IMA / Fabrice Cateloy
By the end of the 1970’s, the French government became well-aware of the lack of representation of the Arab world in France despite the country having long maintained historical ties with many of the States that make up the Arab world. After 1926, when the French government had the Great Mosque of Paris built, there was a need for a secular place to promote Arab civilization, knowledge, art, thought, and aesthetics. On February 28, 1980, the ardent political will to create a bridge between the East and the West gave birth to the idea of founding the Arab World Institute, an organization that would later be placed under the moral authority of a High Council consisting of representatives of all member States of the Arab League, and be funded by France and Arab States.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was the first to contemplate creating this type of organization to ease the tensions of the time, and allow for creative collaborations in the wake of the first oil crisis. Soon thereafter, in the fall of 1981, President François Mitterrand significantly increased the magnitude of the project by securing a location by the Seine river: a hitherto unused lot owned by the University of Jussieu.
IMA / Fabrice Cateloy
A competition was then organized in search of the young talents who would later design the exceptional setting of the Arab World Institute at the heart of the Latin Quarter. Jean Nouvel, Pierre Soria, Gilbert Lezènes and Architecture Studio were selected (along with Saudi consulting architect Zyad Zaidan). The team made the choice to embed photosensitive mashrabiyas on AWI’s façade. In 1987, the building was finally inaugurated. The architectural project won the Equerre d’Argent Prize in 1988, and the Aga Khan Award the following year.
AWI quickly became a respected institution in the Parisian cultural landscape, and gave a new visibility to Arab culture in France and Europe. It also asserted itself as a unique cultural and diplomatic instrument in the service of French-Arab relations. AWI was elected European cultural brand of the year 2014 at the European Cultural Brands Award ceremony held in Berlin on October 30, 2014.
AWI is turning 30 in 2017. Two great exhibitions are already in the works. The first one will revolve around the close proximity of Arab-Muslim civilization and Sub-Saharan Africa while the other will focus on the peaceful coexistence of religions in the Arab World, with a particular emphasis on Middle-Eastern Christian identity.