The recently published book Architecture is Life. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2013, features the five winning and 20 shortlisted projects from this prize which recognises excellence in the built environment in “societies with a Muslim presence”. Florian Heilmeyer of uncube enthuses as to why it is so much more than the book of a prize.
In many ways, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is an exceptional prize in its field. Not only is it one of architecture’s oldest and most prestigious awards (which also comes with a remarkable prize money of a total of one million US dollars), it is also one of the very few that credits projects’ social impact more than their spectacular forms. Though the Award was established in 1977, earlier than the Pritzker Prize, in its ethics-over-aesthetics-attitude it feels much more up-to-date than the latter – and one automatically wonders, why the Pritzker is so much better known in the countries of the Global North.
This is perhaps because the Aga Khan Award focuses especially on “architecture and other forms of intervention in the built environment of societies with a Muslim presence” – which also means that Western architects have hardly ever been distinguished by winning it. Yet everything about this prize and its criteria seems right, for instance that it recognises not only buildings but many different types of projects “that affect today’s built environment”. Because it is about their impact, smaller projects are given equal consideration to large-scale buildings.
This book, Architecture Is Life, features not only the five prize-winners of the 12th cycle of this triennial award, but all 20 projects that made it onto the shortlist (out of 411 nominated). Each project is thoroughly described in images, drawings and text. The tasks range from housing projects to a football academy to a centre for cardiac surgery in Sudan, and from low-tech restoration projects to a high-tech high-rise building in Bangkok. This richness of variety doesn't create a lack of coherence as these projects are described by how and why they emerged – and what they’ve changed. Key qualities and aspects of their design are certainly presented, but it’s simply part of the story. These projects have other values and it is the remarkable merit of this publication that the reader can clearly understand and follow the thinking as to why these projects have been chosen and their significance.
Fortunately, this book manages to be so much more than just the record of a prize. The many accompanying essays by editor Mohsen Mostafavi, as well as David Adjaye, Toshiko Mori, Hashim Sarkis and Wang Shu, place the projects and the prize itself against the larger picture. Altogether, this is a manifesto for a better understanding of architecture and urbanism in their contexts – and for the impact that the built environment is able to have on and create with people.
– Florian Heilmeyer is an editor at uncube.
Architecture is Life. The Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2013
Editor: Mohsen Mostafavi
Essays from Mohsen Mostafavi, David Adjaye, Toshiko Mori, Wang Shu, Mohammad al-Asad, Hashim Sarkis, and others
Lars Müller Publishers, 2013