Celebrating pluralism through Islamic funerary architecture — ACT’s Assistant Professor Azra Aksamija among the recipients of the Aga Khan Award 2013

Prayer space

The Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Vorarlberg, Austria, is one of the five recipients of the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Selected from more than 400 nominated projects, this prestigious award is given every three years to projects that go beyond exemplary design to create a positive, meaningful contribution in communities with significant Muslim population.

Designed by architect Bernardo Bader with a prayer space conceived by ACT Assistant Professor Azra Akšamija, the cemetery provides a place for Islamic funerals while celebrating the cultural diversity of Austria. This cemetery is the first of its kind in the region of Vorarlberg and the second one in the country. Previously, the Muslim population would have to send their dead overseas to receive the traditional burial. Inspired by the idea of the primordial garden—a recurring theme across religions—the cemetery answers a critical need in Islamic practice through a “culturally sensitive aesthetic that is simultaneously local, Islamic, and European.”1

According to ArchDaily, the jury noted: “Simple in expression and poetic in form, it […] engages the natural landscape in an intelligent manner […]. While emphasizing spiritual pluralism, the Cemetery also provides the final destination for a minority group in a dominant society.”2

Professor Akšamija designed the Qibla wall-curtain (which indicates the direction of Mecca) and rugs for the prayer room. Constructed of local materials in the context of regional craft traditions, the Qibla draws on motifs of Islamic religious architecture, symbolically uniting the different cultures of the Vorarlberg region. The prayer rugs were designed in a stylistic dialogue with the Qibla wall, and were woven by female survivors of the 1990s war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Learn more about the prayer space…

In Akšamija’s own words,“The Islamic cemetery in Altach […] exemplifies how Islamic funerary architecture can contribute to nurturing pluralism in Western Europe. By emphasizing the dialogic dimensions of architecture through design, implementation, and public mediation, this approach allows for an understanding of architecture as a medium for community-making and a bridge between cultures.”3

In an article on the cemetery in the Wiener Zeitung, Fuat Sanaç, president of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria “stressed the importance of the new cemetery . . .  ‘In the past we used to say that home is where you are born. Then it was thought that it is where you rest. However, I believe that home is where one wants to be buried, where one finds one’s final peace.’” 4 The cemetery in Altach represents a milestone in the integration of Islamic culture in Europe, as evidenced by the support and engagement it received from the various local organizations and team members involved in the project.

The Aga Khan Award rewards all major contributors including the clients, architects, artists, communities, and those who were responsible for the realization of each project. In addition to the Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Austria, the recipients of this year’s Award included the following projects: Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery, Khartoum, Sudan; Revitalization of Birzeit Historic Centre, Birzeit, Palestine; Rabat-Salé Urban Infrastructure Project, Morocco; and the Rehabilitation of Tabriz Bazaar, Tabriz, Iran. The award recipients receive a total of one million US dollars, half of that amount being allocated towards the continuation of the mission of each project, including outreach, public programs, or organizational structures.

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture is part of the Geneva-based Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Among others, the Trust supports the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) and the Aga Khan Documentation Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, as well as www.ArchNet.org, a major online resource on Islamic architecture. Having received her Ph.D. from the MIT AKPIA program in 2011, Professor Akšamija is the first graduate of the program to be among the Aga Khan Award recipients.

The Altach cemetery also received the International Piranesi Award in 2012. Learn more about the 2012 Piranesi Award…



Islamic Cemetery in Altach, Austria Video

Islamic Prayer Space

Aga Khan Network

Architectural Record


Design Boom

Aga Khan Award Video



1. Akšamija, Azra. “Cultivating Convergence: The First Islamic Cemetery in Vorarlberg, Austria.” Forthcoming publication in the International Journal for Islamic Architecture, 2013.

2. Rosenfield, Karissa. “Five Projects Win Aga Khan Award for Architecture” September 9, 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed September 13, 2013. http://www.archdaily.com/426544

3. Akšamija, Azra. “Cultivating Convergence: The First Islamic Cemetery in Vorarlberg, Austria.” Forthcoming publication in the International Journal for Islamic Architecture, 2013.

4. “Islamischer Friedhof in Vorarlberg eröffnet”, Wiener Zeitung. Accessed February 6, 2012.