Islamic Architecture
Why Islamic architecture?
Why is His Highness the Aga Khan spending so much time and resources to promote Islamic Architecture?
Amir Ali Sunesara
Why Islamic architecture?
This question can best be answered by qouting the His Highness the Aga Khan and from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture website.

"The need for better understanding across cultures has never been greater nor more pressing. We need to recognise, value and protect what is greatest in our common heritage. Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for cultural initiatives that demonstrate a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding and wisdom well beyond the ordinary." [His Highness the Aga Khan].

[From the AKTC website] Buildings and public spaces are physical manifestations of culture in societies, past, and present. They represent human endeavours that can enhance the quality of life, foster self-understanding and community values, and expand opportunities for economic and social development into the future. To underwrite the vitality and integrity of built environments in the Muslim world, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has developed programmes that support:

The pursuit of excellence in contemporary architecture and related fields;

The conservation and creative re-use of historic buildings and public spaces which facilitate social, economic, and cultural development;

The strengthening of education for architectural practice, planning, and conservation; and,

The international exchange of ideas to enhance understanding of the intimate connection between culture and built environments in the history and culture of Islamic civilisations and in contemporary Muslim societies.

"Some 30 years I began to question why architecture in the modern Islamic world seemed to have lost touch with the great achievements of its past.

I began working with leading architects, philosophers, artists, teachers, historians and thinkers -- from all religious faiths -- to establish an Award for Architecture. We sought to reshape and reposition knowledge and taste in the public psyche and to change the behaviour of the vast range of actors who shape the built environment." [His Highness the Aga Khan]

"Thirty years ago, as the eye ranged across most of the developing world, it was difficult to find new construction that reflected in its design a concern much less an understanding of the social, cultural, or in some cases, even the climatic context in which it was built.  I was particularly disturbed to find this in the Islamic world, given its historical record of architectural achievement and the special place that architecture has played in the aesthetics and spiritual expression of its cultures.  The gap between past accomplishment and current practice was massive." [His Highness the Aga Khan]

Shiraz Allibhai
Why Islamic architecture?
From the speech of His Highness what does architecture has anything to do with culture? How does architecture reveal any information of a culture.
Amir Ali Sunesara
Why Islamic architecture?
Hi Amir,
Are you an architect or a student of architecture?
Shubhru Gupta
Why Islamic architecture?
"From the speech of His Highness what does architecture has anything to do with culture? How does architecture reveal any information of a culture."

Architecture has alot to do with culture?!?

It shapes who we are and reflects human consciousness. An American city reflects differently from a Pakistani city and this has alot to do with architecture. The new buildings we put up reflect the culture and mindset of the people. Look at Dubai or a traditional city like Fez of Morocco. Each expresses a unique architecture and culture.


4 a : enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training b : acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills

5 a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company or corporation

Architecture is the manifestation of our thoughts; individually and as a collective. Same goes with all physical manifestations; clothes, cars, furniture, architecture etc.

Humans reflect what there surroundings are! The question to ask is what are the right surroundings that promote healthy living?

I hope this helps,

Abdul Basit Mukri
Why Islamic architecture?
I am still not convinced about how architecture and culture are related together.
Amir Ali Sunesara
Why Islamic architecture?
Amir-I am not sure you are trying hard to understand. Instead of asking why, how about giving your understanding of culture and why architecture does not fit into your definition. For me, Culture is the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. Culture involves at least three components: what people think, what they do, and the material products they produce. Its thus easy for me to see where architecture fits.
Shiraz Allibhai
Why Islamic architecture?
Hi Amir,

It might be easier to respond to your query if you explain what constitutes culture for you. As Shiraz has rightly pointed out, physical manifestations of peoples' thought processes also form a part. Does not clothing, food etc feature in your list of 'cultural' items?? Then why not architecture!!
The two are inherently linked.

And it's not just culture that shapes architecture, sometimes architecture also help shape certain practices. For example, presence of courtyards in traditional housing in India, or rather any tropical country is essentially a climatic necessity, but with due course in time, it became the primary living space for the women of the house, where they undertook majority of their daily activities. Needless to say, it was because the cultural and social context required the womenfolk to stay within the confines of the house, and the courtyard provided a considerably 'secure' open space for their use. Eventually the space came to be called zenana area or the women's area. Does this not imply a connection between the two?

Look around carefully. The link is visible even today. When people talk of giving 'contemporary' or 'traditional' looks to their habitats, does that not imply a certain cultural bend of mind, besides aesthetic preferences?
Shubhru Gupta
Why Islamic architecture?

In architecture, it is said that 'form follows function', that means the shape of buildings should essentially be projections of the functions they embody.

You start with the function, not the shape. The way the space is used should give rise to the form of the building. But use of space, as earlier pointed out, is determined by one's cultural habits. The way a European uses space is not the same way, say, a Chinese uses it.

Islam as a culture brought about many habits and unique ways to interacty with space that were not there before it. For example, the house you stay in if it was designed for traditional European use, you might feel it does not exactly fit your needs. That feeling tells you it was meant for another culture different from yours.

Also, architecture has been responsible for the preservation of history and past cultures. Since it lasts through its tectonic forms, the knowledge of all the ancient cultures has been possible only through studying their architecture, beacause, Architecture expresses culture. Have I helped?
Mohamed Mwacharo
Why Islamic architecture?
Thanks for all your responses. Let me present to you an example so that it will be easy for you to explain to me the relationship between culture and architecture.

I live in Houston, Texas in U.S.A. and I am trying to understand how does American culture is reflected through architecture. As you mentioned that in architecture the function takes precedence over form and taking consideration of the fact that U.S.A has one of the best universities in the world. So you are saying that the reason why U.S.A. has many excellent universities (that is the form) because the American people value education (function).

We see many different types of places of worship in American cities (form) because Americans value religious tolerance. In other words, the values of the cultures are reflected in the architecture. I think I am now trying to understand the relationship between culture and architecture as I am thinking the above example out loud. Do you consider roads, bridges, and other infrastructures of the city to be part of the architecture?
Amir Ali Sunesara
Why Islamic architecture?
Hi Amir,

I have my thoughts on both your original question "why spend time promoting Islamic architecture" and on your most recent question "how is American culture reflected in American architecture". They're simplified, just to make the point, we can elaborate on them as needed.

The first:

"Islamic architecture" is a concept that originated and is still developed largely in the West. When developing a 'rational' way of looking of architectural periods, Western scholars from the mid-17th century onwards (I'm going to begin with the foundation of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, on which architectural education is still based today), what we think as "western architecture" was divided into categories somewhat reflecting its historical development (classical, hellinistic, renaissance, baroque etc.). The architecture of "others", on the other hand, was lumped into categories reflecting what these scholars perceived the "other" to be.

Islamic architecture is a perfect example of this approach. Architectural heritage of dynasties from Spain all the way to China and across Africa through centuries was classified under one over-arching topic and largely ignored as a whole. In architectural schools, students were taught and are still taught only of the "cannon" (i.e. Architecture with capital A, i.e. the Pantheon, the Arc de Triomphe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry).

If you try to look at nineteenth century photographs of Istanbul by 'western' photographers, you'll find many of the Byzantine monuments and very little of Ottoman establishments. Just a few large mosques and nothing else... Try to find any information on a small madrasa here or there, the lack of research and writing will become clear. I could go on, but I think this hints at the problem and we can discuss if ArchNet's selective focus is the answer. For me, the answer partially lies in bringing up the level of research and interest in this heritage (that is now unified in its collective abandonment as opposed to anything inherently coherent -- and this is also up for debate).

The second:

American architecture reflects American culture's need for historical authority. Hence, in the U.S. you will find many neo-classical monuments (built from its beginnings to today). They also reflect American idealism (a great example is the campus of the University of Virginia designed by President Thomas Jefferson).

As for suburban 'architecture', which is not considered to be 'architecture' by many... it reflects a culture of privacy, idealism, individuality, non-cosmopolitanism and disregard for natural resources.

A well-trained architect can read all the 'cultural signs' embedded in form. For example, the pitched roof is a symbol of 'traditional' home, hearth, today whereas it evolved in response to a particular kind of climate (i.e. rain and snow). Why build pitched roofs in the Arizona desert? That's culture in play in architecture for you.

What do you think?
Ozgur Basak Alkan
Why Islamic architecture?
Hi Amir,

If you ask about any nation's culture, you will find the answer in their architecture...

I think this is the relation between architecture and the culture...

In your opinion, in what culture or architecture should he spend his time and resources to promote???

I hope the problem is not in the ISLAMIC word!!
Ibrahim Karsou
Why Islamic architecture?
If one takes this question seriously, then we need to spend so much time and lectures to reach an answer.

As stated above, architecture has to do with every thing around us. In the Islamic World the question of culture, environment, a man's position in the universe, and the society, ethics, values are all central aspects that must be reflected in architecture. For centuries, people who lived in Muslim communities shaped their architecture in agreement with these aspects, which resulted in peace and harmony with their intellectual and physical environment. With rapid development in Muslim countries, this harmony has disappeared.

That is why we need to understand Islamic architecture and look for methods to develop it into a real physical forms around us. Islamic architecture is full of ideas that can be developed to produce a new generation of building pleasent for the eye and for the soul.
Hani Alqahtani
Why Islamic architecture?
All pre-modern communities lived in 'harmony with their intellectual and physical environment'. Muslims communities are no exception. The questions are for all today's communities: what have they lost, and what built form professionals and developers need to understand 'besides' making money in order to bring back 'harmony'.

Sustainability is another word for harmony.
Ziad Aazam


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