2019 Aga Khan Architecture Award winners include Sharjah’s Wasit Wetland Centre

The winners of the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture have been announced, and among them is the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah. The winners share $1 million.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was established in 1977 “to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully addressed the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence”. It recognises architectural excellence in the fields of contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, historic preservation, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design and improvement of the environment.

Unlike some other architecture prizes, the Aga Khan Award is for a project rather than its designer; that way it recognises all those who played important roles in the realisation of a project – clients, engineers, master artisans as well as architects. Since its launch, a total of 122 projects have received the award and more than 9,000 building projects have been documented during the nomination process.

The Wasit Wetland Centre opened at the end of 2015 but still apparently qualifies. In fact it looks like a classic AKAA candidate. For a start, it’s part of a larger initiative by Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority to rehabilitate an ancient chain of wetlands along the Emirate’s Arabian Gulf coast that had effectively become a waste dumping ground.

The work began back in 2005, since when some 40,000m2 of waste has been removed and 35,000 trees have been planted. With the indigenous ecosystem restored, the Centre aims to provide information and education about the environment (with the goal, of course, of encouraging its preservation).

The remarkably simple building has two wings. The first one contains administrative and educational spaces, while the other accommodates the observation galleries (all images © X-Architects / Nelson Garrido photographer)

At the same time it is an elegant, efficient, sustainable design that honours its environment and local traditions. X-Architects of Dubai, the studio responsible for the design and the associated masterplan, produced three slender building volumes and a network of woven canopies.

The Centre takes advantage of the site’s natural topography to minimise the visual impact such that it appears to be sunk into the ground, and visitors come down a ramp to arrive at an angled intersection between two linear elements of the building; at the sides are services and administrative offices, ahead is a long viewing gallery with a transparent wall that provides views of the birds in the landscape. The site is now home to 350 different species of birds, as well as a landing zone for over 30,000 migrants.

At the far end of the viewing gallery, a third linear element houses a café and multipurpose space with views out over the open wetlands.

On arrival, visitors are led underground along a pathway into a linear gallery with a transparent wall that allows them to view the birds of the wetland in their natural habitat

The interiors are deliberately minimalistic, placing the full focus on the surrounding nature. A cantilevered steel truss roof over the viewing gallery avoids the need for peripheral columns and allows seamless glazed façades. The façade glazing is slightly tilted, to enhance reflections of the landscape for the birds while minimising reflections for people looking out.

Angled glass walls minimise sunlight glare for viewers inside and reflect the landscape to the birds outside

To counter the desert climate, the roof is well insulated and the glass is shaded by its overhang. Some fabric shading is also provided over the aviaries. Rainwater harvested from the roof (yes, it does rain occasionally) is discreetly directed to specific areas of the landscape via carefully placed spouts camouflaged by landscape elements.

Outside six individually designed bird hides are scattered around a lake created in the middle of a 200,000m2 site. These use some recycled wood and plastic in their construction, reinforcing the ecological message.

Different in scale and shape, each of the six bird hides offers the opportunity to observe the animals in their natural habitat

Sharing $1m …

The other five winners are:

  • Bahrain: Revitalisation of Muharraq A series of restoration and reuse projects in the city of Muharraq that evolved into a comprehensive programme that aimed to rebalance the city’s demographic makeup by creating public spaces, providing community and cultural venues, and improving the overall environment.
  • Bangladesh: Arcadia Education Project, South Kanarchor A novel amphibious structure incorporating a preschool, a hostel, a nursery and a vocational training centre that can sit on the ground or float on the floodwaters that often impact the riverine site for up to five months a year
  • Palestine: Palestinian Museum, Birzeit 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
  • Russia: Public Spaces Development Programme, Tatarstan An ambitious programme that sought to counter the trend toward private ownership by refocusing priorities on quality public spaces for the people of Tatarstan. So far it has produced 328 public spaces all over the republic and has become a model throughout the Russian Federation
  • Senegal: Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit, Bambey A scarcity of resources prompted 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 minimises costs while still making a bold architectural statement.

The 2019 Master Jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture:

  • Anthony Kwamé Appiah Anglo-Ghanaian American philosopher
  • Meisa Batayneh architect
  • David Chipperfield architect
  • Elizabeth Diller architect/digital media
  • Edhem Eldem history professor
  • Mona Fawaz urban studies professor
  • Kareem Ibrahim architect and urban researcher
  • Ali M. Malkawi director of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities
  • Nondita Correa Mehrotra architect

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