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Three cheers for the Aga Khan

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The Aga Khan's architecture awards are surely the most impressive in the world. Set up in 1977 to celebrate buildings and planning schemes that can help improve life in countries 'in which Muslims have a significant presence', the triennial awards have been given to work mostly in Asia and Africa as different as housing for the very poorest, office towers, urban parks and squares, villas for the wealthy, rehabilitation of slums, conservation of palaces, fortresses and ancient walled cities.

Out of hundreds of projects submitted, the couple of dozen selected as finalists are visited and examined carefully in use by an architect or professionally qualified assessor. Their resulting reports form the basis for the Master Jury's decisions about what to award and how to split up the half million-dollar prize money. As far as I know, the Aga's awards are the only ones which involve performance in use, and which are given not only to architects, but also to clients, builders, and craftsmen. The prize money is divided in each case according to the assessors' recommendations, and at the awards ceremonies, black carpenters from central Africa, magnificently turbanned in traditional dress, are lined up with sharp-suited western planners, white-robed Arabs and elegant Chinese from Malaysia and Singapore.

This year's award winners are as diverse as usual. For me, the most moving is given for rehabilitation of Shibam in the Yemen. The city is one of the wonders of the world. It lies towards the head of the mythic Wadi Hadhramaut, the big green valley that runs down from the mountains of south Yemen to the Arabian Sea. The place emerges abrupt and dream-like out of the desert, a cluster of thin mud-brick 10- and 12-storey tower houses forming a compact labyrinth of lanes within a precise fortified perimeter; there are no suburbs. With German help, nearly 200 houses (about half the whole stock) have been restored, and social services have been extended. For instance, women are offered literacy and skills training; craftsmen are being taught, and agriculture in surrounding areas is being revived. Physical, social and economic structures have been enhanced, so the city and its community can be saved instead of facing imminent destruction by globalisation.

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