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Contemporary Architecture in the Arab States: Iraq

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Udo Kultermann

From Contemporary Architecture in the Arab States
© 1999 McGraw-Hill Publishers
McGraw-Hill makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy of any information contained in the McGraw-Hill Material, including any warranties of merchantability or fitness for any particular purpose. In no event shall McGraw-Hill have any liability to any party for special, incidental, tort, or consequential damages arising out of or in connection with the McGraw-Hill material, even if McGraw-Hill has been advised of the possibility of such damages.


In spite of recent difficulties in Iraqi architecture there are several forces at work that may one day lead to a most fruitful development. These are visible in the works and designs of Basil al-Bayati, Maath al-Alousi, Abbad al-Radi, and Zaha Hadid. Although they are not living in Iraq, each has achieved international recognition that one day could become decisive for Iraq.

Basil al-Bayati studied at Baghdad University and at University College in London, where he was a student of Mohamed Saleh Makiya. His work is manifested in plans and publications that express an exuberance for visual forms rare in the Arab world today. His books deal with general ideas of a contemporary Arab architecture (Process and Pattern, 1981; Community and Unity 1983; The City and the Mosque, 1984; Basil al-Bayati: Recent Work, 1988). His projects encompass a wide variety of architectural possibilities and transcend generally accepted patterns. While Al-Bayati's 1968 plan for a new central district for Baghdad was still within the tradition of contemporary Arab architects, his exuberant, expressive design for the Al-Nakhlash Telecommunication Tower (1974) transcended earlier limits and explored new possibilities of design. Among his spectacular projects outside of Iraq are the Palm Mosque of King Saud University in Riyadh (1984) and the design for the Edinburgh Great Mosque (1989), as well as several projects for Oman, Yemen (Qasr Ghundan Hotel, 1993), and other Arab states. In all of his buildings an organic obsession with flower forms and old Islamic symbolism has been merged into a fantastic alternative architecture for the future.12

Maath al-Alousi studied in Ankara and London and practices out of offices in Beirut, Athens, and Baghdad. Between 1961 and 1974 he worked with the firm Iraq Consult. Al-Alousi's work is more realistic in its general orientation, beginning with his own house in Baghdad of 1966 and continuing with several buildings for Iraq Consult as well as urban projects in Baghdad. In his Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Oman (1976), the tradition of Iraq Consult was continued in a wider regional application, as were his various projects for Doha, Sharjah, and Dubai in the 1970s. In his own house in Baghdad (1985), a new realistic ground was achieved, in which tradition and contemporary requirements were brought into harmony. Based on the principle of the cube, which surrounds the central internal courtyard, the building has a view of the Tigris River. In his Al-Basma Hospital (1990) this courtyard principle was expanded to a larger public building type. Within the context of the urban renewal of Baghdad, his Haifa Street Development, 1980-1984, faced the challenge of mass housing and found a convincing solution within the requirements of the program. Two thousand dwellings are integrated into buildings for public functions, with open urban spaces for multiple use. And in the upgrading of Medinat Saddam of 1982-1983, the architect used his expertise to restore a complete neighborhood.

Several of Al-Alousi's more recent works have expanded to other Arab states, such as Kuwait (Banking Studies Center, 1980) and Dubai (Deira Greek Corniche, 1978). In the foreword to Al-Alousi's Visual Diary of an Arab Architect, the Iraqi writer Jabra I. Jabra accurately characterizes the use of the arch in Al-Alousi's work, his goals as an architect, and the situation of contemporary Iraqi architecture in general:

One must be cautious here lest one should assume, as many people seem to do, that simply by employing the arch in however an outward form, the architect is re-activating Arab tradition. Alousi is too sophisticated a thinker and designer to accept such a facile attitude--an attitude which has indeed given us a lot of bad architecture in recent years. He is fully aware of all that should go organically into a plan to make the arch not merely a seeming continuation of the past, but a crucial structural factor in the embodiment of a vision of the present, evocative of the past but not overpowered by it.

The Iraqi architect Abbad al-Radi was educated in Cambridge, England, and at MIT in the United States. He worked for a year with James Cubitt in Libya. Through his firm Planar he completed several works in Iraq and the UAE, some in collaboration with Skaarup and Jespersen (Abi Nawa Residential Development in Baghdad, 1980-1984).

By far the most revolutionary contemporary Arab architect is Zaha Hadid, who from her office in London has achieved worldwide fame by questioning given modes of architectural design and thinking. She was educated at the American University in Beirut and at the Architectural Association in London and in her early years was influenced by the teaching of Rem Koolhaas. While still an unknown Iraqi architect, she won first prize in the international competition for the Peak in Hong Kong. Reaching beyond the limits of the modernist vocabulary in architecture, Zaha Hadid created a new attitude as to how buildings should be envisioned. She sees them in line both with the existing topographic reality and with a renewed interpretation of history. The necessary step beyond these given elements in her design creates something previously unknown. Although few and small, her realizations in Japan, Germany, and Holland and her 1983 plan for the Al-Wahda Sports Center in Abu Dhabi are innovations of an ingeniously provocative architecture. And while these early works do not yet incorporate the specific Iraqi tradition, this, hopefully, will be present in her future buildings.14

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