Foster & Partners, the British practice behind London’s Millennium Bridge, has won one of nine awards for architecture in the Islamic world with its University of Technology Petronas, 300km north of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Although it is surprising to see a big occidental practice receive the award it is not unprecedented, with the US-based Argentine architect César Pelli, the architect behind the Canary Wharf tower, being garlanded last time for its Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, briefly the tallest building in the world.
The awards, which have been instigated and sponsored by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, are presented every three years and have grown hugely in prestige and profile since their inception 30 years ago. With prizes totalling $500,000 (£247,300), they are also the richest in the architectural world.
Although it is likely that the judges were looking for home-grown Islamic works, the award to Foster & Partners is testament to the firm’s assiduousness in researching climate, history and form.
The awards are intended to identify and encourage building concepts that meet the needs and aspirations of Muslim communities.
Foster & Partners’ university is typical of the kind of modernism, infused with local cultural devices and references, that the awards are designed to encourage. Asked how the university building responded to its cultural context, Lord Foster told the Financial Times: “If you visit this building, you’ll see that it couldn’t be anywhere else. It is highly evocative of the culture.”
If Lord Foster’s building is at the high-tech end of the scale, the other prizewinners seemed a universe away from that characteristically crisp white precision.
Two schemes in Yemen, the rehabilitation of the city of Shibam and the restoration of the Amirya complex, both play their part in preserving one of the world’s most extraordinary and unusual urban centres.
The restoration of the walled city in Nicosia, Cyprus, presents a spark of hope and collaboration between feuding Greek and Turkish communities, a heartening tale of dedicated professionals uniting in the face of government apathy.
The central market in Burkina Faso and a delightfully low-tech school in Dinajpur, Bangladesh, underscores the impact of even the most modest architectural interventions in poor communities.
Meanwhile Samir Kassir Square in Beirut, Lebanon, sees the re-emergence of one of the Muslim world’s most urbane traditions of public space.
This leaves a slick residential tower in Singapore, which thoughtfully reintroduces traditional techniques of ventilation and cooling, and the superb Dutch Embassy in Addis Ababa, a red-concrete mound that seems to grow from the earth as organically as the local buildings, yet reveals a typically Dutch blend of architectural intelligence and playfulness.
There are, however, serious questions to be asked in the wake of these awards. The first is the absence of Islamic influence in the host countries of the Muslim diaspora in the west.
Despite their sizeable Muslim communities, the UK, France, Spain, Australia and the US exhibit almost no signs of Islam emerging as an aesthetic or cultural influence on building.
The other is the surprising lack of buildings that could offer a solution to the problems of slum accommodation and informal communities.
Politics does appear on the agenda: the schemes in Lebanon and Nicosia have an intensely political resonance. But there could be more.
The explosion of building in the Gulf and the inexorable rise of the world’s new tallest building, the Burj Dubai (140 storeys and growing), has temporarily diverted us from some of the real problems that architecture can tackle.
How British design helps shape the Middle East
British architects occupy a unique position in the architecture of the Middle East and beyond, Edwin Heathcote reports.
Always keen to incorporate local elements, styles and motifs into their colonial buildings, they have created the architectural frameworks for government and urban life from New Delhi to Hong Kong, and from Malaysia to Taiwan, but their presence has been particularly strong in the Middle East.
Huge firms of engineers have been involved in building the most ambitious cities and structures on the planet. Dubai’s most famous icon – the Burj al Arab – was built by the British company W.S. Atkins.
Foster & Partners are working on a reinterpretation of the souk at the Aldar central market in Abu Dhabi.
Huge and ambitious towers are going up, designed by Hopkins Architects, Glenn Howells Architects, Zaha Hadid and RMJM.
Meanwhile, big chunks of cities and islands are being masterplanned by relatively anonymous engineering firms, including Halcrow and Atkins themselves.