A conflict of visions: Contesting the legacy of old dreams of a modern Baghdad

In the 1950s, Iraq's King Faisal II decided to remake Baghdad and brought in the cream of western architects to create a modern, progressive city. Some of the designs were even built. But Iraq's dark times were about to begin.

Le Corbusier in his office in Paris, with his plan of Baghdad Town on the wall. Rene Burri / Magnum Photos
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Hidden behind blast walls and checkpoints on the eastern side of Baghdad is a giant concrete structure that has withstood three decades of war, sectarian violence and sanctions: Le Corbusier’s Gymnasium.

Designed in the early 1950s by the famed French architect as part of Iraq’s aborted bid to stage the 1960 Olympic Games, the building still bears its original motto: “Where order is born, well-being is born”, its inspirational words mocking the structure’s current chaos.

You won’t find any games or fans at this sporting complex. Inside its entrance hall, worn red carpets cover the floor, while giant posters of politicians reveal the venue’s recent use as a campaign stop during Iraq’s provincial elections. Where there was once life, now there is a sense of abandonment and neglect.

Jean-Louis Cohen, the Sheldon H Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University and a board member of the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris, says “the gymnasium is in decent shape as a structure. But the Iraqis have done very badly with its recent transformation. It’s a complete outrage.”

This building epitomises Iraq’s recent history, from the so-called “golden age” of the 1950s to the Arab socialist and Baathist regimes that sought to quell progressive thinking and modern architecture. Today, architects and policymakers are debating how to successfully rebuild the nation’s capital city and restore its heritage.

“Baghdad is not glamorous,” says Cohen. “It’s in bad shape. There are some jewels, good buildings, but their facades are being uglified … the city is dominated by [blast] walls, blocked streets and fences around buildings. I have a feeling there is no comprehensive strategy to manage the city now.”

Le Corbusier’s Gymnasium was born during Iraq’s post-Second World War renaissance, when the country was flush with cash from its oil concessions. The country’s ruling elite were desperate to trade their Mesopotamian past for a modern identity. King Faisal II was the third and last of Iraq’s kings, and ruled from 1939 until 1958. He created a Development Board that would invest the country’s petrodollars into massive infrastructure projects and redevelop the city to create a cosmopolitan centre of the Arab world.

The board envisaged a set of landmark buildings designed by high-profile international architects. The design for Baghdad University was awarded to Walter Gropius, an opera house to Frank Lloyd Wright, a museum to Alvar Aalto, a sporting facility to Le Corbusier, and the Development Board headquarters building to Gio Ponti.

The selection of such international names was part of a greater push by a handful of local architects who were anxious to break the traditional reliance on old-fashioned British architects who had previously enjoyed a -monopoly in Baghdad.

Perhaps the most influential among this group was Nizar Jawdat, a student of Walter Gropius at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. By the time Jawdat graduated and returned to Iraq, his father’s political career had progressed substantially from the post of Iraq ambassador to the US to prime minister under Faisal II. Jawdat leveraged his family connections to influence decision-makers at the Development Board and break their bias towards British architects.

Gropius’ Baghdad University was to be the first western-style campus in Iraq. The Bauhaus-style academic space featured a dramatic gate, with plenty of low-rise buildings tucked around a ring road alongside an artificial canal.

Wright’s opera house was to be built on an undeveloped island, which he planned to name the Isle of Eden, located on the Tigris. The building would perch on a hilltop surrounded by a pool and gardens. His “Plan for Greater Baghdad” also included a cultural centre, a university and a theatre.

Wright, who was fascinated with Baghdad’s place in Arabian Nights folklore, was very critical of the works of other western architects actively pursuing projects in the city. In a lecture he gave at San Rafael High School in California he said: “Now, at present, I happen to be [working on] a cultural centre for the place where civilisation was invented – that is, Iraq. Before Baghdad was destroyed it was a beautiful city built by Harun al-Rashid … Now what is left of the city has struck oil and they have immense sums of money. They can bring back the city of Harun al-Rashid today. They are not likely to do it, because a lot of western architects are building skyscrapers all over the place and they are going to meet the destruction that is barging in on all big western cities. So it seems to me vital to try and make them see how foolish it is to join that western procession.”

Wright died in 1959, a year after he had submitted his design proposals. One of his former apprentices recalls a breakfast with the architect at The Ritz hotel in Paris as his employer journeyed back from Baghdad to the US in the late 1950s.

“He was sitting in the beautiful bay window and wearing a camel-hair robe trimmed with gold, that had been gifted him by the king,” says Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director at the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives in Arizona. “Wright was a strong believer in democracy. But he was impressed that the lack of democracy was good for one thing. He said: ‘For once in my life, no committee meetings or board to go through, no haggling.’ Just a wave of a hand and the island was his.”

As for Aalto, his museum was to have accommodated the Gulbenkian art collection, which today resides in Lisbon. The building was designed as a square box, with the facade covered in dark blue ceramic tiles. A number of studios, a library and an auditorium would be located inside.

Ponti’s Development Board building design featured a prototypical eco-friendly design utilising a ceramic grille to keep the building cool.

Le Corbusier envisaged a giant public sports complex, whose centrepiece would be an Olympic-sized pool into which water would flow freely from the Tigris.

Le Corbusier received a telegram on July 13, 1958, informing him that the project had been approved. Construction was scheduled to begin at the end of the same year.

The following day, however, the king was assassinated in a coup led by General Abdel Karim Qassem, who assumed the role of president of the Republic of Iraq.

Only three of the projects made it from the drawing board into reality: Gropius’s Baghdad University, Gio Ponti’s Development Board building and Le Corbusier’s Gymnasium. Kasim’s Arab socialist regime deemed Aalto’s museum and Wright’s opera house too grandiose.

Le Corbusier doggedly pursued the completion of his gymnasium despite serial challenges: the Iraqis insisted that all contact had to be in the English language. They also demanded that Le Corbusier provide engineering services as well as design support. To do so, he partnered with George Marc Présenté, who worked on the Unesco building in Paris. Le Corbusier relied increasingly on Présenté, whose staff took on a substantial weight of the work in Iraq as the revolutionary government continuously demanded changes to the structure. In a note Le Corbusier sent to one of his assistants, he wrote: “Baghdad is at the end of the world. My responsibility as an architect is to be careful and not to embark the client on adventures or misadventures.”

Little scholarly attention has been paid to Le Corbusier’s Baghdad work. Many academics sniffily describe his gymnasium as a “bastardised project”, perhaps because the architect died in 1965, years before it was completed.

Evidence suggests, however, that his Baghdad project was one he held “close to his heart”, according to Mina Marefat, an architecture professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, who has spent years studying Le Corbusier’s work.

“He minded how it would compare to other work in the city by major architects, whether it would be technically perfect and worthy of his name,” she says. “A photograph of Le Corbusier shows him [standing] at his desk with a large poster of Baghdad’s master plan at his office in Paris.”

The project was eventually completed in 1982, by which time Saddam Hussein was firmly in control. But, in common with its difficult birth, the stadium has endured a troubled life.

For one thing, Baghdad’s blinding sunlight meant that visiting athletes favoured one side of the facility over another. To neutralise this issue, organisers started scheduling activities in the mornings or later in the evening. To solve the problem completely, they added a roof to the main hall.

Nor was the venue’s floor long enough to properly stage competitive gymnastics. Organisers tried to reconfigure it so competitors could run diagonally and jump, but soon realised the audience could not see the athletes properly.

They eventually decided to have competitors run in from the lobby outside the hall, solving the problem in the most inelegant way possible. Separately, staircases leading from the facility’s viewing balcony down to the competition floor were retrofitted to the gymnasium, breaking the clean lines of Le Corbusier’s original scheme.

As Saddam’s regime progressed, buildings close to the gymnasium (but not the facility itself) were used by his son Uday to brutalise athletes when they underperformed. His father did not spare the architects either.

In 1978, Rifat Chadirji, who was very influenced by Le Corbusier, was at the peak of his architectural career. But his fame was cut down when the secret service, the Mukhabarat, took him in for questioning as the Baathist regime cracked down on progressive thinking. In 1979, he was arrested and sentenced to 20 months in Abu Ghraib prison. One of his most influential statues, the Unknown Soldier, was replaced by one of Saddam, the same statue that was famously toppled on April 9, 2003. In 1982 he was released and left the country for good.

Meanwhile, Saddam actively destroyed the city’s architectural heritage as he sought to build palaces in a nation starving amid crippling sanctions.

“All his palaces … all the details, there’s no architecture at all. They were just monsters,” says Petros Khammo, a former professor at Baghdad University. “It was what the regime wanted, and not what the architect wanted. The buildings [strongly] resemble ones constructed under Mussolini in Italy.”

Throughout Saddam’s rule, Iraq was isolated from the rest of the world. Sanctions made it difficult for those interested in Le Corbusier’s work to see if the gymnasium had been completed according to the French architect’s design.

American soldiers occupied the building after Saddam was toppled in 2003, before abandoning it the following year. Thereafter, the structure stood neglected and forlorn – until recently.

Last month, during a conference in Baghdad, it emerged that Iraq’s ministry of youth and sports has commissioned international architect Alain-Charles Perrot, in partnership with the Fondation Le Corbusier, to expand and restore the gymnasium. The ministry has commissioned Perrot – whose notable works include the restoration of the Place Vendôme, the Opera Garnier and the Grand Palais in Paris – to cover the outdoor stadium.

“The worst is still to come. The question of covering the outside seating area will lead to the creation of a big shoebox,” Cohen said. “The original building will look like an appendix to it. Le Corbusier Foundation will be very cautious and it’s not going to be very easy to have permission from [them] for this transformation.”

The conference, held at Gropius’s Baghdad University, was a reunion of sorts for Iraqi architecture professors, home and abroad.

“The links that were newly restored between Iraqis of inside and outside [and] foreign scholars is important,” says Caecilia Pieri, a researcher for the Institut Français du Proche-Orient (French Institute for the Near East).

“Iraqis need to talk. The country has been closed for 40 years, its image and reality [were] confiscated by the Baathists, then by the embargo, then by a biased vision coming from some American cliques. Today, although to a less extent, it is still hardly accessible to foreigners. Therefore it is of a crucial importance to ‘dis-enclave’ it and open it up.”

Security remains the main impediment. Car bombs, outbursts of violence and more recently protests by marginalised Sunnis combined with continuous wrangling by members of Iraq’s government, continue to deter foreign visitors to the country.

The announcement of the planned work on the gymnasium has also triggered heated debate among academics.

“Any construction or alteration of the stadium is going to be like performing heart surgery on the building,” says Haitham Khorsheed, who is a recognised as a “pioneer” architect in Iraq.

The academics urged the importance of encouraging debate and dialogue about the city’s architectural past and present. “Any society must not be prisoner of a past. Restoring academic and professional knowledge on what is, and not only on what was, is the first condition of consciousness, pride and vitality,” says Pieri.

Le Corbusier’s Gymnasium was not the only building that fell victim to Iraq’s troubled recent past.

Gropius’s university saw a portion of its dormitories extracted to set up Saddam’s Al Nahrain University. Since then, a number of buildings have been built with incongruent and poorly executed finishing. Today, a number of cranes are set up to erect monolithic structures that threaten the architectural integrity of Gropius’s original design.

"My heart aches every morning when I drive by those buildings on our campus," says Hoda Alwan, assistant professor at the University of Baghdad's architecture department. Her emotional speech triggered tears from retired academics, who shouted: "Al Nahrain out!"

Iraq’s architects are grappling with the residue of war and the legacy of Saddam’s regime as they seek to re-establish links with the rest of the world. A brain-drain of the country’s architects compounds the situation, although in the past two years a handful of projects have been awarded to Iraq’s exile architects.

The new Central Bank building, designed by the Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid, will attempt to mix features of the Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur and the Great Mosque of Samarra – both renowned buildings that are a cherished part of Iraq’s heritage. The first is a steep pyramidal structure with a flat top similar in style to representations of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The latter resembles a great stone helter-skelter atop an enormous plinth.

The high-profile Hadid is also in the midst of an international design competition to build a new parliament complex in Baghdad.

Yet questions arise as to whether Iraq has enough experienced engineers to oversee such projects, with few skilled international contractors willing to take the risk of working outside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

All of this seems like an unsolvable paradox: Iraq’s architectural past is hamstrung by its uncertain present, while its future is trapped by the mistakes of the past and the pressing concerns of the present. At least the debate has begun. From this new visions may rise one day in contemporary Iraq.

Hadeel Al Sayegh is a business reporter for The National.