The exterior of Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka

Not far from the forbidding expanse of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and overshadowed by the inexorable advance of skyscrapers is one of the Chinese capital’s last remaining traditional communities, the Cha’er Hutong.

People have lived in the crowded quarters of hutongs with their courtyards and narrow alleys for centuries but now, increasingly, they are being demolished and the residents moved out into tower blocks, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, to make way for roads and more skyscrapers.

New life has been breathed into this particular courtyard, however. What used to be a patch filled with rubbish is now home to a tiny structure shaded by a Chinese scholar tree and secreted under the roof of an existing building. It is made of reused bricks and plywood, and is used as a library — only 9 square metres — a meeting house and a place for children to enjoy art lessons, read books and lark about.

Architect Zhang Ke of ZAO/standardarchitecture explains that by reusing materials, renovating and redesigning the small space he has been able to resist the threat of the bulldozers to the city’s historic way of life and create a subtle renewal for a community which once numbered more than a dozen families.

The Micro Yuan’er, as it is called, is one of 19 architectural designs which have won $1 million (Dh3.7 million) in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, announced earlier this month. The award was established in 1977 to identify and encourage buildings that meet the hopes and needs of communities where Muslims have a significant presence. Winners have to prove that they are architecturally top class and that their project improves the quality of life of the people they are working for. It not only rewards architects, but also identifies municipalities, builders, clients, master craftsmen and engineers who have made a contribution to the success of the building.

The projects are nominated by experts or even admirers, and after a lengthy vetting process a shortlist is presented to a nine-member jury. The winners and runners up for 2016 display the same eclecticism as previous years, as one might expect from the nomination of 348 projects from 69 countries. Among the six winners is the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque (architect: Marina Tabassum) in Dhaka, in which a beautifully lit interior belies its unexceptional brick exterior and the unusual fact that it doesn’t have a dome. The land was donated by a widow after a “difficult life” and the loss of her husband. The result is a pavilion that can be used for social meetings as well as prayer.

In Copenhagen, the Superkilen (architect: BIG — Bjarke Ingels Group) is an open space designed to meet the challenge of the city’s growing crime rate and racial tensions. A park has been divided into three zones — for sport, children and for a food market and picnic area — where the city’s 60 nationalities are encouraged to mingle and coexist.

One of the most brilliantly idiosyncratic is the Tabiat Pedestrian Bridge in Tehran (architect: Diba Tensile Architecture; Leila Araghian and Alireza Behzadi). It is 270 metres long and curves rather whimsically on three levels over a motorway of teeming traffic and is a place where people don’t merely pass each other but meet, gather at restaurants and admire the Alborz mountains that dominate the city skyline.

Others on the long list of 19 include a bus shelter in Casablanca, a power station in Baku and an extension to King Fahad National Library in Riyadh.

One of the judges, Seif El Rashidi, an architectural historian based in London, has detected a trend of more modest projects being nominated. “Part of the mandate is to recognise excellence and part of that is to ask if this a new way of doing things — to emulate and be inspired by,” he says. “Think about the context of the Islamic world and where Muslims have a significant presence. Much of that world has a lack of resources and socio-economic challenges. So maybe in Dubai, say, you can build lavish and expensive skyscrapers but that isn’t the model that I imagine the award would be happy to recognise. This is not to say that the best skyscrapers in the world are not recognised — the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur was awarded in 2009. But maybe now being high-tech and swanky can lessen your chances ... A modest project has the same or even better chance than a big, glamorous one.”

There were a couple of big names and big-budget projects in the running for — and won — the $1-million prize, such as the Issam Fares Institute in Beirut designed by the late Zaha Hadid. University director Rami Khouri calls it “the most modern and dramatic building on campus and a sign of maturity”. He says he likes the fact that it is “wildly at odds with its surroundings and out of character with all the other buildings ... it creates controversy and is quite a conversation piece”. And it sure is — a cantilevered concrete structure set in a campus of red-roofed buildings with a nod to the traditional Islamic style. It makes no attempts to elide with the existing structures.

The other prominent nominee but a runner up is a skyscraper by Jean Nouvel on the waterfront of Doha, which is a reprise of the headquarters he designed for Aguas de Barcelona (Agbar), the Spanish city’s municipal water company.

“This is not an award for showy subjects. It is not enough to be pretty. I have been struck by the emphasis on social and community projects, which has evolved over the 30 years since the awards started. Initially the winners tended to be those who built in Muslim traditions but in a modern way, but now what we have learnt is that you can do more about sustainability, the environment and empowering communities. Many of the projects touch on one or more of these issues,” El Rashidi says.

Maybe that is why there are not many overtly “Muslim” projects in this cycle — the mosque in Dhaka is obviously one — but there are several libraries in places as far-flung as Albania, Kosovo, Ceuta and Beijing. “Innovation is important when it comes to awarding the prize,” he says. “It is important to consider infrastructure which one tends not to think about especially for the developing world and challenges it faces.”

El Rashidi judged a library in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the northern coast of Africa, and a tower in the small town of Huércal-Overa, southern Spain, which was part of a fortification built by the Nasrid dynasty, the Muslim rulers of the territory from 1238 until they were driven out in 1492.

“The Spanish tower has a remote affinity to Muslims,” he says. “But there is a broad connection and that is indicative of the Aga Khan’s attitudes and perspective on the awards which are pluralistic and all embracing,” El Rashidi says.

In order to assess the worth of a project, the judges have to visit the site, see how the building fits in with the landscape, investigate the materials used and what the community makes of it. “It is much more than merely looking at six or seven pictures,” says El Rashidi. “I met the people involved, I had lunch in the village and talked to the local people. They liked the tower partly because it has always dominated the landscape even when derelict. Some said that as teenagers they would walk to the tower and explore. One girl told me she kissed her first boyfriend there. Everyone in the village has memories of the tower and it has not lost its sense of history or its connection to the community. People like to sit there, children do arts and crafts. It has become integrated into the cultural life of the village without losing the sense of adventure that goes with it.”

It is certainly striking. The Nasrid tower has been restored using original materials where possible, modern additions have been removed and the original mud wall and interior brick fabric have been resurfaced. To restore the original entry to the tower, four metres above ground level, a new but rusting tower stands alongside to house a staircase. The combination of ancient and rusting new is a sharp contrast to the harsh, hilly countryside around it, but what adds piquancy is the acceptance, even the desire of the architects, to let the new tower degrade over time, leaving the original to stand for centuries more.

Architect Luis Castillo of Almeria-based Castillo Miras Arquitectos says: “The approach from the Aga Khan Award came as a complete surprise. Our speciality is restoring old buildings, and this had already been completed. We don’t do things with the aim of winning $1 million. The idea of the new cylinder is that it is separate to the tower, it is not a rival. It is built without a foundation and is designed to degrade and eventually be torn down or disappear, leaving the tower to remain. That creates a distinction between old and new, which prompts the visitor to think about the permanence of the original building made by anonymous craftsmen thousands of years ago.”

The Nasrid tower was a runner up, but El Rashidi says: “It was refreshing to see something where they had no aspirations of winning an award. It shows the great integrity they bring to their work — if someone recognises them, that’s nice but it’s not important to them. They told me: ‘We are a small office, not famous,’ but that’s what’s good about the award — you can be unknown and still compete with the most important architects in the world.”

One project that was enthusiastically nominated and caught the imagination during the announcement of the shortlist in May was the floating school of Makoko, a stilt settlement south of Lagos, Nigeria. It was a spindly A-frame structure with space for two classrooms for 60 pupils and a play area. So admired was it that it a replica was displayed at the Venice Biennale. But as the judges have found on more than one occasion, what appears on paper is not necessarily what you get. Unfortunately, the school sank during a storm. Undeterred, architect Kunlé Adeyemi of NLE Works is already planning to build a new, improved version. So perhaps he deserves an award for tenacity.

Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.