Aga Khan Award for Architecture winning projects “improve quality of life”

The winners of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) were announced at the Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain, a World Heritage Site since 2011.

The projects hail from five different countries from across the globe, including China, Bangladesh, Iran, Denmark and Lebanon, chosen from a shortlist of 19 projects that were unveiled in May 2016.

The teams of each project will receive a share of $1 million prize, to be spent on promoting their projects, creating a legacy for the works beyond their architectural recognition.

The projects are chosen by a committee of judges including architects David Adjaye and Emre Arolat as well as His Highness the Aga Khan.

Mohammad Al Asad, Member of the Steering Committee, stated that choosing six winners was important in order to represent a fair and more comprehensive understanding of architecture in the Muslim world.

“These six projects give you an overview of the wealth of architectural production taking place in the Islamic world. It is an attempt to provide a series of messages about what is currently happening in the Muslim world,” he said during the ceremony.

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque designed by Marina Tabassum Architects is one of the winning projects, a space created for meditation and prayer with funds raised by the architect’s grandmother and the local community in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The project was praised for its beautiful use of natural light and its function as a spiritual refuge in an urban city. It features an intricate geometric layering of space with a square prayer room contained within cylindrical walls which are then enclosed by a square, terracotta exterior.

Another winning project from Bangladesh is located in the northern district of Gaibandha, designed by Kashed Mahboob Chowdhury, principal of URBANA architecture practice.

Friendship Centre

Friendship Centre is a training facility for the NGO Friendship, which works with communities living in the rural flatlands of the northern part of the country. Due to floods, buildings in this part of Bangladesh are raised by 2.4m off the ground, but the budget did not allow it in this case.

Instead the architects built an earthen embankment around the site with stairs that lead down into the building. The project includes a series of pavilions that look onto courtyards and reflecting pools.

The jury praised the locally-focused elements of the project, from the inspiration to the materials, and stated that “its architectural value and qualities are undeniably universal in both appreciation and attention”.

Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre

The third winning project is Hutong Children’s Library and Art Centre, in Beijing, China, by ZAO/standardarchitecture. It was selected for its embodiment of contemporary life in the traditional courtyard residences of Beijing’s Hutongs. The architects attempted to find a new use for the traditional building form that is fast disappearing, and one that would benefit the local community.

The programme includes a children’s library, an exhibition space as well as a local handicrafts studio and classes in painting and dance. The redesigned buildings in the centre of the courtyard have a lightweight steel structure and a floating foundation to protect the roots of trees.

The materials are chosen to blend with the urban surroundings. The library itself is made up of an innovative solution that has been tested for the very first time: concrete mixed with Chinese ink.

Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge

The Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge in Tehran, Iran is the forth winning project, designed by Diba Tensile Architecture, praised for creating a dynamic new urban space within the city. Spanning a busy highway to connect two parks, the bridge has become a popular gathering spot for the people of Tehran, offering numerous seating areas over three levels and restaurants at either ends.

The tree-shaped columns that support the bridge echo the forms of the adjacent parks, with spaces left to allow trees to go through, creating a single continuous greenscape.

The remaining two winning projects are designed by two world-famous architects, Bjarke Ingels of Danish firm BIG and the late Zaha Hadid.

“The award is very over-reaching in its interests,” Al Asad told DesignMENA. “It has acknowledged world renowned architects and has brought attention to architects who aren’t well-known outside of their immediate environment, and I think this is very important as it takes the bigger picture of what is happening in architecture.”

“For example a country like Bangladesh, which very few people know about in terms of its architectural heritage and contemporary architecture, and is usually outside the usual media coverage, is actually a very culturally diverse and rich place, and I think the award, by acknowledging two remarkable projects there, sheds light on the architectural level of production in the country,” Al Asad added.


BIG’s Superklien urban park in conjunction with Superflex and landscape architects Topotek 1 as well as the predominantly Muslim community of the area, uses the historical themes of the universal garden and amusement park and translates it into an urban setting, shedding light on the positive dimensions of cultural diversity.

Colour plays a significant role within the project, marking the three zones, with multiple identities seen through the various trees and objects that furnish the park, including a swing bench from Baghdad and a star-shaped fountain from Morocco.

“Today, the Muslim diaspora is living all over the world, and here we can see how through architecture and landscaping, the architects worked with the community to bring people from different ethnicities and backgrounds and religions to cohabit, said Farrokh Derakhshani, director, AKAA.

Issam Fares Institute

Lastly, the award recognised Zaha Hadid Architects’ Issam Fares Institute located on the American University of Beirut campus in Lebanon.

The jury praised the building for its radical composition yet respectful attitude towards the traditional context. The institute is a research centre for public policy and international affairs.

A ceremony will be held for the winners of the award at the Jahili Fort in Al Ain in November, which has received an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2007 following a significant renovation.

In the last few award cycles, the award staff has started a new initiative where they visit the project after the awards ceremony, in order to celebrate the win with the members of the community of each winning project.

“I have attended one of these celebrations and it is very moving,” Al Asad told DesignMENA. “People have the chance to experience the celebration rather than hear about it in the press.”

“Something that is very important about the award,” Al Asad continues, “is that it gives the community connected to each project a sense of belonging and pride, and the feeling that something special was created for them.”

He added that perhaps in the future, it would be interesting to launch a programme where the members of the AKAA team may visit winning projects a number of years following the prize, to see how they and community have developed.

Moving on to the topic of relevance, Al Asad said: “Since its inception, the Aga Khan award has been looking at architecture beyond its form. It always looked at architecture as a means of improving the quality of life for people.

“Over the past 30 years, there has been an emphasis on architecture as form-making, looking at architecture simply as a formal composition. The award has always been saying that form-making is definitely important but that there are many deeper dimensions to the making of architecture,” he explained.

Al Asad added that it is intriguing to observe a change that has taken place within the international architectural community acknowledging the more social roles of architecture. He cited this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Aljendro Aravena, which focuses on issues such as building for low-income groups.

Al Asad added: “The Aga Khan Award for Architecture has fought consistently throughout the years, looking at quality but also at the social meaning of architecture. I think now the international architectural community is beginning to appreciate this multi-faceted importance of architecture.”