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The revitalization of Muharraq, Bahrain, based around the historical importance of the pearling industry to the city, was a recipient of an Aga Khan Award for Architecture.Cemal Emden/Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Peek down a narrow street in Muharraq, in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. A coral-stone building extends a tower above neighbouring rooftops; next door to it, streetlights stand in a small plaza, illuminating benches and a few shade trees.

As a visitor, you might notice that these form part of a network of public spaces leading to a new museum of pearling, the historic trade of this port neighbourhood; that the towered building has been carefully restored; and that those lamps themselves are topped with pearl-like domes.

This is a complex combined effort of architecture, landscape architecture and historic preservation to write a new chapter for a centuries-old district. The project, led by Noura Al-Sayeh of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, is smart and very subtle. It demands a close look.

It’s also a winner of an Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA). That program, now in its 40th year, captures architecture, landscape and heritage projects from across the world that go beyond aesthetics to improve the lives of people in meaningful ways.

A recent online symposium and website by the University of Toronto showcased winners of the most recent Aga Khan Awards – and they’re revelations. Each of the six winners features an awareness of local climate and sensitivity to local culture, as well as artful composition.

The awards “are not just a beauty contest,” said Brigitte Shim, a Toronto architect and professor at the U of T’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, who hosted the event. “They ask: Do these buildings really work? Do they perform? Do they matter to the people who live there?”

One winner is a classroom building for Alioune Diop University in Bambey, Senegal. Designed by the Spanish architects IDOM, it creates a landmark in a small town, with a striking 500-metre facade made from triangular cinderblocks that were locally made. These cover a passageway on the south side of the building, providing shade and comfort in a hot climate, while a double roof overhead lets hot air continually flow outward. The place looks good, keeps people cool and serves the student body well.

A new block of lecture rooms at Alioune Diop University in Bambey, Senegal, smartly keeps students cool in the region's hot climate.ChŽrif Tall/Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The Aga Khan Awards confirmed this by sending a “field reviewer” to report on the ground – Aziza Chaouni, another U of T professor. “The most important job was to assess the impact of this project on the users and the immediate environment,” she said in the symposium. And, she found, it worked. Along with its technical success, “it was creating a sense of pride for local youth.”

Ms. Shim, whose firm Shim-Sutcliffe has won many design prizes, has had a long association with the Aga Khan Awards program. She suggested the Toronto event – which, pre-COVID-19, was intended to be live – to bring the program and its winners to a broader audience in Toronto and Canada.

The six current winners are located in Senegal, the Palestinian Territories, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Bangladesh. These locations largely make the projects invisible to mainstream design magazines, publications which tend to focus solely on architecture and on buildings that look good in photographs.

The Aga Khan Awards are different. They have always recognized landscape and heritage preservation alongside architecture.

The program was launched in 1980 by the current Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, who has a long-standing personal interest in design. As the leader of a set of non-profit organizations, which are supported by contributions from Ismailis, he has been a serious patron of architecture and landscape across the Islamic world. (These projects are not eligible for the Aga Khan Awards.)

The Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, aims to educate about this unique ecosystem and encourage its preservation.Cemal Emden/Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The Ismaili community in Canada is 100,000 strong, and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (designed by the globally prominent Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki) exists alongside Ismaili cultural and religious facilities in Ottawa, Vancouver and Edmonton.

The awards, Shim suggests, have helped push Western architecture and landscape back toward thinking about social justice and designing for ordinary citizens rather than the rich. The American Pritzker Prize, the best-known award in architecture, has been actively changing its emphasis in that direction since 2014.

“Taken over 40 years, the influence is vast and remarkable,” Shim said. “The fact is that the North American conventions about the role of the architect and builder are not the only way to go. There are many other ways to do meaningful work and to build places that matter.”

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