from historical models to contemporary designs influenced, to a certain extent, the work that I did in Abu Dhabi,” she says.
“Many different styles were brought into Abu Dhabi in the past decades of its development that were not of the region and had no connection to the early Emirati mosques.
“We suggested a deeper understanding of the local tradition and extract from that what is essentially Emirati to give a contemporary expression through architecture.”
The announcement of the Bait Ur Rouf’s success came at a triumphant week for Bangladeshi creatives.
The building was one of two Bangladeshi designed and built projects to win this year’s Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The other, the Friendship Centre in Gaibandha, was designed by Tabassum’s former colleague, Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury, of Urbana architects, and on Wednesday, Dubai’s $100,000 Abraaj Group Art Prize 2017 was awarded to the Bangladeshi artist Rana Begum.
Tabassum however, is keen to emphasise the collective nature of her success. “The project wins, not me, I am a part of the project. We’ve had three projects from Bangladesh win the award before and none of those were designed by Bangladeshi architects, and with this cycle now we have two,” she says.
“For the country that’s a great honour, and being part of that makes me proud. The award is also for the community here, as well, and also for my grandmother.”
Nick Leech is a feature writer with The National.