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Baghdad Through the Lens of an Iraqi Architect

October 2016 Ι Architect Magazine 

In a photo of a dusty, rubble-strewn Baghdad street, a group of men hold a rectangular object overhead. It resembles a casket, the unfortunate result of a drone strike, perhaps, or some other byproduct of the second Gulf War. But take a closer look and it becomes clear the photo is documenting something else entirely. In between the refuse and long metal supports of partially demolished buildings, concrete pavers have been salvaged and stacked into neat piles. And if the men are indeed holding a casket, the procession through the streets is subdued, free of any outrage at a bombing gone awry. This isn’t a war zone; it’s a construction site. The photo, taken in 1981, conveys a sense of chaos and urgency that American television viewers have learned to associate with war. But it actually depicts the turmoil of Baghdad’s rush to modernization, when the state embarked on a redevelopment plan for the city center.

The photo was taken by Rifat Chadirji, Iraq’s most prolific mid-20th century architect, who obsessively photographed his own buildings and everyday street life in Iraq. Born in 1926 in Baghdad, Chadirji studied architecture at the Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts in London, and in 1952 he returned to Iraq to begin practicing. He named his firm Iraq Consult, which suggests how close he was to being something like an official state architect. “His buildings were important features of the state’s administration and representation apparatus in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Mark Wasiuta, director of exhibitions at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). Along with his colleagues Adam Bandler and Florencia Alvarez Pacheco, Wasiuta curated an exhibition of Chadirji’s photos, Every Building in Baghdad: The Rifat Chadirji Archives at the Arab Image Foundation, on display at the Graham Foundation in Chicago until Dec. 31.

The government ministries, business headquarters for state monopolies, and housing Chadirji designed epitomized modernity in mid-20th century Iraq, the projects largely paid for by the country’s sudden influx of oil money. In 1978, after Chadirji refused to let President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr use his Gulf State offices for intelligence purposes, he was jailed. Al-Bakr’s successor, Saddam Hussein, released the architect in 1980 to work on the master plan for Baghdad. He fled Iraq three years later after securing a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard, and now lives in London.

The exhibition (Chadirji, now 89, did not participate) is curated from the architect’s archives at the Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit that collects vernacular photographs from across the region. It includes photos of his buildings and scenes of everyday street life, as well as work by his contemporary, the photographer Latif Al Ani. At the same time as his buildings were ushering Baghdad into the future, Chadirji was capturing snapshot ethnographies of life before the modern economy fully took hold: His photos depict religious ceremonies, Yazidi temples, pedicarts delivering handmade carpets, and pottery kilns dug into the earth.

The exhibit comes as the Graham Foundation is funding research on modern architecture and modernization in the Middle East, and follows the publication of “The Arab City: Architecture and Representation” (Columbia University Press, 2016), edited by WORKac founder and GSAPP dean Amale Andraos. All these projects can help establish a foothold of knowledge about a part of the world that, despite our military involvement there, remains an architectural enigma. ARCHITECT spoke with Wasiuta about the exhibition.

Soon after Saddam Hussein freed Chadirji to work on a master plan for Baghdad, he fled Iraq. Why?
There are a number of photographs of the demolition of Haifa and Rashid Streets [in Baghdad]. Part of their historical fabric is demolished to make room for this new plan. So I imagine that’s an uncomfortable position for Chadirji. He’s released from prison in order to help plan the city; this is something he did in the early 1950s as well. But now 30 years later I’m sure he has a much different sense of what it means to be demolishing parts of Baghdad, especially part of its historic fabric, given that this is one of the fundamental points of his architectural theory, which is how to retain the Iraqi legacy through its buildings. That’s probably in part why he leaves.

Intellectuals in Iraq were interested in processes of modernization that might foster a secular state. Yet, Chadirji may have understood that secularization comes with certain costs, including a loosening of social structures related to historical patterns of settlement, and also, possibly to religious institutions. One hypothesis is that Chadirji attempts to develop a building practice that carries references to local architecture in order to forge a different relationship to the past, and to produce a different, more inclusive notion of Iraqi collectivity.

He’s familiar in the sense [of] his turn to historical references, which become an important feature of his work from the early ’60s through the late ’70s. [It’s] very similar to the debates in Europe and America, the way in which a certain doctrinaire Modernism is challenged by various understandings of local city cultures and historical references.

To what extent was Chadirji willing to discard the past to build the future?
It’s not like he was a Robert Moses figure who is interested in ripping through SoHo with freeways. In the 1950s he was responsible for the recording and maintenance of ancient structures in Iraq, so at the very beginning of his practice, he has a relationship to its historical texture and culture. [He understood that] as social structures change through increased wealth, patterns of living are going to change, because what we understand as “modernization” is the reorganization of patterns of habitation and social structures, and those have an imprint in the city. [They] were going to change, not because they were [an impediment], but because new economies would emerge, new forms of commerce would emerge, travel restrictions might loosen, and so on.

How much of Chadirji’s work is still intact?
We don’t know. We asked around, and just from information we’ve been able to gather, we have a list of something like 10 buildings we know have been damaged. To what degree they’ve been damaged, to what degree they’ve been restored, we can’t ascertain.

The exhibition is an intensely austere archival experience, and there aren’t many narrative threads to pull on. Why approach it this way?
Archives are not spaces of pure, easy communication. They have their own complex structure and opacity that you have to work through. [The exhibit] doesn’t illuminate a simple narrative of Baghdad [or] a simple history of Chadirji’s work. Just the opposite. It points to the sites of tension and complexity within his work, and his relationship to the city.

I would argue that the exhibition is as much about the Arab Image Foundation as it is about Chadirji. [The foundation] tries to assemble a history of the Arab world’s photography through a certain type of document: vernacular photographs. This is a type of photography that is either functional or spontaneous. The documents are foregrounded [because] for us, that’s what the exhibition is about. It’s what information they contain, how they’re structured, how they relate to each other.

Middle Eastern architecture is a blank spot for many Americans. What do you want people to get out of this show?
An important subtext is how architecture is a feature of the American enterprise in Iraq. Moreover, with Chadirji, the architecture of modernization in Iraq can be seen to anticipate conflict to come. There is a sense of vulnerability or fragility even in periods of rampant modernization.

It’s also interesting to see the way in which the texture of the city that we are most familiar with through news recording and conflict footage is both similar to and distinct from the way in which Chadirji himself photographs it. So it’s a kind of revision of the images of the city that have been so prominent in the West since 2003.

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