Kazan, Tatarstan: Sharjah’s Wasit Wetland Cente — a marvel created out of a wasteland — made history by becoming the first environment protection zone to win the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2019.
Hana Saif Al Suwaidi, Chairperson of the Environment Protection Areas Authority (EPAA) received the award from Prince Kareem Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. The ceremony was held at the historic Musa Jalil State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre in Kazan, Tatarstan - a Muslim-majority state in Russia with thousands of years of history.
The ceremony was attended by Rustam Minnikhanov, The First President of Republic of Tatarstan, dignitaries and architects from around the world.
Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Wasit Wetland Centre was one of six projects to win the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture chosen out of 380 projects from around the Muslim world. It is one of the world’s most prestigious awards for architecture with a prize money of $1 million (Dh3.67 million) to be equally shared amongst the winners.
Five other projects that won the award include: Revitalisation of Muharraq, Bahrain; Palestinian Museum, Birzeit; Arcadia Education Project, South Kanarchor, Bangladesh; Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit, Bambey, Senegal and Public Spaces Development Programme, Republic of Tatarstan, Russian Federation.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is organized around a series of three-year cycles - each one culminating in the recognition of award recipients. It was launched around four decades ago and the last award ceremony was held in 2016 in Al Ain, UAE.
The award is associated with the Aga Khan Cultural Foundation and the Aga Khan Development Network. The first awards ceremony (1978-1980) was held in Lahore, Pakistan
The 2019 awards cycle
The theme of 2019 cycle of awards was “Architecture in Dialogue.”
Speaking at the award ceremony, Prince Kareem Aga Khan said: “Through the dialogue, we seek to blend the inspiration of the past with the demands of the future.”
“The demands are many: environmental, social, technological, and economic, not to mention the challenges of political polarization. In all of these respects, looking back can help us look ahead - and vice versa.”
Aga Khan also urged to foster a rich dialogue with non-Islamic cultures - including diverse religious traditions.
“Architecture can lead the way in this effort - as we listen to one another and learn from one another across old divides,” he added.
He noted that the world is in need of such examples, saying, “Human challenges seem to intensify at an accelerating pace these days. The challenges are climate change, economic and technological inequalities, epidemics, political polarisation, population displacements and the daunting task of helping one another to live together in dignity.”
“I believe deeply in the potential of the Architectural world to help inspire and enrich a creative dialogue: a dialogue between creative Architectural partners, a dialogue between past and future, a dialogue between natural reality and human creativity, and a Dialogue among diverse cultures,” he explained.
Why Wasit Wetland Centre
Speaking to Gulf News, Hana Saif Al Suwaid, Chairperson of EPAA said that Wasit Wetland Centre is not only a beautiful place that adds aesthetic environmental and tourism-related values; but is a place to learn and educate our community especially the younger generations.
“We are delighted to have won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture as it is a well-deserved win for Wasit Wetland Centre – which was built following the directions of His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah. It is part of the Wasit Nature Reserve which offers eco-tourism as well," she added.
“The Centre, the first of its kind for wetlands in the GCC countries, is one of the projects that Sharjah undertook to strengthen its position as the capital of Arab Tourism for 2015, to improve environmental conditions and to conserve wildlife for future generations,” Hana explained.
What is Wasit Wetland Centre
Aisha Al Midfa, Manager of the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah and the architects Ahmed Al Ali and Farid Esmaeil from Sharjah explained about the importance of the center.
The center provides educational and informative classes; it has platforms and towers for birdwatching and teaching aids and boards with information about the species of migratory and resident birds in the Reserve. These include common and rare birds such as the northern bald ibis, the glossy ibis, the crab plover, the gray heron and the Arabian golden sparrow.
The Centre – which aims to protect environment, preserve natural resources and contribute to the development of ecotourism – is the lung of the Emirate of Sharjah with natural beauty, charming views and diverse wildlife.
The Centre also houses scientific facilities to ensure that the birds are protected from extinction. An important destination for education and bird-watching, it provides visitors and researchers with world-class facilities. Visitors can use special binoculars to identify rare birds, and the Centre is equipped with advanced technology that makes it possible for visitors to hear the birds in the Reserve. The Centre has eco-friendly electric vehicles and visitors can enter the Reserve to learn about its birds, trees, lagoons, pools and salt flats.
Wasit Wetland Centre is an important attraction, with a view of the vast Wasit Nature Reserve in which many resident and migratory birds can be observed throughout the year. It helps to transform arid land into wetland, serves as a catalyst for biodiversity and environmental education, and helps to restore the original ecosystem.
Wasit Nature Reserve is the third protected area in Sharjah to be listed by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands after Sir Bu Nair Island Protected Area and the Mangroves Protected Area.
What had become a waste dumping ground has had its indigenous ecosystem restored, and is proving a popular place for visitors to appreciate and learn about their natural environment.
The Wasit Wetland Centre stands out as a remarkable, indeed unique, collaborative project combining architectural excellence with a deep commitment to ecological imperatives.
It also achieves highly commendable educational and recreational purposes. Less than four years after its completion, a large number of local visitors, especially schoolchildren, attests to the project’s overall success and its positive impact in a broader social context.
Likewise, the project’s major contribution to its urban environment is in its reclamation of close to 20 acres of former wasteland by diverting it from the temptations of real estate development.
In doing so, the Project sets a powerful precedent that encourages low-impact and environmentally conscious development in a region known for its propensity to go in the opposite direction.
Five other winning projects
• Revitalisation of Muharraq, which highlights the World Heritage site’s pearling history, was first initiated as a series of restoration and reuse projects. The project evolved into a comprehensive programme that aimed to re-balance the city’s demographic makeup by creating public spaces, providing community and cultural venues, and improving the overall environment.
• Arcadia Education Project, in South Kanarchor, a modular structure – incorporating space for a preschool, a hostel, a nursery and a vocational training centre – that takes a novel approach to a riverine site that is often flooded for five months every year. Rather than disrupting the ecosystem to create a mound for building, the architect devised the solution of an amphibious structure that could sit on the ground or float on the water, depending on seasonal conditions.
• Palestinian Museum, in Birzeit, which crowns a terraced hill overlooking the Mediterranean and is the recipient of the LEED Gold certification because of its sustainable construction. The zigzagging forms of the Museum’s architecture and hillside gardens are inspired by the surrounding agricultural terraces, stressing the link with the land and Palestinian heritage.
• Public Spaces Development Programme, in the Republic of Tatarstan, a programme that, to date, has improved 328 public spaces all over Tatarstan. The ambitious programme sought to counter the trend toward private ownership by refocusing priorities on quality public spaces for the people of Tatarstan. It has now become a model throughout the Russian Federation.
• Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit, in Bambey, where a scarcity of resources led to the use of bioclimatic strategies, including a large double roof canopy and latticework that avoids direct solar radiation but allows air to flow through it. By employing locally familiar construction techniques and following sustainability principles, the project succeeded in keeping costs and maintenance demands to a minimum, while still making a bold architectural statement.
Who is His Highness the Aga Khan
His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, became Imam at the age of 20. The Aga Khan provides spiritual guidance to a community of 15 million living in some 25 countries, mainly in West and Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as in North America and Western Europe.
What is the Aga Khan Award for Architecture
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established by Aga Khan IV in Geneva, Switzerland in 1977, aims to identify and recognise architectural concepts that meet the needs and aspirations of Muslim communities in terms of contemporary design, social housing and community development to improve, restore and reuse areas in need of conservation, landscape design and environmental improvement.
Since the Award was launched 42 years ago, 122 projects have received the award and more than 9,000 building projects have been documented.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). It currently operates a 1,000 or so programmes and institutions in 30 countries − many of which date back over 60 years, and some over 100. It employs approximately 80,000 people, the majority of whom are based in developing countries.