Ismaïl Serageldin: Architecture

In 2000 I stumbled upon a book titled The Architecture of Empowerment: People, Shelter and Livable Cities on the disorderly bookshelves of Metropolis and was immediately captivated. Published a few years earlier and edited by Egyptian architect Ismaïl Serageldin, then vice president for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development at the World Bank, it seemed like the perfect antidote to the anarchy and cynicism of the protest movement, which at the time was smashing up Starbucks and McDonald’s in Seattle. With a foreword by Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh to institutionalize the technique of microlending, the book presented dozens of projects that had allowed the world’s poorest to participate in the improvement of their housing conditions—as opposed to the patronizing top-down schemes usually favored by Modernism.

Trained as an architect, urban designer, city and regional planner, and economist, Serageldin had gradually expanded his reach to absorb practically every ambition normally dealt with only symbolically—and often poorly at that—by architects. Here was someone who was putting the idea of improving the world through design into practice by leading one of the world’s most powerful—and least understood—international institutions. “The president of the bank asked me to introduce and make real the concept of environmental and sustainable development at the World Bank,” Serageldin said when I tracked him down during a recent trip to the United States. “I’m very proud of the fact that five years later Maurice Strong, who had been Secretary-General of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, said that one of the few positive signs since the summit was the World Bank. Before that most people considered the World Bank part of the problem, now they come to the bank to be part of the solution.”

Virtually since its inception Serageldin has also played a central role in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture—which gives prizes every three years to the best examples of contemporary design in such categories as social housing, community development, and preservation in the Islamic world—serving on its master jury and steering committees for five terms. “It’s one of the most thoughtful prizes ever organized,” he says. “It’s not just giving a prize; it has a whole research process and philosophy behind it, asking deep questions about architecture. It has laid to rest the stupid notion that to do Islamic buildings you have to use arches and finials and minarets and domes.”

Lately Serageldin has taken on another extraordinarily difficult task: establishing the Snøhetta-designed Library of Alexandria—which won an Aga Khan Award in the most recent series—as a thriving beacon of civil society, freedom, and democratic reform in the Arab world. After his appointment as director in 2001 he set about hiring a young staff composed of 54 percent women and began a handful of initiatives that would essentially enable the library to function as a progressive Arab think tank. “It’s a space of freedom for dialogue and learning,” he says. “It’s become the voice of reason, openness, pluralism, and understanding at a time when there are voices of obscurantism, fanaticism, and xenophobia all over the place.”

One of his biggest successes in the past couple of years has been the Arab Reform Forum, which brings together leaders of civil society from throughout the Arab world to promote political, economic, and cultural change in the region. The result of its first conference in 2004, the Alexandria Declaration, was officially endorsed last year by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek as a framework for democratic reform that has helped produce the country’s first multiparty elections. Serageldin is the rare example of an architect whose constantly expanding scale of ambition makes a lie of the frequent misnomer of politicians as “architects” (usually of ill-conceived wars). “Each of us should be devoted to improving the condition of humanity,” he says. “We should leave the world a little bit better than the way we found it. This is what makes each individual’s life worthwhile.”

It’s a sorely needed vision, particularly in a part of the world that has been cursed by religious fanaticism as a reaction against modernity. “We’re moving inexorably toward much more open systems,” Serageldin says. “Religion is an important function of all cultures—even in the United States today it’s an important presence in public debates—but democratic processes will take root and grow every year. The more open a system, the less influence extreme positions of either kind—left or right—will have.”

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