AL AIN // “The holy Quran commands humankind to shape our earthly environment as good stewards of the divine creation.”
So said Prince Karim Aga Khan – the 49th hereditary Imam of the world Shia Imami Ismaili community and a spiritual leader who claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed – on Sunday night at a moonlit ceremony at Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain.
“And as we gather in this special place for this special purpose, we remind people of all backgrounds and identities of a powerful lesson, the way in which a thoughtful concern for the built environment can characterise an entire civilisation.”
The 79-year-old statesman and spiritual leader made the remarks at the award ceremony for the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, an event that was as much a meeting of Muslim leaders as a celebration of the built environment.
The audience included Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai.
Also there were Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, and Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed, the Abu Dhabi Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.
It was first official visit by the Aga Khan to the UAE since 2008, when he opened the Ismaili Centre in Dubai on a plot of land donated in 1982 by Sheikh Mohammed in celebration of the Aga Khan’s silver jubilee.
Established to recognise architectural excellence and encourage projects that address the needs of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence, the US$1 million prize, awarded every three years, was launched in 1977.
In its 39 years, the award has documented more than 9,000 projects and recognised 116, including Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the Azem Palace in Damascus, Louis Khan’s National Assembly Building in Dhaka, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
Unusually, it recognises projects as a whole including their clients, developers, builders and the communities that benefit from them.
Now, in its 13th cycle, six more winners were added to that list.
Originally announced at Al Jahili last month, these include Superkilen, a 30,000 square-metre park in Copenhagen, Denmark; the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge in Tehran, Iran; the Micro Yuan’er children’s library and art centre in Beijing, China; the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and a rural training centre built for NGO Friendship in Gaibandha, Bangladesh.
Since the first award ceremony, which was held at the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore in 1980, the awards have been hosted at the Islamic world’s most prestigious historic monuments.
They include the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the Citadel of Aleppo in Syria, and now Al Ain’s Al Jahili Fort.
The awards ceremony followed a seminar on Saturday in Dubai, which was attended by a panel of the award winners, master jurors and members of the UAE’s architectural and design community.
There, the Aga Khan voiced his concern about the mounting urban and environmental challenges facing the Muslim world.
“This award has as its objective to cause people to think about the processes of change in our world and to see how we can best influence those,” he told an audience of 550, among them Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance.
“We are beginning to see in many parts of the Muslim world – and if you look at the map you can see it quite clearly in an expanding band of arid land – how global warming is beginning to put life at risk where it was not at risk before.
The Aga Khan spoke of the responsibility that all those connected with the environment – designers, planners, academics and politicians – shared in rising rise to the challenges posed by the change.
“I would ask you to try to bring this issue forward so that we can address it in good time, and not find ourselves 10 or 20 years from now with large numbers of towns and villages at risk from dangers that should have been taken into account much earlier.”