Prominent Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji dies in London aged 93

Born in Baghdad in 1926, Chadirji is responsible for some of Iraq's most famous buildings

Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji is pictured at his home office in the Lebanese coastal town of Halat on April 24, 2009. Two decades before US marines pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad square, the dictator destroyed a monument in the same place, the magnum opus of one of Iraq's greatest architects. The elegant arch entitled "The Unknown Soldier" was a Baghdad landmark for more than 20 years. Now its builder, Rifat Chadirji, has returned to rebuild it in the hope of resurrecting some of his beloved city's former glory. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)
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Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji has died in London, aged 93.

Chadirji, often called the father of Iraqi architecture, was responsible for the design of more than 100 buildings across Iraq, including the Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters and the Central Post Office in Baghdad.

Born in Baghdad in 1926, he was an important cultural figure between the 1950s and 1970s and came from an influential family. His father, Kamil Chadirji, founded and became president of the National Democratic Party.

Perhaps his most culturally significant work was the arched Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, which was later replaced by a statue of Saddam Hussein.

Later, the world watched as US forces destroyed Hussein’s likeness in the square after capturing Baghdad in 2003.

A rebuild was mooted in the early 2000s, but never came to fruition.

He won the Aga Khan Chairman Award in 1986, a triennial architecture prize awarded to those those who “successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence".

Chadirji was an opponent of the Baathist regime and was jailed for his political views under Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq. He left Iraq for a post at Harvard University in 1983 and only briefly returned after the US invasion.

He was a prolific photographer, documenting Iraqi life on a huge scale. Many of his more than 100,000 images chronicling Iraq’s modernisation drive have been exhibited in countries across the Middle East.

“I felt that many things were disappearing, and I wanted to document them before they did," he told arts magazine Ibraaz in 2016. “This is what motivated me to create a sort of archive of these things."

In 1977, he won a competition to design Abu Dhabi's new national theatre, but the extent of his involvement in the final product is a matter of some debate.

His work attracted worldwide acclaim, in 1982 and 198 respectively he was awarded honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the American Institute of Architects.

In more recent years, he won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award 2008 and Tamayouz Excellence Award 2015 before having an award named in his honour.
The Rifat Chadirji award was launched in 2017. Entries must highlight the current challenges facing communities in Iraq and respond to local community needs. The inaugural 2017 competition challenged entrants to work on housing projects for Mosul, a city destroyed by ISIS. It was won by Anna Otlik from Wroclaw in Poland out of 223 entries submitted by firms, practitioners and students from 42 countries.

Iraq’s Prime minister designate, Mustafa Al Khadhimi paid tribute to his friend Chadirji on Saturday, calling his passing a “a loss for Iraq and humanity".

“He was a model for devotion to national architectural identity, and his legacy reflects how architecture can define cities and nations," Mr Al Khadhimi wrote on Twitter.

“May he rest in peace. Our thoughts are with his family."

Iraqi President Barham Salih added his voice to the tributes, saying with Chadirji's death the "world loses its modern lung, which breathes modernity and beauty," adding he left behind "much to the heritage of this country".

Fellow architects have also paid tribute to Chadirji on social media.

Nasser Rabbat, an architect and historian, reflected on Chadirji on Twitter, describing him as “a thinker, author, critic and rationalist architect with a refined aesthetic sensitivity, he combined traditional elements and constructivism in ultra-modernist compositions."

Author and architect Esra Akcan added her tribute, writing: “Another very sad day for architecture. Let’s preserve and restore his buildings in Iraq that have been destroyed due to wars."

Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE’s Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, passed on her “deepest condolences" to Chadirji’s family and loved ones.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi reflected on Chadirji’s life in a series of Tweets, which he concluded by posting a photo of himself with the architect and his wife, author Balkis Sharara and Iraqi architect and academic, Ahmed Al Mallak.

“Yesterday the world lost one of the greatest living architects, the legendary Rifat Chadirji who was born in Baghdad in 1926," he wrote to begin his tribute. “There is so much to say about him that I felt overwhelmed even starting a thread. Where does one start?"