Aga Khan Award for Architecture: three UAE sites honoured for first time

Al Mureijah Art Spaces and the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah and Concrete in Dubai will compete for the $1 million prize

Concrete in Alserkal Avenue has been shortlisted for the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Musthafa Aboobacker for Alserkal Avenue
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For the first time in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s four-decade history, architecture in the UAE has been nominated — and not one, but three sites: Concrete in Alserkal Avenue; Al Mureijah Art Spaces, at the Sharjah Art Foundation, and the Wasit Wetland Centre, also in Sharjah.

The Aga Khan Award is bestowed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, based in Geneva and run by the current Aga Khan, the nobleman, philanthropist and spiritual leader. Begun in 1977, it honours innovations in Islamic architecture and design and is held on a three-yearly basis.

“Being shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is not just a milestone for Alserkal, but also a milestone for Dubai, as it is being recognised as an epicentre for broader dialogue on the role of architecture in this region,” said Alserkal Avenue director Vilma Jurkute.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is one of the discipline’s top honours and brings with it a prize of $1 million (Dh3.67m).

The Concrete exhibition space was designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Modern Architecture and opened in the Dubai gallery district in 2017. It transformed four existing warehouses into a multi-use space, with mobile exterior and interior walls that allow the site to open up entirely to the courtyard opposite or to reconfigure its internal layout to accommodate different types of events.The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is one of the discipline’s top honours and brings with it a prize of $1 million (Dh3.67m).

Its exhibition programme has so far included the show Ishara, curated by Karim Sultan for UAE Art Unlimited, and this past March the exhibition Fabric(ated) Fractures, curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt and the Samdani Art Foundation. The space has also been used for dance performances, corporate events, and lectures and workshops.

Sharjah Art Foundation’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces were also shortlisted. Completed in 2013 by the architectural team of Mona El Mousfy and Sharmeen Azam Inayat, the complex turned five dilapidated buildings by the Sharjah Corniche into purpose-built contemporary art venues. The network of galleries has now become iconic as an exhibition venue, hosting the foundation’s temporary exhibition and biennial programming.

An aerial image of Al Mureijah Square in 2017. Sharjah Art Foundation
An aerial image of Al Mureijah Square in 2017. Sharjah Art Foundation

"We at Sharjah Art Foundation are honoured that our Al Mureijah Art Spaces have been shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture," said Hoor Al Qasimi, President of Sharjah Art Foundation. "A critical part of our core mission at the foundation is preserving the surrounding area’s heritage and history while renovating and adapting it to exhibit contemporary artworks. By working closely with the local community and talented architects, designers artists, we’ve been able to create vibrant spaces that fit within the context of the neighbourhood."

Finally, X-Architects’ Wasit Wetland Centre was also honoured. The 2010 project transformed a chain of wetlands along the coast into an education centre and a series of bird and environmental observation centres.

Part of a much larger project to clean up and rehabilitate this ancient chain of wetlands along the Gulf coast, the Wetland Centre aims to provide information and education about this unique environment and to encourage its preservation. The architecture of the centre uses the existing topography of the site to minimise the structure’s visual impact. Upon arrival, visitors are led underground along a pathway into a linear gallery with a transparent wall that allows them to view the birds of the wetland in their natural habitat. The centre also contains documentation and displays about the wetlands, and a cafeteria and shop. Cemal Emden / Aga Khan Trust for Culture
The Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah. Cemal Emden / Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The three sites have been chosen from 400 nominated projects, by a jury including the philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah, the architect Elizabeth Diller, and the environmental designer Ali M. Malkawi.

Other shortlisted projects this year include the Palestinian Museum, in Birzeit, north of Ramallah, and the Beyazıt State Library, the renovation of a 19th century library in Istanbul, housed within a 16th century building, dedicated to rare manuscripts and architectural heritage.