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Aga Khan Award Lauds Chinese School, Saudi Valley

Wadi Hanifa Wetlands
Wadi Hanifa Wetlands near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, shortlisted for the Aga Khan Architecture Prize. Source: Aga Khan Foundation via Bloomberg

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture this year was won by five projects including a school built as a bridge uniting a Chinese village and the restored center of Tunisia’s capital Tunis.

The revitalization of a Saudi Arabian valley, a Spanish museum and a Turkish factory also share the biggest prize in architecture, according to a statement today by the organizers.

Winners will collect their prizes, totaling up to $500,000, this evening at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. He established the award in 1977 to “recognize architectural excellence” that addresses the needs of societies in which Muslims have a presence, according to the Aga Khan Development Network website.

“We look at pluralism in the Muslim world today,” said Omar Hallaj, chairman of the master jury, in Doha today. “The award embraces a Muslim world that is dynamic, innovative and creative and has helped create a better understanding of it.”

A total of 401 projects applied for this year’s awards and 19 were shortlisted. The winners were picked by an independent nine-member jury including French architect Jean Nouvel, Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and Columbia University philosophy professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne.

Emre Arolat Architects designed the winning Ipekyol Textile Factory in Edirne, Turkey, where floor-to-ceiling windows give workers views of gardens and recreational areas.

Spiritual Center

Another winner was Li Xiaodong’s Bridge School in China’s Fujian Province, connecting the village of Xiashi that lies on two sides of a creek. The school, built on steel trusses with a bridge below, is “the physical and spiritual centre of what was a declining village,” the award website said.

Arriyadh Development Authority’s restoration of the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, a valley near Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh that had been exploited in an “aggressive and environmentally destructive manner,” according to the project description, was selected for its creation of parks, providing water treatment and encouraging tourism.

“We revised the eligibility criteria for the 2010 cycle to add planning practices,” award director Farrokh Derakhshani said. “Planning is very important. If you have bad planning, the city growing around it will have bad architecture.”

The Association de Sauvegarde de la Medina de Tunis’s urban revitalization of the city won for its planning, including the restoration of theaters and markets.

Palace City

The Madinat al-Zahra Museum was praised for its role “as a place to interpret” the 10-century palace city of Madinat al-Zahra in Cordoba, Spain, one of the most extensive early Islamic archaeological sites in Western Europe. The museum “blends seamlessly into the site and the surrounding farmland,” the project description says.

“The award shows that we’re dealing with a Muslim Ummah that exists in Alaska as well as the Phillipines,” said 82-year-old Oleg Grabar, professor emeritus of Islamic Art and Culture at Princeton University, who won the Chairman’s Award for his lifetime contribution to Islamic art and architecture.

The award is made every three years and is being given for the 11th time this year. It is larger than the $100,000 Pritzker Prize, awarded annually since 1979 for “significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”

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