There are many famous structures we associate with Le Corbusier (Chandigarh in India, Villa Savoye in France, the United Nations headquarters in New York), the Saddam Hussein Sports Complex in Baghdad not among them. Designed by Corbu in 1965 and built from his plans by Saddam Hussein in 1978 thirteen years after the architect’s death, the stadium is in fact the great modernist’s last built work. This is just one juicy fact gleaned from the current exhibition at New York’s Center for Architecture, "City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952-1982". The new exhibition, organized by Collegio d’Arquitectes de Catalunya in Barcelona and curated by Spanish architect and academic Dr. Pedro Azara, uncovers 15 built and unbuilt works by the world’s best-known architects in the most unlikely of places.
Mid-century greats like Le Corbusier, Wright, Sert, Gropius, Aalto and Gio Ponti were invited by King Faisal II in the 1950s to participate in the remaking of Baghdad’s modern image. Baghdad was back then a place of development, as the young King Faisal II—educated at Harrow in England and crowned in Iraq at 18—began to invest oil revenues from petroleum exports into infrastructure projects that would put the capital city back on the map. His short-lived reign as an idealistic teenage monarch may not have left much for the history books, but he did succeed in bringing in some of the world’s greatest architects to contribute to Baghdad’s urban plan.
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From Frank Lloyd Wright’s fairytale Opera House and Alvar Aalto’s Museum of Fine Arts (both unbuilt) to Josep Lluís Sert’s US Embassy and Gio Ponti’s Development Board of Iraq headquarters (both still standing), the exhibition allows us to imagine what Baghdad could have been. The two biggest contributions were Walter Gropius’s University of Baghdad masterplan which now serves 30,000 students in 273 buildings, including Baghdad’s only skyscraper, clocking in at 20 stories. The other is an idealistic 1958 plan by Constantinos Doxiadis for low-income housing now called Sadr City. Sadly, Faisal’s death following a coup d’état in 1958 ended this utopian resurgence, but building continued through the ‘60s and then again under Saddam Hussein’s Office of Architecture and Urbanism, established in 1980, until the US invasion in 2004.
“The image everyone has of Baghdad is of war,” said Rosamond Fletcher, AIANY’s Director of Exhibitions. “To think of what a cosmopolitan city it was in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – this is a history we don’t really know a lot about, but one that is incredibly relevant today as Baghdad begins to rebuild.”
The greatest sidebar of the exhibition is Azara himself, who as a Professor of Aesthetics and Theory of Art at the School of Architecture of Barcelona specializes in the connection between mythology and architecture. His research into Mesopotamia and modern Syria led him to ask similar questions of ancient Sumaria and Modern Iraq. He contacted the Spanish consulate, who informed him that in fact one of Spain’s most celebrated architects, Josep Lluís Sert, had designed the US Embassy in the 1950s while he was the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “I knew he couldn’t be the only one.”
By 2006, much of Baghdad was burning and the university library had been destroyed. Spain was among the initial occupying countries in the 2004 invasion, so access to information in Barcelona was especially limited. Azara reached out to a selection of blogs, including Baghdad Burning, to see if the University of Baghdad was open. They responded that is was, including the department of architecture. He began to communicate with professors and retired architects who were able to share with him stories and unpublished materials. Azara saw the potential immediately and reached out to Collegio d’Arquitectes de Catalunya in Barcelona who agreed to sponsor the exhibition.
This innocent quest for knowledge has led him to be one of the leading, if only, western experts on mid-20th century Iraqi architecture. It has also led to a traveling international exhibition that pays tribute to the great Persian Renaissance, acknowledges the potential of the current generation, and allows others to envision what Baghdad still could be. “I wanted to change the perception from war and bombs,” said Azara. “Compared to 1950s Spain, which was a third world country at the time, Baghdad was this contemporary non-religious society that was doing great things. I wanted to show creation, not just destruction, and create a positive view.”