Islamic Architecture Website Launched

Seth K. Bechis

University President LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS joins THE AGA KHAN ’59 and MIT President CHARLES VEST at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning Friday to launch ArchNet, a site devoted to Islamic architecture.

The Aga Khan ’59, spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, joined the presidents of Harvard and MIT Friday to launch the world’s largest online resource for scholars of Islamic architecture.

The resource, called ArchNet, contains over 600,000 images of Islamic architecture, tools for discussion and collaboration online among scholars and access to key journals of Islamic architecture.

Harvard served as one of the primary collaborators in the creation of the site.

Those speaking at Friday’s launch said they hoped the free site would provide architects, urban-planners and academics in resource-poor areas the tools they need to study, and give the Western public an opportunity to experience Islamic culture.

“In a brilliant way, [ArchNet] combines new technology and ancient culture to do something that is really quite important,” University President Lawrence H. Summers said in his remarks to the 150-person audience at MIT’s Media Laboratory.

In a video presentation that followed the three leaders’ opening remarks, William J. Mitchell, dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, said the goal was to make ArchNet not only a database of images, but also a “center of academic activity.”

“In many ways ArchNet is like the ancient library in Alexandria,” he said.

ArchNet grew out of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT, which he endowed in 1979.

The Aga Khan described the site as a long-sought answer to the question of how the program at Harvard and MIT would serve architects and planners in the developing Islamic world.

He said that the program had tried many solutions, “but they didn’t have the potential that ArchNet has today.”

Shiraz Allibhai, the managing director of ArchNet, said he hopes the site will succeed in fostering input from its users in the developing Islamic world.

“In 10 years, I see ArchNet not solely rooted at MIT,” he said. “I see it being driven at the grassroots level from schools in the Islamic world really contributing to it, with the continuing dialogue with Western schools.”

Discussion of the new resource focused on the role ArchNet could play in educating the world about Islamic culture after Sept. 11.

Allibhai said the site is a resource for not only the architectural community, but also the general public.

“If [people] come to a site like ArchNet, they’ll see the rich diversity of Islamic civilization—the pluralism that exists within Islamic culture,” he said.

Summers said he believes the importance of a project like ArchNet is more widely recognized today.

“What happens in the Islamic world—how the Islamic world finds its relationship with the rest of the world, how our country finds its relationship with the Islamic world—is going to be one of the two or three most important things that determine the world in which my children live, and all of our children live,” he said.

Tom G. Kessinger, general manager of the Aga Khan Foundation and an early leader in the development of the site, predicted that architectural firms may see ArchNet as a unique way to showcase their work to potential customers.

“It may be an opportunity, because with some commercialization will also come some resources to help develop [the site],” he said. “But it would be a shame to have it completely taken over, so that the student in one place or another couldn’t deal with it.”