The shared denominator and the enduring values of architecture

The impressive body of work by Hassan Fathy (Egypt), Rifat Chadirji (Iraq), Geoffrey Bawa (Sri Lanka), and Oleg Grabar (the United States) has had a significant impact not only on generations of architects and scholars, but also on people, places, and communities. Their work represented an ideological and transformational shift in a period that was typically characterised by colonial, post-colonial, modern, and postmodern architectural styles. Their work, ideas, and concepts successfully aimed at and created a platform for a distinct and sensitive balance between people, place, time, beauty, cost, and technology. All four of these acclaimed colossi of art and architecture witnessed and participated at the beginning of a fast-changing cultural and socio-economic epoch in the latter half of the 20th century; they firmly believed in, and ceaselessly promoted, the importance and validity of retrieving or revising authentic traditional and historical architecture and applying it to the contemporary world. Yet, although they shared very similar beliefs and ideologies, their approach to developing understanding and promulgating good architecture was quite varied.

These articulate pioneers had somewhat different perceptions on applying the principles of modernisation and the use of materials and technology. For example, Hassan Fathy was more or less openly antagonistic to the modern movement, though his covert adherence to its principles in altering people’s way of life was often severely criticised (Pyla, 2007). Fathy was also censured for producing architecture that could withstand the test of time. Consequently, his techniques and concepts, although used during his lifetime, were not reproduced on a larger scale, as they abjectly failed to respond to the mass need for adequate housing for the poor and low-income communities, the very people whom he claimed to design for (ArchiDATUM, 2016). Unlike Fathy, Chadirji and Bawa were fervent modernists; both utilised modern techniques and materials to achieve a contemporary regional architectural style that fit within their own historical and cultural context and that simultaneously responded to the necessities of modern needs. Similarly, Grabar, although he believed in the importance of understanding and presenting historical cultural aspects, also considered the present and contemporary life to be of equal importance.

On the one hand, Fathy was a pioneer in exploiting local resources, local techniques, and local craftspeople and empowering community in the construction of his projects. In doing so, his approach created a new form of contextual and symbolic architecture that is deeply rooted in its locale. In contrast, Chadirji believed that traditional materials and crafts alone could not withstand the complexities and requirements of contemporary architecture (Khan, 1984). As a result, his projects represented a tentative mixture of traditional patterns with modern technology, in an effort to strike a balance between the past and the contemporary demands, and between traditional forms and modern technology. Rather than reviving traditional methods and craft, like Fathy, Chadirji used essentially traditional architecture as a base from which to develop a new design vocabulary through the application of modern principles and materials. His distinctive work has resulted in the emergence of what is referred to as regional modernism or regionalised international style.

Similarly, Sir Geoffrey Bawa also placed great importance on the traditional, yet he believed that it could only be fully exploited by the use of modern materials and technologies while incorporating topography and engaging with nature in a fluid congruous manner. Unlike his European- educated colleagues, Bawa was influenced by and employed international modern approaches and technology in such a way that paid homage to his country’s tradition and heritage and thus created a signature architectural style that ensues from its locale. In effect, Bawa’s work importantly recognised and represented national cultural significance in tandem with modern and colonial architecture. Unlike Fathy’s projects, which were designed to accommodate the needs of the underprivileged and the poor, Bawa designed for the tiny (less than 5%) affluent, upper-middle-class Sri Lankan population. This focus resulted in hostile criticism of his architecture; his severest critics felt he neglected the poor in favour of the moneyed classes. Nevertheless, Bawa’s characteristic approach to and advocacy of combining tradition with modernity remained an inspiration for many architects who viewed his visionary work and ideals as great representation of time and place.

The beliefs and ideologies of Fathy, Chadirji, and Bawa were a blueprint for various architectural vocabularies, buildings, and spaces that people inhabit and experience. Grabar’s beliefs and notions, however, were articulately documented in his teachings and academic writings. As a historian, he presented iconic monuments of the past, making it his mission to preserve them in addition to keeping records of and writing essays on current architectural trends and events. For Grabar, knowledge should be imparted and shared, and so this articulate, cultivated, urbane, and cultural educator and scholar effectively and enduringly passed on his knowledge to his students for over five decades. Grabar palpably inspired a wide audience of academics, professionals, architects, and historians through his writings and books, many of which were published in both French and English. According to Grabar, architecture could only endure in relation to the people who use it and interact with it, much like the perceptions that art exists only in the eyes of the spectator.

Fathy and Chadirji also combined their design work and professional practice with academic pursuits, notably producing scholarly publications, teaching in their field, and inspiring and influencing many students who were motivated by their writings, ideologies, and beliefs. The same cannot be said about Bawa’s ideologies; he believed that architecture should be experienced rather than explained and thus remained adamantly taciturn about his personal beliefs and his architecture. Despite his silence, his designs remained a point of contention and were criticised as only being representative of creative compositions of tradition and modernity in a dialectic engagement with nature and culture. Yet Bawa made his mark on the artful merging of landscape and architecture, so that his buildings became subtle and inherent parts of the landscape.

Adopting, adapting, and materialising the enduring values of architecture, these four pioneers shared the belief of the significance of time and space in their practices and body of work, whether through designs, buildings, projects, or writings. Their instinctive understanding of architecture as a responsive art that reflects local people’s tradition and culture is clearly embodied in their timeless legacy, whether in the practical or the academic realms. At various levels and in different contexts, by adapting, adopting, and working on validating distinct belief systems, each one of these extraordinary men was engaged in an ongoing process and determination to define and forge a national architectural identity, through an understanding of the traditional patterns, traditional crafts, traditional vocabularies, and the unique particularities of their contexts. They recognised the crucial need for striking a successful balance between architecture and society, an equilibrium that cannot be realised without a full understanding of the formation and evolution of socio-cultural aspirations of the societies they represented and the contexts in which they worked. Despite the surge in modern buildings and the emergence of many innovative architects and architectural trends in post-colonial Islamic societies over the past five decades, the Aga

Khan Award for Architecture Chairman’s Award lauds and recognises the accomplishments and lifetime achievements of outstanding individuals who do not fall within the provisions of the mandate of the master jury. This honour has thus far been given only on four occasions to Hassan Fathy, Rifat Chadirji, Geoffrey Bawa, and Oleg Grabar. The AKAA Chairman’s Award remains steadfast in its ideal to promote standards of excellence in architecture, historic preservation, and urban planning, thus reminding the professional community in the Islamic world, and in fact globally, of the enduring values of architecture.

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