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.

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  • Reinventing Baghdad

    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.

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."