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Plan(s) for Greater Baghdad: How hidden stories shape iconic cities
A conversation with Ala Younis
 
 
 

When pioneering architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, died in 1965, he left behind over 70 buildings on five continents, 17 of which are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. One of his lesser known works is a mega sports complex designed in the 1950s for Iraq’s unsuccessful bid to host the 1960 Olympic Games. It was commissioned as part of late King Faisal II’s plans to develop Baghdad’s infrastructure, fueled by higher shares of oil revenue, negotiated with the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1952.

In addition to Le Corbusier, other renowned architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, José Luis Sert, Alvar and Aino Aalto and Gio Ponti, were invited to propose designs for universities, opera houses and ministry buildings. Few were fully realized amid the revolutions, coups and wars that ensued, affecting the country’s political, economic and cultural life. Le Corbusier’s gymnasium was completed in 1980, and came to bear the name of former President Saddam Hussein after five regime changes. In 2003, the United States military used it as a base for its operations in Baghdad.

It is the story of this building, filled as it is with details on the construction of ‘modern’ Iraq, that inspired Kuwait-born, Amman-based artist, writer and curator Ala Younis to develop Plan for Greater Baghdad, a research-heavy installation that includes a model of the building, 3D-printed representations of key figures in the story and layered timelines that blend archival material with artistic responses. The project premiered in 2015 at the All the World’s Futures exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor for the 56th Venice Biennale.

In March 2018, Younis—who was trained as an architect—presented the second iteration of the project, titled Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad simultaneously at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and the Delfina Foundation in London through a newly formed partnership between the Saudi non-profit and London’s international artist residency and project space, founded by Delfina Entrecanales. Exhibited alongside Plan for Greater Baghdad and with a reference corner of materials central to Younis’ research, the second phase of the project represents the story of Le Corbusier’s gymnasium through the lens of key female protagonists involved in the construction of modern Baghdad.

Art Jameel Programs Manager Uns Kattan speaks about Ala Younis’s Plan for (Fem.) Greater Baghdad. Courtesy: Medrar.TV

Together, the two versions of the project allow Younis to highlight the stories of Iraqi architects, intellectuals, civil servants and builders involved in realizing the project and in the city’s modern development. “When I mention Le Corbusier, I mention related local architects and events. This pairing gets people’s attention [to otherwise overlooked stories],” she explains.

In this interview, Mada Masr speaks to Younis about the project’s development over the past decade and possible future plans.

Mada Masr: Plan for Greater Baghdad was inspired by a set of 35 mm slides of Le Corbusier’s sports complex, taken in 1982 by Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji. How did you come across these slides and why were you interested in Baghdad?

Ala Younis: I grew up in Amman and studied architecture at the University of Jordan from 1992 to 1997. This was right after the Gulf War, when many Iraqis fled to the country and strongly impacted its cultural scene. Immigrants included skilled artists and artisans, which led Jordanians to collect large quantities of art as artwork of all styles became affordable. A group of more established artists and architects also moved to Amman and taught at universities, became jury members for students’ final year projects and lectured widely on various topics. I belong to a generation who witnessed this and thus became naturally interested in Baghdad. We closely followed the events there and subsequent wars. This city somehow become part of my own personal history.

At university, we studied international architects such as Le Corbusier and Wright. We were also exposed to the work of Iraqi architects such as Rifat Chadirji, who was invited to the university once as a guest lecturer. I only practiced architecture for a very short time in Amman as I was not interested in designing commissioned homes and interiors, but I continued to check the Archnet website for research purposes and this is where I found the gymnasium slides.

MM: So you never encountered the gymnasium when you studied Le Corbusier in university?

AY: No. We learned about Le Corbusier’s plans in Algeria, but never his sports center in Baghdad. I contacted some of my university professors when I found Chadirji’s slides. They said they were not familiar with the story, and some instead mentioned Wright’s time in Baghdad.

The gymnasium is mentioned in some Iraqi books as part of Le Corbusier’s work or as a Baghdad monument, but with few details about the context. Chadirji, who I interviewed for the project, says most of the experimentation sought at the time was with the intention of being innovative relative to the local context. As a consultant for the government, he wanted buildings constructed in different styles to allow the local population to experience them.

It took 25 years to build the sports complex, however. The urge and excitement had gone by the time it was opened. Some architects I interviewed criticized its design for having visitors walk up on massive, steep and unshaded ramps in the blazing heat to reach their seats. Others who lived in Baghdad most of their lives had never set foot in the building. There has been new interest in the building since 2003 by academics and researchers, however, with attempts to conserve it and list it as a heritage site.

MM: Le Corbusier’s gymnasium was one of several cutting edge projects by star architects in Baghdad. Why did you use it as the focal point of your project?

AY: When I began researching the gymnasium, I was interested in all the proposed projects by international architects, but Le Corbusier is one of my favorites, and, more importantly, the story of his sports complex captured the political, social and economic dimensions I was interested in. Wright’s Plan for Greater Baghdad—from which my project’s title is borrowed—included a cultural center, opera house and university, but none of them were realized. Gropius’ plan for the University of Baghdad was only partially completed in his lifetime, while the building of Ponti’s Ministry of Planning went smoothly, so there was no story there. I also learned about a traveling exhibition called City of Mirages: Baghdad 1952-1982, curated by Pedro Azara in 2012, which featured the work of all these architects and presented archival material, so I didn’t feel the need to reproduce this.

Instead, I decided to focus on one building with a rich local story, which I am happy I did. The construction of the sports complex witnessed five regime changes, including the ascent of Saddam Hussein, whose name it now carries. Several local architects and civil servants worked on the project. Chadirji writes in his book Al-Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace (1991) about how he met Le Corbusier to discuss the commission as a representative of the Development Board of the Iraqi government, before he was imprisoned [in Abu Ghraib] between 1978 and 1980 .

I mostly chose to focus on specific characters due to time and budget limitations, many of whom disappeared and reappeared as the story of the sports complex unfolded. I was interested in these broken timelines and the influence of politics on the physical building of the city. I was also interested in the local people facilitating the process. I often asked my interviewees details about the builders, the dynamics in architectural offices and what language was spoken on site.

Photo: Tim Bowditch - Courtesy: Delfina Foundation and Art Jameel

MM: Wright’s Plan for Greater Baghdad would have been located on an island in the middle of the Tigris River. This seems like the first proposal in what later became a trend among Gulf countries to reposition themselves as cultural hotspots in the region. Do such comparisons make sense to you, especially given that you’re currently showing the two projects in Dubai?

AY: These were the early questions I was trying to answer through my research, but the project kind of took a life of its own. It is said that Wright was flying over Baghdad when he saw Um Al-Khanzeer Island and chose to set his project on it. Choosing to establish the cultural hub on an island does have resonance in the Gulf countries today; we have the Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, for instance. But Berlin has also had its own Museum Island since the 1820s. These details were not rich enough for me to build my project on, since they didn’t reflect the power dynamics between architects and locals, and the ways Baghdad’s masterplans had to adapt to changes in state power.

Iraqi heads of state such as Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim and presidents Abdel Salam Aref and Saddam Hussein directly intervened in design and building processes within the capital. Qasim reviewed Baghdad’s masterplan blueprints by Constantinos ​Doxiadis and made premature public announcements about the projects he saw in them. He also personally ordered the demolition and confiscation of residential plots provided by the state when he learned they were being used for commercial purposes. There’s a story in Al-Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace about Aref flying to villages where developments were taking place, rolling up his sleeves and telling his architect, “Let’s plan.” Saddam educated himself in the language of architecture, attended conferences and sketched the arches he wanted to see in Baghdad for architects.

The state was the primary creator of this mid-20th century architectural boom in Iraq, with many commissioned international companies working under war conditions, revising their plans to accommodate new developments. It envisioned and controlled the types of buildings, as well as architectural styles and motifs. These similarities with Gulf countries nowadays in terms of managing the process were more relevant to me than the shape of the plans themselves.

MM: Was Baghdad unique at the time in initiating these massive infrastructure projects?

AY: Iraq took the lead on this in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, however, there was a boom in other Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Several publications coming out of Saudi Arabia at the time featured commissioned sports centers, rotating restaurants and new airports—projects that many Iraqi architects either wrote about or designed themselves. Architect Kenichi Teramoto [of Ibda Design in Dubai] also helped me find statistics on projects undertaken by Japanese contractors in the region. The largest number of contracts in 1977 was in Iraq, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the UAE.

MM: You never visited Baghdad. Tell me about your research process and sources. How did your focus change over time?

AY: I was mostly doing the research for myself, trying to answer questions that I had. I realized as I delved further into my research that a complete history of Baghdad cannot be found in one archive in Baghdad or through a single Iraqi source. I relied on books, even fiction novels, accounts and archival documents from Fondation Le Corbusier, among others. I also did first-hand interviews and followed Facebook posts and images as leads. One fragment led to another and each source brought up more characters and stories. I thought it was important to share these materials. I became interested in how a history of a place you cannot access can be pieced together from different sources. That’s why I included so many images and documents in the timelines; it hints at the possibility of us finding our own history through someone else’s.

Photo: Anna Shtraus - Courtesy: Art Jameel and Delfina Foundation

MM: Why did you choose to create a female version of the project, and how did you choose the protagonists?

AY: ​I wanted to read this same history ​of the city’s architecture and politics beyond the male dominance​. The women protagonists were present within the stories of the first version, but not as much as the men. I was curious to hear it relayed in their voice. Among the protagonists present in this research are Ellen Jawdat, the Baghdad-based, Harvard-trained American architect whose work in Baghdad served as inspiration for an early wave of the city’s local architects, and Balkis Shararah, Chadirji’s wife, who carried manuscripts of his works in and out of Abu Ghraib prison between 1979 and 1980, helping him author his seminal book Al-Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace while imprisoned. There is also architect Wijdan Maher, who led prominent architectural projects across Iraqi cities and published Imara, an architecture-focused quarterly;​​ architect Nada Zebouni, who in her final year of architectural studies interned in Le Corbusier’s contractor’s office in Paris to work on the drawings and the model of the gymnasium; Sherine Mohamed Ali, an architect employed at the Ministry of Housing and Public Works who revived the gymnasium project after it had faded following Le Corbusier’s death; artist Nuha al-Radi, whose 1990/91 diaries describe the dynamics of the lives of Baghdad’s residents, beyond the news coverage of the embargo; and Zaha Hadid, whose architectural drawings influenced the imagination of many architectural students in the 1990s.

MM: Tell me about your formal choices in presenting the projects.

AY: There are four timelines on the walls in each of the projects: three timelines of images and one of captions and credits. I chose to hang the timelines in a typical way, year by year, and next to them I placed sculptured figurines of the story’s protagonists, performing certain gestures that convey the story of Iraq, pre and post revolution. The first timeline presents materials related to the gymnasium, mostly sourced from Le Corbusier Foundation. It highlights the events prior to the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq and the state’s adoption of its development plan. I touch upon the Iraqi government commissioning artist Jewad Selim to design Baghdad’s Liberty Monument in 1959 in commemoration of the 14 July Revolution, for instance. Selim was pressured to include images of Qasim among the bronze sculptures, which he resisted. The monument survives today despite the regime changes because it paid no homage to specific political figures.

The second and third timelines reflect events in the architectural and political scenes which directly shaped the story, such as the 1958 Revolution, the new master plans drawn up for Baghdad and how changes to the heads of state affected the locations and designs of buildings. They are mostly based on archival material or, at times, a single sentence from a book. The sculpture of Aref, for instance, shows him rolling his sleeve in motion—I reproduced this gesture based on his image on Iraqi stamps. Selim’s sculpture, distressed by Qasim’s request to include his image on the Liberty Monument, was inspired by the bronze sculptures on Selim’s Monument for Freedom in Baghdad’s Liberation Square.

I chose the characters’ gestures in the female version the same way, although here, I start the timeline in 1952 instead of 1956. Sharara, for instance, is shown carrying books, reflecting the trips she undertook to visit her imprisoned husband, while Hadid has her hands behind her back because she never designed any projects in Baghdad.

The size of the characters is similar to that of the gymnasium model to reflect the power relations; they are as important as the building. The timelines also juxtapose several documents with drawings I made. They reflect the multiplicity of formats I found through my research.

MM: Are there future iterations of the project?

AY: Yes. I am considering basing a book and a film on the topic, but they must have their own rationale. I am also interested in researching the work of Iraqi architects who settled in Jordan, the UK and the UAE. I organized a symposium titled Baghdad and Her Architects in Dubai in early March, where I invited Iraqi architects to present their work. Dr. Maha al-Bustani, an adjunct associate professor at the Canadian University in Dubai, presented her research on post-modern architecture in Iraq under the blockade in the 1990s, while her husband, Dr. Hazim Al-Nijaidi, an associate professor at the Canadian University in Dubai, discussed how we can use literature and poetry to study architecture through a critical lens. I want to look at the practices of similar architects, the projects they undertook and stories that may perhaps help reconstruct​ ​history beyond the dominant narratives.

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Mai Elwakil