Patron of fear
Few modern dictators have been more enamored of architecture or have used it to greater harm than Saddam Hussein.
During nearly a quarter-century of absolute rule, he launched a series of building programs whose ambition and scale fundamentally altered the city’s landscape. Along with his famous palaces, Hussein’s architectural legacy ranges from mosques and museums to more conventional structures, such as government ministries, hotels and a convention center. And whatever fate befalls Hussein now that he has been captured, the mark he left on Baghdad will remain long after he is forgotten.
Like other dictators of the past, Hussein saw himself as a great arbiter of taste, an architectural patron cast in the mold of a Cosimo di Medici. He was a familiar figure in architectural circles and on construction sites, where he would often sketch out his ideas on scraps of paper. The competitions Hussein sponsored attracted some of the world’s most celebrated architects. His aim, he often claimed, was to reestablish Baghdad as one of the world’s great architectural capitals.
“In his speeches, he always said he wanted to push architects to find their heritage,” says Shirin Sherzat, a local architect who participated in various competitions during Hussein’s reign. “Baghdad,” he said, “was a great laboratory for architecture.”
He did not succeed in every respect. One could argue that significant works of Soviet Neo-classicism were built during the reign of Josef Stalin; Werner March’s 1936 Olympic stadium in Berlin, commissioned by Adolf Hitler, is a powerful expression of Fascist values. By comparison, most of the work created during Hussein’s rule is kitsch, often blown up to a grotesque scale.
But as someone who understood design’s potential as a tool of oppression, Hussein was certainly their match. The monuments built during his reign are potent expressions of authoritarian rule, from its coercive power to its desire for historical legitimacy. And they were coupled with a systematic assault against the city’s public realm -- one that symbolized his ability to extend that control into every corner of Iraqi society. The tightening of that noose is still palpable today.
The best place to view Hussein’s city is from the upper floors of the Rashid Hotel, west of the Tigris River in central Baghdad. The immense grounds of the presidential palace spread out along the river to the east, marked by the hulking stone form of the Baathist Party headquarters. Just to the west of the palace grounds in Zawra Park are the crossed swords of one of two Victory Arches, completed in 1985 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. Beyond them, the four gigantic busts of Hussein that crown the Peace Palace can still be glimpsed through a thick stand of trees.
Hussein called these structures his gifts to the city. But to see them, one needs a military escort. A dusty road leads to the Peace Palace. The gate is guarded by a small detachment of soldiers. From here, the palace looks less menacing. Designed in a cruciform plan, it is a kitsch interpretation of classical and Islamic themes. What gives away its scale, finally, is the enormity of the helmeted bronze busts resting on its roof. More than one story tall, the heads point in four directions, as if keeping an eye on the citizens of Baghdad.
All of the rooms inside were looted, down to the door frames and marble floors. In one corner of the palace, light spills down through a hole where an American missile struck. Beneath it, an enormous pile of shattered concrete and marble reaches down to the basement level 20 feet below. Climbing over the rubble, one reaches an upstairs dining room decorated with pink pastel walls and traditional moldings. A small window opens onto a screening room where it is said Hussein liked to watch videos of “The Godfather.”
The palace is as much a testament to the violence of war as of dictatorial power. But the biggest tragedy here is invisible to the eye. The Peace Palace stands near the site of the former Zuhur Palace -- a rare example of Colonial-era architecture that was bombed by the Americans in 1991. Soon after, Hussein ordered it demolished. The Peace Palace rises over the bones of the city’s history.
The Sijood Palace, a few miles away, offers a more complex reading of Hussein’s aesthetic vision. The palace was completed in 1990 for Hussein’s first wife. From the exterior, it is surprisingly bland: an enormous concrete shell with a ceremonial entry canopy supported on enormous arches. Yet the detailed pattern of its exterior is a relatively accurate reproduction of traditional Abbasid precedents.
U.S. troops were able to fend off looters more quickly here. Many of the architectural elements are still intact. The palace’s most imposing feature is a three-story rotunda, decorated with rows of slender columns and the stalactite arches that were a central feature of ancient Abbasid design. A grand stair is set off to one side. An imposing portrait of Saddam and his family hangs at the top of the landing. The figures are crudely composed; Hussein’s grinning face stares out blankly from the middle of the canvas.
The painting hints at the garishness of the former decor. But the overall effect is more Bel-Air than old Las Vegas. It is kitsch with social pretensions. The pink mosaic floors and ornate columns are real marble; many of the historical references are “authentic.” The brickwork too is in keeping with Iraqi building traditions. Taken as a whole, the architecture captures Hussein’s desire to link himself to the long thread of Iraqi history, his hunger for cultural legitimacy.
If the palaces are expressions of personal vanity, Hussein’s civic monuments have a more sinister purpose: They represent the machinery of dictatorial rule spinning out of control.
The most famous of these are the Victory Arches in Zawra Park. The arches are made of enormous stainless steel swords that cross over the entry to military parade grounds. Two arms -- cast in bronze -- support the swords. At their base, thousands of helmets spill out across the ground.
The brutality of the image is almost impossible to convey. The arms are modeled on Hussein’s; the helmets were pillaged from dead Iranian soldiers. The parade grounds extend barely a quarter-mile from between the raised swords -- they are nothing more than a stage set, detached from the surrounding landscape around them. It is a gruesome expression of human cruelty.
At other times, the architecture of oppression can take a more subtle form. A few miles west of Zawra Park, in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, a vast racetrack surrounded by parkland was cleared to make way for a mosque. The mosque was under construction when war broke out, and its raw concrete shell has the look of an abandoned fortress. The bare steel frame of its central dome is surrounded by smaller domes on eight sides. Rusting cranes rise out from inside its core.
The mosque was commissioned to underscore Hussein’s support of Muslim traditions at a time when Arab fundamentalism was on the rise. But the domes evoke Ottoman structures that can be traced to Istanbul’s 6th century Hagia Sophia; they have little relation to Abbasid precedents. The mosque’s gargantuan scale, on the other hand, represents the omnipresence of government control, Hussein’s ability to infiltrate even the most private residential enclave.
If these symbols are sometimes crudely conceived, it is not wholly Hussein’s fault. The Iraqi leader often sought out the best talent he could find. A 1983 competition for the Grand Mosque, for example, attracted such architectural luminaries as the Japanese architect Minoru Takeyama, known for his abstract classicism; the Spaniard Ricardo Bofill, then a leader of the European Postmodern movement; and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, twin pillars of the American architectural establishment.
As further evidence of his commitment to high design, Hussein sent several of Baghdad’s most prominent architects in 1986 on an educational tour of the great buildings of Europe. Included on the list were I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
“It was a fantastic tour,” says architect Saad Zubaidi, who participated in the event and now heads Baghdad’s housing ministry. “Saddam really held architecture in high esteem.”
But unlike Hitler, Hussein had no Albert Speer. There was no great architectural mind to give shape to his authoritarian vision. Essentially, Hussein’s ambitions were as schizophrenic as his mind. Venturi and Bofill both withdrew from the Grand Mosque competition as the Iran-Iraq war began to escalate. The best Iraqi architects had been imprisoned or had fled the country before Hussein launched his major works. Hussein, an incessant meddler, was left to work out his grand fantasies with second-rate minds.
Hussein’s greatest urban crime, however, was not as a failed patron of architecture. It was his war against the public realm. Until Hussein’s reign, for example, areas now covered by his compound were still relatively accessible. Running along a stretch of the river’s left bank, the land was shaded by thick groves of date palms and citrus trees, a band of green that gave this section of the city an almost Eden-like charm.
Under Hussein’s rule this area became a forbidden zone, off-limits to anyone but the dictator’s inner circle. Those who ventured too close risked being shot. Even a lingering look could lead to imprisonment in the so-called Palace of the End, the bunker-like building where the Baathist regime sent its political opponents to be tortured.
The grounds became a black hole in the city’s fabric. Most Iraqis, for example, know of the Colonial-era Zuhur Palace. But few seem to have known of its demolition, because so few have ever been inside the grounds. The level of secrecy was so complete that on the eve of the U.S. invasion, the minister of information could proclaim that the palace had been destroyed by American bombs, confident that no one would have reason to believe otherwise.
The harm Hussein wrought can be felt even more deeply on the other side of the river. Before Hussein’s reign, Iraqis traditionally rented small plots of land there from the municipal government for a modest sum. During the sweltering summer months, thousands of Iraqis erected temporary, wood-frame shelters along the riverbank. At night, the area was transformed into a communal paradise. Friends ate masgouf -- a local fish delicacy -- in open-air restaurants or chatted under the date palms. People would hire small boats to row up and down the river.
“It was very beautiful, very green,” remembers Rifat Chadirji, an architect who fled Baghdad in 1983. “People would sleep there at night because it was cool near the river. In the evening, they would sit in their boats and play the lute and sing traditional songs. There was always music. And then at the end of each summer they would tear [the sheds] down again.”
This tradition was banned soon after the revolution of 1968, when Saddam’s Baathist allies took control of the government. Eventually, many of the Colonial-era houses that line Abu Nuwas Street, the main thoroughfare along the river, were turned over to the government’s intelligence officers. Since the park overlooked Hussein’s palace grounds, it was regularly patrolled by police.
The result was to further disconnect Baghdad’s citizens from the city’s lifeblood. An entire portion of the river became a militarized zone. Today, the riverbank is brown and overrun with weeds. All that remains is a few of the open-air restaurants.
There were other abuses, seemingly more banal. Land that had been designated for park use in a variety of urban plans, for example, was often given to government apparatchiks. In other instances, big houses were torn down and their property was divided into smaller lots that could then be sold at a profit. Hundreds of trees were cut down by low-level Baathist officials who then sold them for firewood.
“Saddam was not civilized,” says Nasir Chadirji, one of the few members of the U.S.-appointed governing council who lived here throughout Hussein’s reign. “He often spoke of the country’s heritage. But he comes from a tribal mentality. He hates intellectuals and the educated middle class, so he wanted to destroy all the beautiful signs of the city.”
In the end, the violence Hussein wrought on the city’s public realm was the physical expression of the psychological warfare he waged against his people. Its target was the mental space where curiosity and creative freedom breed. The degree to which he succeeded in its destruction is his most lasting architectural legacy.
Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times’ architecture critic.
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