Interview with His Highness the Aga Khan on Al-Azhar Park and the importance of architecture

In a rare interview, the Aga Khan describes his global approach to helping Islamic communities help themselves, while also restoring their past heritage


Last month, a 30-hectare park in the centre of Cairo was inaugurated by the Aga Khan and Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian president. It stands high over the city so on a clear day you can see the pyramids, and breezes ruffle its palm trees. You look down on the 12th-century city wall that runs for a kilometre and a half from Saladin’s great citadel. Crushed up against it is Darb Al-Ahmar, the oldest part of Cairo, a dense network of ramshackle streets that includes 50 monuments, from exquisitely detailed 14th-century mosques to the last of the whirling dervishes’ theatres in Egypt. The poorest of the poor live here; the houses—and most of the monuments—are so badly maintained that some of them are downright dangerous.

The Aga Khan offered to give Cairo a park in 1984 on the occasion of the conference “The expanding metropolis: coping with the urban growth of Cairo”, organised by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. He feels a strong link to the city as it was his ancestors, the Fatimids, who turned it into their capital and gave it the name by which it is known today. He holds up as an example to the modern world the pluralistic, enquiring, intellectually dynamic society they created. They founded the famous Al-Azhar University that can be seen from the park that now bears the same name. It is even rumoured that the Aga Khan would like to be buried here.

He had intended to spend $5 million turning the 500-year old rubbish dump into breathing space for a city that had just 30 centimetres of garden or park land per inhabitant. In the event, the Al-Azhar Park has ended up costing $32 million as it has turned into a major urban and social regeneration project. The Aga Khan’s Historic Cities Support Programme decided that it could not stop just at creating the park, but had to tackle the restoration of the wall and the houses next to it.

Taking the lead from the worst Western town planning, the City of Cairo’s plan for Darb Al-Ahmar had been to demolish all but the historic buildings for a 30 metre-wide band all along the wall, and to clear large spaces around any other fine buildings. The general belief was that this was a hopeless neighbourhood, inhabited by immigrants from the south, lacking in any social cohesion, and a hotbed of crime. Fortunately, the City’s plan was never carried out.

The first thing the Aga Khan team did was to conduct a survey of the community. They discovered that none of the prejudices about the neighbourhood was true: 60% of the local population had been resident for at least 30 years and almost 20% had been there for more than 50 years. People liked the district and went to great lengths to help each other; crime was negligible and the community included many skilled workers and small enterprises. In other words, it was a precious but endangered human asset to the dysfunctional megalopolis of 17 million inhabitants that Cairo has become.

A major challenge for the Aga Khan team was to get the authorities to repeal demolition orders and allow the houses to be restored, keeping the layers of history. But just restoring buildings was not enough for them. They follow their leader, the Aga Khan in a belief deriving very much from Ismaili philosophy, that you must help people, but help them to help themselves. Thus, they made technical assistance available to inhabitants, even sorting out complicated ownership problems caused by unrealistic fixed rents set decades ago, which had led the landlords to abandon houses that had just become a liability.

The Aga Khan’s Historic Cities Support Programme made grants, but also lent money as part of its micro-finance scheme. They bought up a former merchant’s house and turned it into a community centre, for women to meet and for children after school. They hired and trained local craftsmen in restoration skills for the houses and wall, but also for the two mosques they have taken on. One of these mosques, the Khayrbek, is part of a 13th-century palace complex with a ruined Ottoman house and open spaces, which was chosen not just for its architectural merit but because it will provide a setting for recreational and cultural events. The skyline is important to the Aga Khan, and the Khayrbek mosque had lost the crowning element of its minaret, so that was another good reason to choose it for restoration.

Over the last seven years, the Aga Khan teams have become part of the local community and they will stay on, even after the restoration of the wall is finished, to carry on giving Darb Al-Ahmar support, to help create what the Aga Khan calls “an enabling environment”, where hope and self-sufficiency and the civil society can flourish. For the Aga Khan believes firmly that there is no point in restoring a physical environment without also facing up to the surrounding social issues; only by addressing them can development be effective and lasting.

Anna Somers Cocks: You are both a temporal and spiritual leader. Would you tell us what your spiritual journey into architecture was?

Aga Khan: One of the things the non-Muslim world must try to understand is that Islam does not separate faith from the world. We have an obligation to the world as much as to faith, and that means helping people to live in a better way, ensuring peace and ethical standards in society. I was brought up in that tradition; my university studies were in Islamic history, so I feel comfortable addressing both these areas. My religious role is not well known because I don’t communicate about it much, but the development role is better known. It is simply about trying to improve the quality of life for the poor.

ASC: Was architecture the way into trying to improve society, or was it society that led you to architecture?

AK: When my grandfather died in 1957 we had numerous programmes in health care, education and so on in East Africa. I inherited responsibility for these institutions and at a certain stage I asked myself, whom was I designing for? Were the buildings appropriate to the society and cultures in which we were involved? The question caused me severe discomfort. I felt that we had lost our cultural identity in the built environment, our pluralism. So we got together with a number of Muslim thinkers and asked them whether they shared this worry. Some said that building was driven by faith; others said it was driven by the profession; others, by economics. All thought that something was going wrong. This process led to the first Aga Khan Award for Architecture, in 1977.

ASC: Do you think that some contemporary architects build more for the admiration of other architects than for the people who are going to use the buildings?

AK: I hope that some of the work that has been done through us is encouraging architects, clients and governments to think in wider terms about what they are doing, particularly as we realised very early on that our parts of the world can never become consumer societies; we’ll never have that capacity for rapid change and therefore we are building for a longer time-span.

I didn’t want to freeze architecture in the past. Architecture is a human process and what I wanted to make sure happened was that the process of change was driven by the inspiration and knowledge that were important in our part of the world. That’s why the Aga Khan Programme for Architecture at Harvard and MIT is crucial; let’s make sure that the people who are designing, understand the societies for which they are working.

ASC: Why Harvard and MIT?

AK: That was a long and difficult debate. We wanted to reward quality, but what were we doing about teaching people to produce better architecture and where could we have the greatest influence? The answer was, in the Western world, because it was architecture developed in the Western world that was leading the profession internationally. Once the decision had been taken to put the programme at Harvard and MIT, the question was, how to get the information out. That led to the publication Mimar and now ArchNet []. With the latter, all the professional associations and schools of architecture now talk to each other, so we have overcome the geographical limits.

ASC: Do you think that if there were greater historical awareness among the population there would be more pressure to look after buildings better? For example, in the schools here in Egypt, great emphasis is put on the pharaonic past and relatively little on Islamic history.

AK: In many parts of the world the Islamic heritage has not been seen as an asset. Whole generations have been brought up to see their inheritance as a liability; that’s why highways are being put through historic cities and extraordinary buildings are being destroyed. We sensed very early on that we had to build new values. We needed a new approach at all levels in the Islamic world: governments, corporations, and non-governmental organisations [NGOs]. There is much greater awareness today than there was in the 50s and 60s. There are changes in schools of architecture, changes in teaching materials, investment in cultural assets—not all due to us, of course. There is a new symbolism coming up in the Islamic world, whose value system comes from the faith.

ASC: Istanbul and Cairo have mostly been very ill served by modern architecture. We see concrete boxes, badly proportioned, very badly built, with poor services. What can be done to provide better architecture for the mass market in the Islamic world?

AK: It is an extremely complex problem. The difficulty is that you are dealing with different clients: the government, development organisations, and property speculators. We have been looking at this in our Architecture Awards for a long time, but it is probably at the regulatory level that the solutions will be found: who gives the licence to build? who makes sure that the conditions laid down in the licence are observed? That is the city or government’s responsibility.

ASC: In a city such as Cairo, what is the message of the skyline?

AK: The message of the skyline is the question of whether the inherited institutions and the presence of places of worship are important, or whether it is the urban growth that is going to dominate people’s perception of city life? The Western world has gone through the same process: church towers became insignificant buildings. That may not be a healthy way of going about things; it may send a message about the wrong values. Here if you look around, you see the mosques, the places where the dead are buried, you see new glass and concrete buildings that are not very good. I think it is important to protect what one has; that is urban planning. For example, at Bagh-i Babur [Babur Gardens] looking towards Kabul, you say to yourself, God forbid that the skyline should change; it has kept its human dimension; its symbolic spaces are visible. There are ways to modernise cities while keeping their historic values. The West is also working on this, fortunately.

ASC: Was there an historic inspiration for the design of the Al-Azhar Park?

AK: Historically, the design of open spaces was a very strong part of the physical environment in the Islamic world—think of Shalimar, of Spain—but in modern times, landscape architecture has been a very weak area in their schools of architecture; they have tended to be engineering-driven rather than architecture-driven, which is why I have been working with them to try to reintroduce these skills. Here in Cairo, sadly, we had no precedent from which to work, so we had to think what would be appropriate to the site. We thought water was important; scale, sound, perambulation. We designed to these ideas. The experience led to my endowing a professorship in the Islamic School of Design programme at Harvard and MIT, specifically to look at landscape architecture and environmental issues.

ASC: How do you begin a project such as this?

AK: From the outset, one of the mandates was to listen to local people, local NGOS, teachers etc., who understood how society functioned in the catchment area, because you have to involve social development in a cultural diversity exercise.

We then worked to find out the ownership patterns. You have to start with the basic information—longevity, disposable income, health indicators and so on—on which to base your processes of change, so that you can measure the nature of the change.

ASC: How will the park be maintained?

AK: This initiative, and all our similar ones, are structured in such a way as to create a cash surplus every year from ticket sales and the restaurants, which is not distributed as dividend but is used for maintenance and occasional upgrades—for example, here, we would like to improve the children’s area—so that the notion is one of self-sustainability. It is a public/private partnership and as such has to be predicated on a sound economic basis. This is important, because in the past many such projects have been seen as indefinite consumers of resources. We want to show that if this is put together with care, it ceases to be charity or philanthropy but actually creates economic resources based on cultural assets.

To give you two other examples we are working on: the rehabilitation of the Old Stone Town on the waterfront of Zanzibar, which I am convinced can change the economy of the whole island; and Bagh-i Babur in Afghanistan, which will change the lives of 200,000 people. Most of these historic neighbourhoods have been taken over by the newly urbanised population, the poorest of the poor, so by working in these areas and upgrading them you are giving them economic hope. Here in Cairo, change in Darb Al-Ahmar will not end with the restoration of the city wall; it will be a continuing process.

You can look after the future of the park in other ways, for example, with an endowment. This brings you back to working with government, because fiscal privileges need to be offered to the private sector if they are to give to cultural activities—to fund a professorship at a university or endow a micro-credit programme, for example. The notion of an endowment is one that I look to with increasing eagerness, for the simple reason that as these economies are liberalising, more and more of the resources will be in the private sector and there has to be some sort of social responsibility in the creative reutilisation of wealth. We are seeing small rural communities in Pakistan that have their own endowment, which they look after themselves so you have wealth management rather than poverty alleviation, which is a totally different concept.

ASC: How can your network fight terrorism?

AK: I would not link terrorism directly with cultural issues. My biggest concern is acute pockets of poverty; they are in many cases the breeding ground of despair. We have to find out why they are like that and what we can do about them. We have been working for 25 years in northern Pakistan and the quality of life has changed radically there. One has to work to give people confidence and hope; that changes society.

ASC: How do you choose your partners?

AK: We have worked in Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which went through nationalisation and the destruction of their private sector. I need to know with whom I am in dialogue: do they share our objectives and the means of achieving them? In the 50s and 60s you could not have discussed the notion of public/private partnership with most of these countries; the notion of pluralism was resented. I think that creating value systems that correspond to these societies is the critical issue. We will even work with governments to help them rewrite legislation, creating new institutions such as not-for-profit entities.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bringer of hope and fine architecture'