Creative and eco-friendly: Unique spaces at one with nature

Tuesday October 01 2019

The architecture of the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), uses the existing topography of the site to minimise the structure’s visual impact. PHOTO | AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE


Architecture’s unique power to unite cultures came alive in this uniquely placed Russian city of Kazan as the world celebrated six projects for winning the prestigious US$1 million (approximately Ksh104 million) Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The projects were celebrated for their architectural splendour and beauty in form and hue, but also for the deeper symbolism they held in a world wrestling with climate change and a climate of hate. The projects, in Senegal, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Palestine, Russia and Bahrain, emerged winners after a three-year judging process. They took the top prize for the unique ways in which they have embraced and conserved the environment.

The ceremony was presided over by the Aga Khan and Mr Mintimer Shaimiev, the State Counsellor of the Republic of Tatarstan at Kazan’s Musa Jalil State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.

Senegal’s Alioune Diop University was on the mark for a building that creatively adapts to Africa’s abundant sunlight. An amphibious building, the Arcadia Education Project in Bangladesh, won for allowing a school to operate in a swamp during both wet and dry seasons.

The other four winners of this year’s award are a museum that projects Palestinian heritage with an aim to ‘foster a culture of dialogue and tolerance’, the public spaces development programme in Tatarstan, and in Russia, the revitalisation of Muharraq — the pearling industry that is historically crucial to Bahrain’s economy, as well as Wasit Wetland Centre in UAE.

The Aga Khan, in his keynote address, underscored Tatarstan as important in emphasising the role architecture must play in promoting pluralism in the world, given the harmony with which different religious groups coexist in the Muslim-majority state. “On my visits in Kazan, and in Bolgar, I have seen how committed people can honour the power both of cultural identity and cultural pluralism.”


“It is striking to see how churches and mosques, for example, have been built and preserved right next to one another as powerful symbols of a profound intercultural dialogue.”

“I would hope that we all can help point the rest of the world to the powerful pluralistic model of places like Kazan and Bolgar,” he said.

The Imam observed that pluralism means more than merely tolerating a diversity of influences and ideas. It also means welcoming the learning opportunities that diversity provides, finding ways to honour unique ideas in individual traditions and values that connect humankind.

He said architecture, more than any other art form, has a profound impact on the quality of human life.

“As it has often been said, we shape our built environment — and then our buildings shape us.”



Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit, Bambey

The university was founded in 2007 in the government’s effort to decentralise the provision of higher education. This building was part of an extension project in 2012 as the school was then functioning beyond capacity. Here, a scarcity of resources led to the use of bioclimatic strategies, including a large double roof canopy and latticework that avoids direct solar radiation but allows air to flow through it.


This new lecture room block at the Alioune Diop University comprises a 500-seat amphitheatre, classrooms for 50 or 100 students, laboratories and technology rooms, and offices for lecturers. PHOTO | AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE


Arcadia Education Project, in South Kanarchor

The project is the brainchild of Razia Alam, who, after four decades of teaching in the United Kingdom, returned to her home country of Bangladesh where she established a school for underprivileged children using her pension. Rather than disrupt the ecosystem, the architect devised an amphibious structure that could sit on the ground or float on the water, depending on seasonal conditions.



The Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh. It was conceived as anchored rafts, five modules that house pre-school classrooms, an adult vocational workshop, and an office and water block. PHOTO | AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE


Wasit Wetland Centre, in Sharjah

It is a design that transformed a wasteland into a wetland and functioned as a catalyst for biodiversity and environmental education. The rehabilitation process began in 2005 and has since seen 40,000 square metres of rubbish removed and 35,000 trees replanted, healing the land from toxic chemicals and conserving the unique salt flats and costal sand dunes.



Upon arrival at the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah, in United Arab Emirates (UAE), visitors are led underground into a linear gallery with a transparent wall that allows them to view the birds of the wetland in their natural habitat. PHOTO | AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE



Revitalisation of Muharraq

Muharraq, former capital of Bahrain, was the global centre of the pearling industry until the 1930s, which saw the introduction of cultured pearls, leading to the town’s decline. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its revitalisation was initiated as a series of restoration and reuse projects conducted by the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Cultural Research.


Bahrain's former capital Muharraq, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which was revitalised. The project consists of three oyster beds, a seashore and sixteen architectural properties throughout Muharraq. PHOTO | AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE


Public Spaces Development Programme, in the Republic of Tatarstan

It is a programme that, to date, has improved 328 public spaces all over Tatarstan. It sought to counter the trend toward private ownership by refocusing priorities on quality public spaces for the people of Tatarstan. The spaces have been conceptualised for enjoyment all-year round and are a product of collaborative efforts between the community and the state. It has now become a model throughout the Russian Federation.


Public spaces in the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia Federation, have been conceptualised for enjoyment all-year round and are a product of collaborative efforts between the community and the state. PHOTO | POOL


Palestinian Museum, in Birzeit

The museum, which crowns a terraced hill overlooking the Mediterranean, is the recipient of the LEED Gold certification due to its sustainable construction. 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 Palestinian heritage.


The Palestinian Museum in Birzeit crowns a terraced hill overlooking the Mediterranean. PHOTO | AGA KHAN TRUST FOR CULTURE



More About the Aga Khan Award for Architecture

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture not only rewards architects, but also identifies municipalities, builders, clients, master artisans and engineers who have played important roles in the realisation of a project. Prizes have been given to projects across the world, from France to China. The Award was established by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1977 to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully addressed the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.