Oct 23, 2007

Revitalising communities around the world - The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme Exhibition

Revitalising communities around the world - The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme Exhibition

As part of the Golden Jubilee commemoration, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has put-together an international exhibition, featuring acclaimed projects of its Historic Cities Programme (HCP). Having debuted in Washington D.C. on 21 September 2007, the HCP exhibition is set to visit other cities in the Unites States and Canada, before travelling abroad.
The HCP exhibition is one of several international initiatives aimed at informing the Jamat and the wider public about the far-reaching work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in the field of culture.
Each HCP project, in its own right, demonstrates the Imamat’s commitment to revitalising Muslim heritage, improving the built environment, and transforming lives. The AKTC approach, evidenced in many HCP initiatives, is to leverage cultural assets and mobilise the grass-roots citizenry to generate economic activity (such as tourism and trade), develop infrastructure, and improve living conditions. The involvement of local community members and leaders, the training of local artisans and tradesmen, and the building of local institutional capacity help ensure the long-term sustainability of projects. Central to these endeavours are the underpinning Muslim ethics of inclusiveness, self-reliance, and extending care and support to those in need.
Beyond showing how historic buildings and cultural monuments serve as catalysts for socio-economic rehabilitation, the HCP exhibition also demonstrates how architecture and development can bring diverse peoples together onto collaborative platforms to address shared needs and objectives. In a similar vein, architecture creates an intellectual space for diverse Muslim communities and cultures to dialogue about their shared beliefs and values, thus overcoming perceived divides.
Seventeen large-scale exhibition panels showcase, in vivid detail, some 11 projects in eight cities, spanning Africa, Asia and the Middle East. An informative video presents their stories. Visual displays bring to life tangible examples of innovative construction techniques, such as the erecting of durable shelters from earth-filled plastic bags and restoring dilapidated fa├žades with intricate woodwork.
The HCP exhibition, the first international Golden Jubilee initiative to reach the USA, premiered in the glass-walled building of the American Institute of Architects, in Washington D.C. Accompanying the exhibition on its maiden voyage, Shiraz Allibhai and Jeff Allen, from AKTC, led young volunteers from the Jamat in assembling the delicate frames and trained them as exhibition tour guides. Each host city in the United States will provide opportunities for young volunteers from the Jamat to act as guides.
Members of the general public and bus-loads of Ismaili children and their parents perambulated about the exhibition, gazing intently over the attractive displays. At a formal evening reception in Washington, D.C., the invited guests were engaged by young Ismaili communicators who answered questions and provided project anecdotes.
Among the featured projects is the Bagh-e-Babur in Afghanistan, where the AKTC initiated the renovation of the near-ruined 16th century garden in which the first Mughal Emperor, Babur, is buried. Despite being an ongoing project, the Bagh-e-Babur, even in its current condition, is completely transcendent of space and time. Amidst its picturesque rose gardens, one experiences a sense of peace and tranquillity, seemingly far detached from its busy urban surrounding. The people of Kabul praise the Bagh-e-Babur as a reminder of the lush beauty that had once surrounded them and as a symbol of their aspiration to return Kabul to its former glory.
A favourite among visitors is the five-panel exhibit dedicated to the Al-Azhar Park project and the restoration of the neighbouring Darb al-Ahmar community. Given that previously Cairo had less than a foot-print of green space per inhabitant, the transformation of a 500 year-old, 74-acre garbage dump into the “green lung of Cairo” is a feat that captures everyone’s imagination. Yet, the underlying message still hits home that development can take place alongside the restoration of heritage buildings and the rehabilitation of dilapidated neighbourhoods and marginalised communities. Dallas Evans, former Deputy Mayor of Operations of the Government of the District of Columbia, remarked: “Rather than pulling down the old and replacing them with new high rises, we should take the example of the AKTC and revive our neighbourhoods and give them new life.”
In just a few stops on its international tour, the HCP exhibition has attracted a diverse audience, including members of the Jamat, students, academicians, civic authorities, planners, engineers, architects, and others. Beyond this, the exhibition has inspired and mobilised countless Ismaili volunteers to give generously of their time and knowledge – and thereby contributing to a better understanding of the Muslim world and Islam’s social conscience through the vernaculars of culture and architecture.

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