Women won the biggest cash prize in architecture for designing remarkable Muslim spaces


Female architects are finally in the spotlight. Besting a field of over 348 finalists from 69 countries, projects spearheaded by three women were named winners of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture at an Oct. 3 ceremony in Abu Dhabi. The win is a significant milestone amid the lack of career recognition for female architects in the traditionally male-dominated profession.

With a $1 million purse—the biggest monetary prize among architecture competitions—the award is given every three years to architects, builders, craftsmen, engineers, mayors or clients behind remarkable building projects that enhance the life of Muslim communities around the world.

Among the six winning projects this year is a sun-dappled mosque in Dhaka by Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, a multi-level pedestrian bridge in Tehran designed by Iranian architect Leila Araghian and a striking office building at the American University of Beirut by the lone female “starchitect,” the late Zaha Hadid.

Sun-dappled prayer room. (Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora)
Bait Ur Rouf Mosque (Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Rajesh Vora)

“We have had women architects as part of teams of architects or restorers, but never before have there been so many women as [lead] architects,” says Sam Pickens, a spokesperson for the Aga Khan Foundation. This year’s winning projects also include a community center in Bangladesh, a children’s library in Beijing, and a public park in Copenhagen co-designed by the omnipresent Bjarke Ingels.

“Pol-e-Tabiat” bridge aka the third symbol of Tehran (Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Barzin Baharlouie)

Now on its 39th year, the results of this year’s Aga Khan prize is a historic turning point in annals of international architecture competitions. The world’s oldest prize Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal had never been bestowed to a solo woman architect until it gave the prize to Hadid this year, 170 years after it was founded in 1846. Similarly, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) took 67 years to award their gold medal to a female architect. In 2014, AIA posthumously feted California-based architect Julia Morgan who died in 1957.

“I wish the Pritzker would look to the model of the Aga Khan,” says architecture historian Mary Woods, referring to what’s been dubbed as the Nobel prize of the industry. In 2013, the Pritzker committee famously refused architect Denise Scott Brown’s petition to be recognized with her husband and business partner Robert Venturi. “The Aga Khan Award for Architecture has much to teach us.”

The Aga Khan announcement comes at a time when many female architects are left with few role models, after the sudden death of Hadid in March. “Women are founding their own firms, women are the protagonists…I think that’s very important that was called out,” explains the Cornell University professor “Earlier [architecture] awards would go to a husband and wife team and the wife would often be in the shadows.”

And it goes beyond the gender numbers game too. “It’s particularly impressive because we in the West have a particular stereotypical idea of the roles, opportunities and challenges for women in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia,” explains Woods, who authored a new book about unheralded women architects and builders of India.

Issam Fares Institute (Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Zaha Hadid)

“In India, they [women] have been the traditional head loaders [in construction projects],” she explains. Because the award recognizes the whole cast of characters involved in building projects, Woods says the Aga Khan Award educates us about the entire system involved in building projects, beyond the visionary architect’s drawing board. “I think it’s an important lesson to inspire not only women architects, but all architects.”

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