The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was bestowed on six buildings and landscapes across the world that show the power of design to revitalize cultural heritage and strengthen community identity but also improve quality of life and enhance natural resources. These include: the Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit in Senegal; the Arcadia Education Project in Bangladesh; the Palestinian Museum in Palestine; the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia; the Revitalisation of Muharraq in Bahrain; and the Wasit Wetland Centre in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1977, His Highness the Aga Khan, a progressive spiritual leader of some 10-15 million Nizari Ismaili Muslims, who has prioritized religious pluralism, women’s rights, and cultural preservation, created an architecture award to honor projects that “successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.” Since then, some 122 projects around the world have won the prize.
According to the Aga Khan Development Network, the award recognizes excellence in the “fields of contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, historic preservation, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design, and improvement of the environment.”
Highlighted are winners with significant landscape and environmental aspects:
Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh. After teaching in the UK for four decades, Razia Alam returned to her home country of Bangladesh and used her pension funds to create a school for underserved children. When the lease ran out on the school’s property, Alam decided to purchase a riverside lot because she wanted the children to be close to a river. The only downside: the property is partially submerged under 10 feet of water during the four month-long monsoon season.
Instead of building a raised structure that would negatively impact the wetland ecosystem, Alam’s architect, Saif Ul Haque Sthapati, created a building that can float but also remain tethered during flooding. Upcycled steel barrels raise the school up during high waters, and bamboo planks, the sole building material, were waterproofed by “applying liquid made from boiled local gaab fruit – a traditional Bangladeshi method.”
Palestinian Museum in Palestine. Through an international design competition, the Taawon-Welfare Association hired Dublin, Ireland-based Heneghan Peng Architects along with Jordan-based landscape architect Lara Zureikat to create a new museum in Birzeit to celebrate Palestinian heritage and foster a culture of “dialogue and tolerance.”
The museum was built on an agricultural site defined by terraces formed with low stone walls (sanasil) and artfully maintained that character. According to the Aga Khan Development Network, “the zigzagging forms of the Museum’s architecture and hillside gardens are inspired by the surrounding agricultural terraces, stressing the link with the land and symbolizing resistance to the West Bank’s military occupation.”
The outer areas of the landscape are used to grow agricultural crops, while next to the LEED Gold, Palestinian limestone-clad building there are gardens that yield produce for the museum’s café. Rainwater is harvested from the terraces and amphitheater for irrigation and toilets; greywater is also reused in the landscape.
Wasit Wetland Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Part of a broader effort to restore wetlands along the Persian Gulf Coast, the Wasit Wetland Center, designed by X-Architects, based in Dubai, is an angular visitor center, slimmed down and sunken into the landscape to reduce visual and environmental impacts. School groups and visitors walk through corridors that lead to views of the surrounding water bird aviaries.
Across the nearly 50-acre site, which was once a waste dump, the Wasit Wetland Center has restored the native wetland landscape and built six shelters made out of recycled wood and plastic for bird watchers.
Revitalization of Muharraq in Bahrain. Pearl diving was once the primary industry in Muharraq, the former capital of Bahrain. With the growth of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the industry fell into decline. With the rise of the oil industry, the capital then moved to Manama.
Muharraq’s unique heritage is being preserved; it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along a new “Pearling Path,” the Bahranian government and Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research initiated a comprehensive program that included the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic buildings, creation of new museums and visitor center, and the transformation of vacant lots into a chain of 18 new public spaces.
According to the Aga Khan Development Network, “spherical white streetlamps atop terrazzo posts bring further pearl-related symbolism and assist way-finding.” Read more about Bahrain’s evolving relationship with nature in Paradoxes of Green, a recent book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA.
And, lastly, the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia. The Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia has a population of some 3.7 million. During the Soviet era, churches and mosques were destroyed, leaving public spaces associated with these places of worship empty. With the end of the Soviet Union, property was privatized, and the most appealing lakeside property was purchased and became inaccessible to the public.
To remedy these issues, the Tatarstan government transformed 328 spaces across 45 municipalities, covering two cities, 42 towns, and 33 villages into public beaches, ponds, parks, gardens, plazas, and boulevards that can be enjoyed year-round, even in dark, snowy Russian winters.