When Iraq looked west

Times Staff Writer

It is hard to convey the degree of hostility many in this city feel toward the West today. But there was a time when Baghdad hungered for the trappings of Western culture. This was especially true in architecture, and it redefined the city’s physical shape as much as any war.

More construction took place in Baghdad during the second half of the 20th century than at any time since the Golden Age of the Abbasid dynasty came to a close nearly 750 years ago. Most of this new work was Modern in spirit and represented a radical break with Baghdad’s past. Among the international architects with major projects here were Frank Lloyd Wright, then nearing the end of his career; Walter Gropius, a founder of the Bauhaus; and the Italian Modernist Gio Ponti. They were soon followed by a rising generation of Iraqi talents who sought to infuse Western architectural forms with a more local sensibility. Together, such architects transformed Baghdad into a modern city — one whose defining urban features were rooted in the cultural traditions of the West.

In a city whose history extends nearly 1,250 years, this period of experimentation lasted a few short decades, beginning in the late 1950s. By the time Saddam Hussein had consolidated his power at the end of the 1970s, it was essentially dead.


But what these architects set out to create was inspired by faith in the promise of modernity — the notion that it could lead to a more egalitarian world. And if the balance of cultural power was tipped in favor of the West, the clash of values it embodied led to a remarkable process of self-discovery, one that has particular resonance given the current climate of hostility toward the U.S.

Decay and beauty

The seeds of modern Baghdad were planted at the beginning of the 20th century, in the waning days of Ottoman rule. Today, even amid the escalating violence, they can be found in places like Rashid Street, whose crumbling porticoes carve through the historic quarter of Rusafa.

The street is a picture of urban decay. Many of the two- and three-story structures are literally crumbling. Shutters hang from their hinges, balconies are littered with cardboard boxes. A dense web of electrical wires and telephone cables crisscrosses the street. Below, car horns blare while vendors hawk their wares under the shade of the covered porticoes.

But at dusk, when the street is empty, its old beauty surfaces. Conceived by the Ottomans in 1916, Rashid Street was modeled on the grand boulevards Georges Eugène Haussmann designed in late 19th century Paris. The repetitive rhythm of its columns gives the street a remarkable sense of social cohesion. Its porticoes evoke notions of public spectacle associated with the rise of the European bourgeoisie.

This sense of uniformity breaks down as one examines the architecture more closely. Each building was designed according to the tastes of its owner, and the result was a remarkable clash of styles, from a streamlined Modernism to a more opulent Islamic classicism. The effect is a kind of controlled chaos — a vibrant blend of Western and Arab themes. It is also an eloquent expression of a society’s ability to adapt to outside influences.

“It was an obvious break from our tradition,” says Saad Zubaidi, who oversees the ministry of housing and construction. “[Baghdad] used to have all these streets running perpendicular to the river. It allowed the breeze to flow into the neighborhoods. Rashid Street is cut parallel to the river. But the unity is very powerful. The arcades worked climatically. It was the heart of the city until the 1970s.”


That mix of traditional and modern influences is a feature of many of the city’s 1930s-era structures. On Haifa Street, for example, a small cluster of houses faces the British Embassy along an otherwise sterile strip of concrete office buildings and apartment complexes. The houses’ covered loggias and Doric columns bring to mind images of Colonial-era decorum.

But the facade is only a public mask. In one, a series of rooms leads into a traditional hosh, the open-air courtyard that was once the center of family life in Baghdad. From here, one descends a narrow stair to the underground room where Baghdadis retreated during sweltering afternoons — a tradition that is now virtually forgotten.

Such houses were typically commissioned by upper-middle-class Iraqis, who simply altered the designs of British construction firms. Yet signs of a more radical shift were already emerging. Increasingly, wealthy Arabs were sending their children to study in the West. Many returned enamored of the new architecture they saw there.

“For these people, heritage was linked to poverty,” Zubaidi says. “The traditional houses and alleyways, the sleeping on the roof — they were not proud of it. It was a question of identity. People wanted something new.”

Today, evidence of that shift can be seen in two small houses, both designed by Badri Kadah — a Syrian-born architect trained in the West. The most magical of these is tucked away on a quiet, dusty street just north of the city center, not far from the Tigris River. Shaded by citrus trees, the house’s clean concrete form is a textbook example of Bauhaus-inspired Modernism.

What is most striking about Kadah’s work is its ability to convey the impact Modern architecture had on the imagination of Iraqi architects. The house was commissioned in 1936 by the founder of the National Democratic Party, Kamil Chadirji, whose son went on to become one of the country’s most prominent architects. The second house, now abandoned, was the birthplace of Zaha Hadid, who in the 1970s moved to London, where she is now a major figure among architecture’s international vanguard.


Embracing the West

The longing Iraqis felt for almost anything Western — from fashion to architecture to movies — may seem almost inconceivable at a time when much of the world views the U.S. cultural dominance as a particularly insidious form of imperialism. But only a generation ago, Baghdad’s growing middle class embraced modernity as a sign of prosperity.

In the late 1950s, an increasingly unpopular Iraqi monarchy was awash in new oil revenues and was looking for a way to prove to its citizens that the country was on the road to liberalization. Architecture — and the prestige of Western architects — became a convenient tool to convey that message.

The University of Baghdad, for example, is a model of Postwar idealism. The sprawling campus is in the suburban neighborhood of Jadiriya, along a bend in the Tigris River. Since the war, the campus has been guarded by U.S. military checkpoints, giving it the aura of a walled community.

“After the Sinai Crisis [in 1956] violent student demonstrations erupted in all of the Middle East,” says Husam Rawi, a professor at the university’s department of architecture. “The old university was in the center of Baghdad. I think the students were placed here to isolate them.”

In fact, the campus feels as if it could be anywhere. Designed in the 1950s and ‘60s by the Architects’ Collaborative, an American firm led by Gropius, it is anchored by a Brutalist-style residential tower and library. The classrooms are scattered around this core, linked by elevated walkways and open-air courts. To address Baghdad’s heat, the buildings were equipped with concrete brises-soleil and deep roof overhangs.

But what the design really evokes are the progressive values associated with Cold War-era America. They are shaped by the belief that the language of International Style Modernism — and the universal ideals it embodied — could be made to fit any context.


That approach is expressed even more vividly in Ponti’s 1958 design for the ministry of planning, which rises at the foot of the Jumhuriya Bridge near the gates of the Republican Palace. Today the building is surrounded by coils of razor wire and guarded by a couple of U.S. soldiers, its once-elegant facade charred from a fire set by looters.

Despite the damage, any architecture student would recognize its origin: The ministry’s streamlined exterior is a replica of Ponti’s earlier design for the Pirelli skyscraper in Milan, Italy, a landmark of Italian high style. The differences are in the packaging. Sheathed in glass, the Milan version is slender and elegant. Ponti clad the ministry building in red limestone, giving it a clunkier look. Yet once inside, the eye glides across sensuous white marble surfaces that are the epitome of contemporary refinement.

Wright’s 1950s-era design for a massive cultural complex, never built, offers a more stereotypical interpretation of Iraqi architectural traditions. Dubbed Edena after the mythical Garden of Eden, the complex would have rested on an island in the middle of the Tigris River. A circular opera house, capped by a metal dome and a statue of Aladdin, is surrounded by elaborate pools and gardens. Nearby, a 300-foot spiral tower, decorated with images of camels, was meant to evoke traditional spiral minarets. These decorative features make the design an embarrassing example of Western chauvinism.

“Wright wanted to give them something of their own,” says Neil Levine, a Harvard professor who recently completed a book on the architect, “some middle ground between our culture and theirs. He misread the signs. They wanted something up to date.”

Bringing foreign ideas home

None of these works would be considered masterpieces of 20th century design. But they performed an important function. Architecture is a physical experience — it needs to be seen and touched to be wholly understood. The buildings constructed in late-1950s and early-1960s Baghdad put the city’s rising intelligentsia in direct contact with the language of Western Modernism. It was an invaluable experience.

“There were many of us,” says the 77-year-old Rifat Chadirji, who left Baghdad for London in the early 1980s and has yet to return. “Many of us lived on the same street. Kahtan Awni had studied architecture at Berkeley in California. There was [the sculptor] Jewad Selim. Every night we discussed how we should approach modernity, what it means to us.”


In many ways, Chadirji is the most compelling of these figures. Raised in the belly of Baghdad’s cultural establishment, he completed his architectural education in London, where he became enamored with the abstract compositions of architects like Le Corbusier. His life’s work can be read as an effort to synthesize those competing identities.

The Chadirji-designed Federation of Industries building, completed in 1966, rises along Khilani Square, across the river from the Republican Palace and near an enormous mural designed by Selim. The mural is decorated with a series of bronze casts, abstract renderings of ancient Sumerian and Assyrian figures. In front of it, a broad staircase leads down into a ring of subterranean shops — part of a 1980s-era plan for a subway system that was never completed. The shops have long since been abandoned; a few addicts linger here among towering weeds.

The office building is also boarded shut, but its defining feature — the facade — remains intact. Rising seven stories, the building’s curved exterior form is shielded by a series of vertical concrete panels. The panels — supported by concrete beams — seem to hover in midair. Narrow, arched balconies project out from their surfaces, adding to the sense of visual depth.

The facade design is an interpretation of the traditional wood screens that are a common feature in Islamic architecture. Its delicate interplay of vertical, intersecting forms is also modern in spirit, evoking the rich geometries of a Mondrian painting.

Other architects took a more literal-minded approach to the past. Mohamed Makiya, chairman of Baghdad University’s department of architecture from 1959 to 1968, fits squarely into the Post-Modernist camp. His 1963 design for the Khulafa mosque is essentially conceived as a stage set. Adjoining a 14th century minaret, the mosque’s octagonal form and shallow dome evoke obvious historical precedents. But the function of its covered arcade, framed by arched columns, is primarily decorative. Its view of history is laced with nostalgia.

By comparison, Kahtan Awni’s design for the Mustansiriya University is more closely allied with conventional Modernist precedents. Like the Baghdad University design, its low buildings are arranged around a series of outdoor courtyards. The difference is in the treatment of the surfaces. Massive concrete screens are cantilevered off the front of the various classroom buildings. The screens are decorated in an abstract pattern of colorful mosaic tiles — a classical Islamic motif.


Fear replaces freedom

At their core, these works embody the struggle toward self-discovery that lies at the heart of any artistic endeavor. They also signify a rising sense of national self-awareness. Their mission was nothing less than to establish, through architecture, a new cultural balance between a dominant West and an emerging Arab identity.

Tragically, that spirit of experimentation was never allowed to mature. Middle East politics would soon erode Arab trust in the West and its values, including the promises of modernity. By the close of the 1970s, the sense of creative freedom that defined Iraq was replaced by a climate of fear. Hussein was firmly in control of the country; the machinery of oppression was locked in place. Many of Baghdad’s cultural elite fled. Selim, in many ways the spirit behind the Modern movement in Baghdad, died in 1961. By the 1980s, Chadirji had settled in London.

For those who remained behind, the final blow came from the West. Sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 by the U.N. Security Council cut off remaining ties that the city’s creative community shared with their foreign counterparts. Even those Iraqi architects willing to serve Hussein retreated into an increasingly dark, isolated existence. The spirit of exchange — and the trust it helped to engender — was gone.

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times’ architecture critic.