Sharjah again makes Aga Khan architecture prize shortlist

Sharjah Art Foundation’s Flying Saucer redevelopment has been selected as one of the 20 projects shortlisted for the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The 20 projects have been selected by an independent Master Jury from a pool of 463 that were nominated for the 15th Award Cycle (2020-2022).

As that indicates, the Award is given every three years to “projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture … The Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies across the world, in which Muslims have a significant presence”.

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 it was launched 45 years ago, 121 projects have received the award and nearly 10,000 building projects have been documented during the nomination process.

The shortlisted projects will compete for a share of a $1 million prize, one of the largest on offer in the architecture field. The projects have already undergone rigorous onsite review by independent experts, including architects, conservation specialists, planners and structural engineers; the Master Jury meets again this summer to examine those reports and determine the final recipients of the Award.

In the past the UAE hasn’t figured much in the shortlist, though that all changed in the last cycle. The country had three entries – Concrete at Alserkal Avenue, Al Mureijah Art Spaces, and Sharjah’s Wasit Wetland Centre. The latter was one of the six winners, too.

And Al Mureijah Art Spaces was designed by Mona El Mousfy’s SpaceContinuum, the studio responsible for the reworking of the Flying Saucer. She’s the go-to architect for Sharjah’s cultural places – she is the consultant architect for both Sharjah Art Foundation and the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, for instance, and she was also responsible for the reworking of the Al-Qasimiyah School and the former Al Jubail Vegetable Market for the Triennial (as its HQ and main exhibition space respectively). El Mousfy obviously has an affinity for the low-key brutalism of Sharjah buildings from the 1970s and 80s and is keen to celebrate their virtues by giving them fresh lives.

Not that anyone would call the Flying Saucer low-key. Acquired by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2012 and used as a venue since 2015, it dates from the mid 1970s – when it must have seemed a futuristic, visionary statement for the development of the city – and has been modified over the decades to accommodate various businesses (café, grocery store, fast food restaurant, newsstand, gift shop among others).

The structure has that dramatic 32-point star-shaped canopy sitting around a 7m central supported on a circular arrangement of eight columns and V-shaped pillars. Most of the internal walls aren’t structural, which gave maximum opportunity to the designers.

Renovations began in 2018 with the removal of most of the accretions (notably a later extension) and the once-garish but dilapidated cladding (orange aluminium on the canopy, grey on the pillars). The underside of the dome was returned to unfinished concrete, and the interior was reworked to provide a working community hub and art space – there are few structural walls, so the designers had maximum opportunity for reorganising the space. They’ve made clever use of natural lightning from skylights.

The car park outside was excavated to provide a new underground space for a library, a film-screening room, sunken courtyard, and workspace and social areas; hard landscaping around this and around the rest of the site works well as a public urban plaza.

We should get the announcement of the prizewinners in late Autumn. Meanwhile images of the 20 shortlisted entries are currently on display in London to 30 June as part of the King’s Cross Outdoor Art Project; and the Flying Saucer itself is of course open to art-inclined visitors.

The Jury:

The nine members of the Master Jury who selected the 20 shortlisted projects are:

  • Nada Al Hassan an architect specialising in the conservation of architectural and urban heritage
  • Amale Andraos Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
  • Kader Attia artist who explores the wide-ranging effects of western cultural hegemony and colonialism
  • Kazi Khaleed Ashraf DG of the Bengal Institute for Architecture, Landscapes and Settlements
  • Sibel Bozdoğan Visiting Professor of Modern Architecture and Urbanism at Boston University
  • Lina Ghotmeh French-Lebanese architect who leads a practice where each project learns from a vernacular past
  • Francis Kéré internationally renowned Burkinabè architect who received the Aga Khan Award in 2004 for his first project, an elementary school in Burkina Faso
  • Anne Lacaton founder of Lacaton & Vassal in Bordeaux in 1989, who focuses on the generosity of space and economy of means
  • Nader Tehrani founding principal of NADAAA, a practice dedicated to design innovation, collaboration and a dialogue with the construction industry

Also on the shortlist:

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