Rifat Chadirji, the influential Iraqi architect, theorist and author, died in London last Friday at the age of 93. His wife, Balkis Sharara, says the cause was Covid-19.
Chadirji’s forms and writings influenced generations of architects, redefined Modernism in Iraq and the Middle East, and made him, according to many architectural scholars, the most prominent architect in the region.
But he was not only regionally acclaimed – his creative work received international recognition, too.
In 1982 and 1987, he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Institute of Architecture, respectively; in 1986, he was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s Chairman Award; and in 2015, he was the recipient of Tamayouz’s Lifetime Achievement Award and given an Honorary Doctorate from Coventry University.
Rifat Chadirji was born in Baghdad in 1926 into an influential family. His father, Kamil, who was Iraq’s first social democrat and founder of the National Democratic Party in Iraq, served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies of Iraq in the 1920s and 1950s. Chadirji’s grandfather, also named Rifat, was twice elected mayor of Baghdad and owned one of Baghdad’s largest libraries.
In 1954 Chadirji married Balkis Sharara, an author with a degree in English literature, who played a key role in the influential cultural organisation Baghdad Society, which was active in the second half of the 1960s.
Her books include Jidar Baina Dhulmatain (with Rifat Chadirji, 2003), Mohammed Sharara min al-Iman ila Hurriyat al-Fikr (2009), Al-Tabbakh: Dawroh fi Hadarat al Insan (2012) and the bestselling Hakatha Marrat Al-Ayyam (2015), a detailed account of the journey and life of one of Iraq's most intellectual couples.
After receiving his architectural education at the Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts in London, he returned to Iraq in 1952 and co-founded, with Abdullah Ihsan Kamil and Ihsan Sherzad, the award-winning architecture and engineering consultancy Iraq Consult, which made important contributions to both the public and private sectors in the country.
At its peak, in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Iraq Consult was the second-largest consultancy in the region in terms of employees – it swelled to 97 – with the renowned architect, artist and author Maath Alousi joining at the helm of the consultancy.
Chadirji and Iraq Consult's body of work in Iraq includes the Unknown Soldier Monument (1959), the Central Post Offices (1970), the Federation of Industries, the Ministers' Cabinet (1975), the National Insurance Company in Mosul and the Rafidain Bank (1969), the Veterinary Hospital (1964), and the Academy of Science in Baghdad (1965).
Outside of Iraq, his most important work includes the M Hamad Residence (1967) and Hassawi Residential complex (1970) in Kuwait, two cinemas – Awal Cinema and Andalus Cinema – as well as the Sheikh Khalifa Building (1968) in Bahrain, his Lebanon residence Villa Halat (1967) and the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi (1977).
His creative designs were influenced by his education in London and its environment; his position in the Waqf, the governmental body responsible for the maintenance and preservation of old mosques, khans and houses; and his social circle that included pioneering artists and architects who discussed and debated art and architecture daily for years.
His Tobacco Monopoly building in Baghdad (1966), which drew inspiration from the rounded brick walls of Abbasid palaces and mosques, and his Al Hamood Residence in Baghdad (1972), which was influenced by artist Piet Mondrian’s compositions and the reed huts in Iraq’s marshes, were milestones in contemporary Iraqi and regional architecture.
In both, Chadirji achieved a reconciliation of the social traditions and forms of the place with the international ideas and technological advancements of his time.
His professional practice as an architect came to an end at the most unexpected of times – at his peak, in 1978, under then president Ahmed Hassan Al Bakr, he was wrongfully imprisoned and dealt a life sentence in Abu Ghraib prison by the Revolution Court. He was released in 1980 by then president Saddam Hussein, after he was informed that Chadirji was one of only two architects in the country who could lead Baghdad’s mega regeneration project for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting of 1982, which Hussein was going to host.
On the day of his release, Chadirji was appointed Special Advisor to the Mayor of Baghdad and was granted unlimited decision-making and spending authority to lead the regeneration project. Two years into the advisory role, in 1982, he left Iraq for a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University. It was then that he decided to stop designing and took on teaching and writing – a new interest he picked up during his 20 months of imprisonment, when he wrote his first two books, which his wife helped to smuggle out of Abu Ghraib.
At Harvard, Chadirji prepared several seminars in design philosophy for the students at the architecture department before he was invited to teach philosophy at the philosophy department, which he did for seven years.
In the 1980s, he published his first works – his writing journey spanned three decades – written in both Arabic and English, with his last book, The Role of the Architect in the Development of Human Civilisation, published in 2014. In his books, Chadirji continuously challenged the classical and current concepts of the relationship between content and form and called for a reassessment of some aspects of existing theories in art and architecture.
In his influential book Concepts and Influences: Towards a Regionalised International Architecture, he did the unusual in the architectural world and showcased his forms (concepts) and highlighted what was the greatest influence on each design. This, according to the architectural historian Professor Khaled Al-Sultany, is uncommon. “It is always the critics who point out the influences of an architect’s design and where they drew their inspiration from”, he said.
In his later years, Chadirji was most proud of his photographic archive of 80,000 images documenting life in Iraq from the late 1950s to early 1980s. While he was designing and building his projects, he made sure they were properly documented. Chadirji’s anthropological approach to photography makes his collection one of the most unique and comprehensive of traditional Iraqi neighbourhoods, crafts and religious ceremonies and rites.
Chadirji devoted his life with its positive outlook to documenting modern Iraq, socially and historically, through his lens, expressing its aspirational culture through his beautiful architecture and continuously reminding us of our humanity and social responsibility.
The only consolation to our loss at Tamayouz is that we are proud to have brought Chadirji back to the centre of international architectural debate when he won our Lifetime Achievement Award. Following this, we launched the annual Rifat Chadirji Prize, with his support, on his 90th birthday. He witnessed us celebrate his greatness with his usual humility and sense of humour.
Ahmed Al-Mallak is an academic and founding director of the Tamayouz Excellence Award for Architecture