Aga Khan Award for Architecture: A journey across shortlisted projects in the Gulf

Since its establishment in 1977 by His Highness the Aga Khan IV, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) has not only recognised some of the most significant and impactful built projects worldwide, but it has also created an archive of architecture that has served Muslim communities for over four decades.

The 2019 shortlist presents 20 projects that span various sectors and areas around the world, and interestingly, this year has seen the highest number of projects selected from the Gulf region, including Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and three projects in the UAE—which holds the highest number of shortlisted projects from a single country.

In the last decade, a revival of cultural projects across a number of Gulf countries has become apparent. This has been followed by a commitment towards the restoration and preservation of built and natural environments, led primarily by government bodies and select private clients and stakeholders.

Some such initiatives can be observed within the shortlist itself, from the revitalisation of Muharraq’s pearl trading tradition in Bahrain and Muttrah’s fishing traditions in Oman, to the reactivation of historic urban neighborhoods with Sharjah’s Al Mureijah Art Spaces, as well as the rehabilitation of the latter emirate’s wetlands with the Wasit Wetland Reserve by X Architects. In Qatar, four historic courtyard houses dating from the early 20th century have been remodeled and extended to create a cluster of museums as part of the development of downtown Doha, while in Dubai, the modular and multipurpose Concrete has been repurposed from four existing warehouses.

Although the shortlisted projects cannot and should not be looked at solely through a regional lens – each project stands on its own architectural merit – the significant number of projects from the Gulf in this year’s shortlist shows that recent efforts have not gone unnoticed. “One can see a clear difference in the type of architecture that is seen to represent the [Gulf] area,” said Farrokh Derakhshani, director of Aga Khan Award for Architecture. “Together, they provide another perspective on the architecture of the region. As a group, they go beyond the cliché seen in the media.”

Many of the regional projects in the shortlist are indicative of a shift towards more contextually and locally-driven architecture that responds directly to social and environmental needs. And while some of these projects have been designed by world-renown architects such as Snohetta and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), others have been created by locally-based architects and government bodies. 

One such project is Al Mureijah Art Spaces, designed by Sharjah-based architect Mona El Mousfy, architecture consultant for the Sharjah Art Foundation and founder of architecture studio Space Continuum. Serving as a venue for the Sharjah Biennial and the Foundation itself, the five buildings also act as community spaces for residents that live in the surrounding historic neighbourhood, reactivating the area.

“The project reflects Sharjah’s deep-rooted efforts to promote arts and culture, and to support non-commercial, socially conscious, contextual, and innovative approaches to architecture,” says El Mousfy.

“A cultural openness has permitted us to explore a different narrative in relation to pre-60s architectural heritage; one that resists a strictly ‘Eurocentric orientalist’ narrative which tends to celebrate an idealised and fixed image of a historical urban fragment and its architecture. This view allowed us to inscribe new contemporary buildings in a heritage area that work in continuity with the existing fabric, while satisfying the new programme they support.”

She further described the UAE-shortlisted projects as “sensitive to their physical and social contexts, and supported by open-minded clients that are genuinely interested in the local context, while being aware of international conversations on architecture.”

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, lecturer and researcher on social, political, and cultural affairs in the Arab Gulf States, and Founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, is currently conducting research for a book that documents the modern architecture of the city of Sharjah. He notes that the mix of cultural and environmental projects within the shortlist “is a reflection of the diversity of projects that are being constructed in the Gulf”.

“I believe that the Gulf states have witnessed, from the 1970s, the construction of structures that may very well have qualified for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture — including the Dubai World Trade Centre by John Harris and the Abu Dhabi Central Market by Abdel Rahman Makhlouf,” he says. “Many of the modern structures were even more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than the glass towers that are built today.”

“Perhaps the Gulf states have realised that, not only are buildings that take into account the heritage and environment more suitable, but they also allow them to compete for recognition from awards such as the AKAA,” he continues.

Another project that reflects a wider motivation for rehabilitation and driving forward cultural activities is Concrete, a multi-purpose space designed by OMA. It is also the first ever project in Dubai that has made the AKAA shortlist.

Set in the former industrial complex that is now the cultural district Alserkal Avenue, the structure consists of four existing warehouses that have been transformed into a venue for events, exhibitions, and cross-cultural exchange. Its translucent 8-metre high pivoting and sliding walls also open up towards The Yard, forming a symbiotic relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, and a natural sense of movement between the two venues. Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, founder of Alserkal, explained that the project was “commissioned to foster dialogue around the notion of preservation in the context of modern architecture”.

“From the start, the idea for Concrete was to create a space for international and local exchange,” added Iyad Alsaka, partner at OMA. “Our initiative to repurpose an industrial structure makes it a precedent in the architectural landscape of Dubai. It is a very important project for our firm and for the region,” he said.

The 20 projects shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture are currently under strict investigation by a team of experts who visit and evaluate each project individually, and whose findings will influence the final selections made by the Master Jury, with a prize reward of $US 1 million.

About Aidan Imanova:
Aidan Imanova is a design and architecture journalist writer, primarily covering the Middle East region. Her previous roles include digital editor of Commercial Interior Design and Middle East Architect and editor of online magazine, designMENA. Aidan has also worked on a wide range of events in the fields of design an architecture including awards programmes and conferences. She is passionate about the preservation and regeneration of modernist architecture across the Middle East and in her home country of Azerbaijan, as well as architecture that serves Muslim communities worldwide.

“A cultural openness has permitted us to explore a different narrative in relation to pre-60s architectural heritage; one that resists a strictly ‘Eurocentric orientalist’ narrative. This view allowed us to inscribe new contemporary buildings in a heritage area that work in continuity with the existing fabric.” — Mona El Mousfy, Architecture Consultant for Sharjah Art Foundation