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Volume 38, Number 6November/December 1987

In This Issue

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The Changing Present

Written by Gerry Loughran and John Lawton

There was craftsmanship in glass, mosaic, gypsum, lead, stone, timber and gold. Work ranged from meticulous restoration of one of the three most important monuments of Islam, the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, to the construction of a mud-walled village mosque in Niger by a farmer-mason. A new town in Iran, historic buildings in Turkey, and war reconstruction in Egypt were all among the 213 entries that came under the jury's scrutiny. Finally, six projects were named to share the latest $500,000 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The selections were "bound to contribute to an important debate among those concerned with the built environment of Muslims ... as much by what was not awarded [a prize] as by what was," the jury said. But with countries of the Islamic world in a process of transformation and transition, there was "no single direction in which tastes are evolving."

The Aga Khan Foundation, which established the architecture award, was set up in Geneva in 1976 to support, encourage and promote Islamic culture. The Award, offered every three years, is intended to encourage an architecture for Muslims that is appropriate to the 20th century. Unlike the King Fahd Awards (See Aramco World, July-August 1987), only actual projects completed in the last 25 years and which have been in use for at least two years are considered.

The brief to the nine-member Award jury urged special attention to three broad themes: preservation and continuation of cultural heritage; community building and social housing; and excellence in contemporary architectural expression. In the event, the jurors recognized two preservation/restoration projects - the al-Aqsa Mosque and Mostar Old Town in Yugoslavia - a public housing project in Morocco, and three entries that reflected contemporary expression at the same time that they emphasized traditional design and craftsmanship: a social-security office complex in Turkey and mosques in Niger and Pakistan.

The jurors, from five Muslim countries plus Austria, Australia, the United States and Japan, said they honored the restoration of al-Aqsa Mosque because it demonstrated the "highest quality" of conservation work, and the preservation of Mostar Old Town because it revitalized the entire 16th-century business center in "an exemplary manner."

Dar Lamane Housing Community in Casablanca, Morocco, was selected by the jury because it housed low-income families with "cohesion and character," and the 20-year-old social-security complex in Istanbul was chosen because it was a sophisticated work of architecture which the jury found "very moving."

Yaama Mosque in Niger won as "a vibrant expression of traditional earth-building techniques used in a creative manner," and Bhong Mosque in Pakistan because its completion fostered the local craft tradition and exhibited "the uninhibited exuberance of popular art."

The six current winners of the Award compare with 15 selected in the 1980 inaugural year - including the Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Center in Makkah - and 11 winners in 1983, including the Hajj terminal at Jiddah airport (See Aramco World, July-August 1981). But the jury explained that the smaller number of awards was not surprising in view of the "crisis in creativity and innovation" that has affected architectural opinion in recent years. In the Western world, the jury said, there were doubts that the earlier assurance of the modern movement was justified, while third-world nations were beginning to feel the need for architectures that expressed their own goals and identities.

Award officials described the Islamic world today as a vast mosaic of different communities with many different problems of wealth and poverty, differences in terrain and climate, and variations as well in the speed and content of change or modernization. Since it was impossible, they said, to capture the diversity of challenge and response in just six awards, five honorable mentions were instituted for the first time. They were: Shushtar New Town, in southwestern Iran, honored because it gives contemporary expression to traditional forms and functions; Said Naum Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia - a contemporary building incorporating characteristics of traditional Javanese mosques, but displaying alternative approaches to the region's indigenous architecture; the improvement of Kampung Kebalen neighborhood in Surabaya, Indonesia, providing essential services and infrastructure to an extremely dense low-income area; the Ismailiyya Development Project in Egypt, which focuses on social issues and home-ownership for the poor through local community development efforts; and, the continuing Historic Sites Development in Istanbul, the Turkish Touring and Automobile Club's careful restoration and reuse of buildings that are part of Turkey's physical heritage.

While acknowledging that most of the work on Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque and the surrounding precinct, the Haram al-Shareef, was technically of the highest quality, the jury singled out the restoration of the mosque's inner dome decoration as "exceptional and aesthetically satisfying." In the course of the work it was possible to bring to light the original painted decorations of the dome, which were hidden under newer layers and which at the beginning seemed to be irretrievably lost.

The mosque, originally built in the early eighth century, was "in a sorry state," the jurors said, following extensive alterations in the 1950's - including reconstruction of the dome in concrete - and explosions and a fire in 1969, which severely damaged the 14th-century paintings and the timber construction of the inner dome.

The ribbed outer covering of the dome was replaced in lead to match the original, and the wooden inner dome was repaired: Gaping holes were closed with timber cladding and a relief plaster surface to match the original was added.

Besides the work on the mosque itself, other buildings in the Haram al-Shareef have also been, or are being, restored, including the four fortified gates of the enclosure and the annex adjacent to al-Aqsa, which has been converted for use as an Islamic museum and library. Restoration work has begun on the women's mosque and other preservation in progress includes fountains, arches and other minor buildings. Also planned is a large-scale scientific restoration, similar to that of al-Aqsa, of the Dome of the Rock.

To accomplish these restorations, the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock Restoration Committee, a semi-governmental body established under Jordanian law, enlisted UNESCO and the Rome-based International Center for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments (ICCROM) as consultants. Because the few remaining craftsmen skilled in traditional masonry techniques were very old, says the committee's resident architect, Isam Awwad, "we had to create a whole new generation of craftsmen." Workshops were set up to train local craftsmen in both old building techniques and scientific methodology; these men are now employed in such restoration work as gilding, masonry, mosaics, leaded-glass work, lead sheathing, drawing and painting.

Awwad, however, sees the restoration of al-Aqsa as much more than just an architectural challenge. "We don't have a national government [in occupied Jerusalem]," he says, "so by conserving our culture, we are conserving ourselves."

The remarkably conceived and realized conservation of the entire center of Mostar, Award officials said, is a model for preservation and reuse which, in its innovative approach, attention to detail and quality of design, sets an important precedent for other historic Muslim communities.

Situated 56 kilometers (35 miles) from the Adriatic Sea up the Neretva River valley, and some 150 kilometers (95 miles) northwest of Dubrovnic on the Dalmatian coast, Mostar is the second largest town in the Yugoslavian region of Herzegovina; it grew up some 500 years ago as a settlement of a few houses around a suspension bridge, and indeed, the town's name means "bridge-keeper." Its main expansion dates from the arrival of the Ottomans and their construction, between 1557 and 1566, of a permanent bridge with flanking towers across the Neretva. From this time a thriving business center and town developed around the steep-sided river crossing.

In 1977, the community of Mostar established a semi-governmental organization called Stari-Grad (Old Town) to deal specifically with the restoration and preservation of the heart of the city. The central core of the old town - an area covering nearly 75 hectares (185 acres) - was given over to Stari-Grad; all rents, taxes and income from advertisements and theaters collected within this zone were granted to the organization and initially provided most of its income.

Stari-Grad spent three years documenting the core area, collecting and analyzing historical, archeological and art-historical data. Community input was incorporated into the plans for restoration and reuse, and local traditional building methods and materials were used whenever possible.

Two mosques were among Stari-Grad's first projects, and in 1978 the organization began the renovation - still continuing - of some 30 shops and offices; in 1979 it undertook the rebuilding of the Koski Mehmed Pasha Madrasa, or religious school. In 1982 the bridge tower on the left bank of the Neretva was restored, and restoration also began on the 16th-century military barracks and tannery.

Most of the renovated mosques will retain their religious functions, as will the madrasa. Other restored structures are being rented out as shops, restaurants and offices or as workspace for artists and craftsmen - and there is a long waiting list for finished premises.

Such adaptive reuse generates more income for the conservation organization and also stimulates the local economy by helping to support local craftsmen, by providing services for tourists, and by employing local labor. In seven years Stari-Grad has resurrected the old town as a thriving business center, and even in the off season, with no tourists, the level of activity is striking.

Restoration of the different types of buildings, from shops and private houses to public mosques, as well as the old town's focal point, the bridge, fit well into the general atmosphere of Old Mostar; its homogenous appearance has not been disturbed. Nothing is overdone or "touristy," the Award jury found, and the reuse of old buildings - especially the mosques - is sensitively achieved. "The overall impression," the jury said, "is excellent and fitting."

At the time of its construction, the Dar Lamane Housing Community, in the industrial district of Casablanca, was the largest single public housing project ever attempted in Morocco. It represents a successful example of harmonious integration of public space with housing that respects the cultural needs of the population.

Designed by Moroccan architects Abderrahim Charai and Abdelaziz Lazrak, the complex is organized around a large central square surrounded on three sides by six housing clusters. Gateways, a feature deeply rooted in Moroccan culture, link these clusters with the public areas, providing the sense of territoriality that is fundamental to the success of a housing project. The overall organization and design of the housing clusters recalls the traditional pattern of the Moroccan town, ensuring a rich continuous network of pedestrian ways amid both formal and informal gardens.

On the periphery of the site, connected apartment buildings arranged in parallel rows form meandering pedestrian streets which give access to all buildings; entrances face each other and open staircases act as community balconies. These attached buildings are organized around service yards which are accessible by car and serve a group of shops, a hammam (public bath) and a nursery school. An elementary school occupies the northwest corner of the site and secondary schools, though off-site, are nearby.

The majority of apartments are of three or four rooms, and a few have five. Balconies, defined by large arched openings in the outside walls, provide outdoor rooms for upper-floor units; each apartment faces two directions, allowing cross-ventilation and natural light.

The complex provides housing for 25,000 people in some 4,000 units. The total floor area of 285,000 square meters (over three million square feet) was completed in 30 months, two full months ahead of schedule, with construction costs 15 percent below estimates.

Completed in 1970 along a new boulevard cut through a historic district, the Social Security Complex in Istanbul represents a studied strategy to reverse the destruction of a neighborhood which new development had pulled apart. The site is within the Zeyrek district, until recent decades an attractive residential area of 18th-and 19th-century wooden houses and the site of a proposed new housing project that recently won a King Fahd Award. A Byzantine church and an Ottoman hammam, tomb and mosque lie adjacent to the site, and the streets around it form irregular blocks which respond to the hilly topography.

Turkish architect Sedad Hakki Eldem said he sought in his design to link the remaining traditional structures of the neighborhood with the contemporary development along the new boulevard. For this he drew on the precedent of the traditional Ottoman külliye, a public building complex focused on internal but public space. In this case, the internal space takes the form of a central covered arcade running the length of the project and sheltering shops and public lobbies that give access to office space above.

The arcade connects four buildings: a six-story office block with shops on the ground level; a four-story clinic; a three-story bank with a restaurant on the top floor; and a two-story building with shops and a cafeteria. The graduated mass builds up the sloping site, heightening the effect of terracing and repeating the pattern found in the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

The jury found the appropriateness of the complex "very moving." It was, they said, "one of the earliest and most refined examples of contextual architecture in the international modern movement.... At the time of its design, 20 years ago, the way to build an office block was to create a pure slab that dominated its setting." Yet Eldem's design "echoes its background" in a way that is "artful and poignant."

Construction of the Friday Mosque at Yaama, in the Sahel region of Niger, was a collective undertaking involving all capable members of the community. Village elders defined the major characteristics of the mosque and appointed Falke Barmou to carry out the construction as his share of the project. He was assisted by three other masons, with villagers providing labor.

Although primarily a farmer, Barmou is also a master mason and has a strong interest in architecture. In his travels, including a pilgrimage to Makkah in 1966, he has been exposed to a variety of architectural models which influenced the form and construction of the Yaama mosque.

Instead of the conventional roof, the mosque has an arch-supported dome with a central square among rows of columns, and has four corner towers which, although recalling the stepped minarets of the region, are unique in their remarkable freedom of expression.

Modest decorations appear in the mosque, such as frieze-like bands which mark the elevations at irregular heights. Crenellations of half circles decorate the parapets and rounded cones mark some of the corners. The mihrab, or prayer niche, has recently received a superstructure in the form of a crown.

Barmou, the jury said, manifested "a will to use traditional techniques in a creative manner"; he built the arches with bundles of sticks bent and embedded in mud-brick columns. "Within a local context," the jury said, his innovation "was a striking element: Almost everywhere traditional architecture is losing its momentum, but in this case it is very much alive and exploring its possibilities."

Praising the "vibrancy" of the result, the jury said its members were "grateful to have an opportunity to recognize the divine spirit manifested within the work of such men." Yet at the awards ceremony in Marrakesh, Morocco, a modest Barmou showed his big farmer's hands to an Aramco World reporter and said simply, "I just work with these, and with my heart."

The mosque in Bhong, a town of 5,000 inhabitants in Pakistan's southeastern Punjab, crowns a complex began in 1932. Rais Ghazi Mohammad, designer, patron and landlord, conceived, directed and funded the entire building program which, over a period of 50 years, not only generated jobs and trained some 1,200 workers and craftsmen but also called forth complementary infrastructure projects: a market, roads, irrigation, electricity and running water.

Formally, the mosque reflects the traditional regional style, with its three ribbed domes and eight minarets. In addition, however, Rais Ghazi borrowed liberally, adopting stylistic elements from monuments in Lahore, Iran, Spain and Turkey.

Materials and crafts used range from the traditional - teak, ivory, marble, colored glass, onyx, glazed tile, fresco, mirrors, gilded tracery, ceramics, calligraphy and inlay - to the modern and synthetic marbled industrial tile, artificial stone facing, terrazzo, colored cement tile and wrought iron. Rais Ghazi's intention was to represent as many forms of popular craft and as many Islamic religious architectural features as possible.

Specialists were gathered from all over Pakistan and India: master masons from Rajasthan, India; craftsmen from Multan for the glazed tile, mosaic and woodwork; and painters and calligraphers from Karachi. Workshops were set up to train craftsmen in skills that had originally been passed from father to son.

In giving the Award to the Bhong mosque, the jury said it wished to acknowledge the "diversity that enriches society," for by bringing together vastly different techniques and materials - including mass-produced elements - a new kind of crafsmanship and a new kind of creativity had been evolved.

And although "architects might hate them," the jury said, the populace loves buildings like Bhong, which "enshrine and epitomize the 'popular' taste in Pakistan, with all its vigor, pride, tension and sentiment." The mosque's "use - and misuse - of signs and symbols," the jury concluded, "express appropriate growing pains in transition, and yet may prove significant for the future."

Gerard Loughran is managing editor of Compass, a third-world features agency based in Luxembourg.

John Lawton is a contributing editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 28-37 of the November/December 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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