Forty years after Farrokh Derakhshani signed up for a five-month contract with AKDN, he is still here. For the past 16 years, he has served as the Director of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. With the Award in its 45th year, he reflects how it has changed attitudes towards architecture.
“Architecture is one of the very few disciplines that touches all levels of society. It has an impact on your daily life,” says Farrokh. “If quality of life is only going to be health, education, the monetary level, that is not enough. If you don't have the culture, it will not bind all these things together.”
For Farrokh, the most important projects are those, particularly in poor areas, where people of different ethnicities and faiths are brought together. This resonates with the importance His Highness the Aga Khan places on pluralism. “Architecture means doing something for society,” Farrokh says. “That's the most important thing.”
Farrokh recalls the early days of the Award, which was offered for the first time in 1977. “Let me put it in a historic[al] perspective. Today... you can immediately jump on something and have all the information about it at any moment. Forty-five years ago, that was not the case. Someone in Morocco had no idea what was happening in Indonesia. So, one of the main roles of the Award was to tell people that someone else ha[d] found an intelligent solution that you [could] learn from.”
In the days of modernism, architecture was viewed in terms of buildings. The Award widened perceptions of the discipline: “We had projects like slum upgrading, engineering, water towers in Kuwait, for example, restoration projects. Now you talk about the social aspects of architecture, how it has an impact on society. It was the Aga Khan Award for Architecture that was pointing those out.”
Meanwhile, the accompanying series of seminars in countries such as Turkey, Morocco and China were preserved in publications. Along with the Award books, they were sent to schools of architecture around the world, creating a source of knowledge in a field that lacked information about architecture in a Muslim context.
Now in its 15th cycle, the triennial Award remains unique. “First of all, we do not give an award to a person. No project is a product of one person. It's always the client, the builders, the architects, the engineers. Second, we do thorough research on projects and we're giving an award to a project which is completed and in use.”
How can architecture meet the challenges of the future?
“I’m not a fortune teller, but I believe in people’s capacity. I learned a lot of that from His Highness, because I could see that in different places, different situations, how he gave them space to come up with innovations, helping them to bring up the capacity, which was hidden once within them. That’s why I believe that in the future, a lot of problems that we think are the biggest problems today will be solved.”