The road back

Arts and CultureSocial IssuesCultureHouse BuildingArchitectureHistoryIraq

One of the great ironies of the war in Iraq is that, despite the continuing human carnage, Baghdad's physical structures were preserved relatively intact.

Reminders that this is a city under siege — razor wire, military checkpoints, barricaded roads and the occasional charred ruin of a government building — are inescapable. But over time, a more insidious form of abuse has become apparent: evidence of a cultural violence that stripped away much of the city's identity.

Baghdad may once have rivaled Rome as a symbol of urban splendor, but most of its historic landmarks are gone. Many of the uniform beige subdivisions and drab commercial buildings constructed in the last 50 years are crumbling — an apt symbol of the failures of modernization. The city's ornate palaces are painful reminders of the authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein, who is now in American captivity.

Coping with this architectural and cultural loss is clearly beyond the scope of responsibility of the U.S. occupying authority.

Faced with continued unrest, Baghdad is still struggling to restore basic infrastructure more than seven months after troops took the city. The U.S. government recently allotted $20 million for the reconstruction of Iraqi palaces and ministry buildings damaged during the war — by either American missiles or Iraqi looters. But the structures remain abandoned.

It's hard to engage in any discussion of the city's architectural future under such circumstances. At the same time, many Iraqis I met seemed to find comfort in imagining the form this city could one day take. The discussion itself seemed like an act of liberation — a blow against the injustices of the past. And if such moments inspired hope, it was in the degree to which they allowed one to visualize the emergence of a more humane urban vision.

At its best, this is what architecture does. It can create walls, but it can also break them down. In helping to shape the boundaries that bind and separate us, it can act as a forum for social discourse.

In Baghdad, the process of reconstruction is a political necessity. But it also can be seen as an opportunity to come to terms with history. This is a city where East and West have collided for centuries. Its survival depends on its ability to overcome internal conflicts. The imaginative work of constructing that future is one way to embark on the process of reconciliation.

Cities rethought, rebuilt

Other cities have responded to social upheavals and the devastation of war as a platform for reinvention. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, Berlin launched a sweeping building program aimed at making the city whole again. The results were mixed. They included nostalgic representations of the past as well as corporate skyscrapers and generic shopping arcades — the kind of mega-developments that have become a staple of the new global economy. Nonetheless, they sparked a heated public debate over the city's identity — from its legacy of totalitarianism to its place at the center of a rising Europe.

In China, the violent political shifts of the 1990s radically transformed the centuries-old landscape of Shanghai. In a little more than a decade, the city has come to resemble a Futurist dream, with skyscrapers rising at a pace unrivaled even in 1920s-era Manhattan. But the new Shanghai is also a carefully conceived political creation — an island of unchecked capitalism that is in many ways sealed off from the rest of the country.

In Beirut, a team of local developers recently completed the first phase in the reconstruction of the city's historic core — an area torn apart by a 15-year civil war. Its cobblestone streets are lined with the kind of high-priced boutiques that can be found in the international terminal of any major airport.

By contrast, the city's 1950s-era corniche remains a remarkably complex picture of urban life. Its mix of private clubs, public beaches and pedestrian walkways unfurls along the Mediterranean — where rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, old and young are intertwined in a richly textured social experience. A second wave of development, in the planning stages, seeks to unite these realities; it has drawn some of the world's most talented architects.

Such models could one day apply to Baghdad. They suggest ways of coming to terms with deep cultural fissures, among them the conflict between the emerging global landscape and local culture.

Baghdad started down this road nearly a half-century ago, when it embarked on one of the most ambitious building programs in its history. At the time, most Iraqi architects openly embraced Western Modernism. Eventually they attempted to integrate these Western forms within Islamic traditions. But today, symbols of the West no longer carry that cultural currency. Rather than a force for progress, Western culture is increasingly seen as a corrupting influence — a tool of imperial power.

One particular morning, the ministry of housing and construction's temporary home — an unremarkable two-story office building in the center of Baghdad — is surprisingly alive. Iraqi contractors, seeking work, pack the building's tiny lobby. In a back room, Saad Zubaidi, who oversees the ministry, is sitting in the dark behind a wood desk. Electricity is sporadic, and the curtains are drawn to keep out the heat.

"After the 1991 war, we put the electricity back on within 45 days," Zubaidi says, his tone reflecting the disenchantment that many here feel toward the U.S. "There were 134 bridges, and all of them were reconstructed before 1993, except two. The Republican Palace was rebuilt in a year."

Zubaidi acknowledges that progress is being made. The U.S. military's Corps of Engineers, he says, is still trying to determine how a range of civic buildings could be put to better use now that the dictator is no longer in power. One proposal involves an existing museum in Zawra Park. The museum, marked by a towering stainless-steel clock tower, once housed gifts Hussein received from foreign dignitaries. The corps of engineers has suggested transforming it into a courthouse. But Zubaidi finds the idea baffling.

"If Big Ben is next to Parliament, why not have a supreme court underneath the tower? I think that was the idea. Maybe now the ministry of transportation will make the main railway station into a zoo."

Such cynicism — from a man tapped by the Americans to help organize the rebuilding effort — is an indication of how difficult it will be to transform Baghdad into a functioning city again. U.S. construction giant Bechtel Corp. — which has already received $600 million to rebuild the country's infrastructure — has started hiring local contractors. But the Bush administration has yet to articulate a clear vision for the city's future.

Communities in isolation

While Americans struggle to gain the trust of Iraqis, Baghdad is suffering from the effects of balkanization. Most of the 1,000 or so U.S. officials who are stationed here are sequestered on the grounds of what was once Hussein's presidential compound, which have been expanded to include the Rashid Hotel and the nearby convention center. U.S. troops guard the gates from behind coils of razor wire.

Inside, the compound seems relatively calm. In the convention center's meeting rooms, men in pressed suits confer over Iraq's future. Watches bearing the likeness of Hussein are for sale in the hotel's lobby. On this particular day, Gen. Tommy Franks is giving Robert De Niro a tour of the Republican Palace.

The impression is of a cloistered community sealed off from day-to-day reality. The disconnect has hardened over the past few months. Soon after the suicide bombing attack against the U.N. headquarters here, the Army Corps of Engineers built an 18-foot-tall concrete barrier around the entire U.S. compound. Smaller barriers — some reinforced with containers of sand — have gone up around many of the city's hotels and diplomatic missions.

Baghdad's intellectual community seems similarly segregated. Professors ponder the city's future in the isolation of a few university campuses. Other members of the cultured middle class, fearing for their safety and with no real place to go, simply stay at home — as cut off as they were during Hussein's day.

Meanwhile, many of the poorer neighborhoods have become fundamentalist strongholds. The Shiite ghetto east of the city center, once dubbed Saddam City, was renamed Sadr City after the martyred father of Muqtader Sadr, one of the country's most radical fundamentalist leaders. Its humble mosque — a decrepit concrete shed — has become a symbolic center of Iraqi resistance and independence.

Other sites, such as the ancient mosque in Kadhimiya, with its walled courtyard and domed sanctuary, conjure a world oblivious to the commercialism of imported Western values.

This breakdown of Baghdad into distinct ideological zones has implications for the city's future. But it also has symbolic importance. In the wealthy suburban enclave of Mansour, for example, the raw concrete shell of an enormous mosque dominates an otherwise barren construction site. The mosque was commissioned by Hussein, but construction stopped at the outbreak of the war and has yet to resume. Today the site is guarded by a particularly radical faction of Shiite fundamentalists.

From the mosque's upper levels, one can survey the tranquillity of the surrounding neighborhood. The winding, palm-lined streets and 1950s-era houses, with their sleek lines and flat roofs, recall a time when most of Baghdad was entranced with Western modernity.

The mosque's massive form looms over the sprawling neighborhood. The contrast serves as an emblem of the remarkable cultural shifts that have occurred here in the half-century since Mansour was built. They represent two visions of the world, locked in opposition to each other.

The balkanization of Baghdad is apt to continue and suggests a more complex inner conflict. The city's physical breakdown is an expression of barriers within the mind — the invisible walls that separate secular and nonsecular worlds, modernity and tradition, radical and moderate.

Blueprints for the future

Any architect who has spent time in Baghdad would be able to pick out the starting points for a vision of a different city. That urban narrative inevitably begins at the river — the city's lifeblood.

Applying conventional Western development formulas, one could picture the slow-moving river lined with new high-rise residential towers, fast-food restaurants, commercial strips and a pastiche of high-tech advertising. Rashid Street would become a themed shopping mall, its covered arcades restored and stocked with generic retail shops, a Middle Eastern outpost for the consumer class.

Conversely, an enlightened model for the city's reconstruction would draw on a more critical examination of Baghdad's history and cultural values. Until they were outlawed by Hussein, for example, makeshift sheds and nightly festivals once common on the Tigris' right bank were one of the Middle East's most compelling social experiences. They embodied the river's function as a place of healing — both a social mixing chamber and a psychological link to the outside world. A version of that tradition could be revived.

Along Rashid Street, the architecture offers a potent mix of Arab and European themes that could become a more nuanced blueprint for the future, one that maintains the cultural frictions that give a city its texture. The palace grounds that were once Hussein's private playground could be reimagined in a more democratic form, places where Iraqis could escape the tensions of daily life, much like Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park in New York.

The more time one spends here, the clearer it becomes that any attempt to imagine a conventional narrative in this city — especially a Western formula, however enlightened — both ignores history and demonstrates the worst kind of hubris. The fate of Baghdad is now being determined in places like Washington, D.C., but it is also an issue of local identity.

Part of the process of healing will occur through the city's physical reconstruction. In the immediate future, it will involve basic issues over how to get the city functioning again. Even amid the current uncertainty, the occupying authority has little choice but to press ahead with restoring a range of public services, from the electrical grid and communications network to sewage facilities and transportation.

But the more difficult task of rebuilding the city's cultural confidence may not be so easily solved. It will not occur by imposing foreign values on a populace that has become particularly sensitive to the motives of outsiders. What it will require is a spirit of genuine openness — the ability to listen as well as act.

The U.S. has a vital role to play in creating such an environment. Even as the city struggles to get back on its feet, the occupying authority can begin the process of building cultural alliances between Iraqi architects and their foreign counterparts. This process is already taking place at the Iraq Museum, where a number of international art professionals have been working with local officials to help restore the museum's looted collections. Together, they have initiated a dialogue about how best to preserve the city's past. There is no reason a similar discussion could not occur about the city's future, especially in the realm of urban planning.

An imaginative discussion about reconstruction, in fact, would provide a welcome forum for working out Baghdad's identity, in terms of repairing Hussein's brutal architectural legacy and hammering out the city's collective values.

But ultimately, if Baghdad is to become a model for change in the Middle East, it will require a degree of cultural understanding on the part of the West that has yet to materialize. It would mean acknowledging that Baghdad can be resurrected only by tapping the depths of its own historical experience. Iraqis will have to negotiate a delicate path between neglect of the past and hostility toward the present — and forge their own identity in relation to the outside world.

The form such a city would take is difficult to picture today. But this type of cultural reconciliation may be the most secure road to what now seems unimaginable: a vision of Baghdad that recaptures the spirit of intellectual freedom that once made this one of the world's great cities.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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