In search of Baghdad’s identity, Paris-based architect Zeina Magazachi explores four different buildings that express Iraq’s modern architecture.
This series of four articles seeks to put forward the exchange that took place between Baghdad and the West, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. After 1950, Iraqi artists and architects who graduated abroad returned to build Baghdad’s identity along with Westerners who were invited by the Iraqi Kingdom’s Development Office to work on public facilities for Baghdad. Together, they began a journey to build the capital city, and to a larger scale, the country’s identity. A method of confronting four different visions, through four different projects, helps understand the complexity of introducing modernity to a country with an extremely rich and deep history embedded in a region thousands of kilometers away from the West.
After World War I, Great Britain promised independence to Middle Eastern countries, encouraging the Arab Revolt and causing the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. Overlooking this promise of self-determination, the British then expanded their reach in the region, and settled in Iraq through the Mandate of Mesopotamia. This lead to the 1920 Iraqi Revolt, which resulted in the creation of the Kingdom of Iraq a year later. Iraqis were now faced with a big task: finding their country’s identity. This rebirth had to take into account the glorious past of Mesopotamia, the world’s oldest civilisation, and the ambition of a new country, influenced by the West to look towards modernity.
In 1950, the Iraqi monarchy set up a Development Office, thanks to the oil revenues the country had been generating. Iraq’s entry into modernity and its quest for an identity were determined by its exchanges with the West. On one hand, Baghdad invited great figures of modern architecture such as Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti to take part in the capital city’s construction. On the other hand, the state sent Iraqi students on scholarships to the best art and architecture universities in Europe, particularly to the UK, France and Italy. When the first wave of students returned, the following question arose: how can modernity be built in a country that has such young borders framing a region 7,000 years older? Forming an answer to that question was one of Dr Rifat Chadirji’s greatest achievements. During his decades-long career working for his country, the renowned Iraqi architect developed a rich philosophy for Baghdad’s future, which he called ‘Regionalised International Architecture’.
While Chadirji built more than 100 structures, the Yasoub Rafiq Residence (Y. Rafiq) is a notable example of blending a regional understanding of Baghdad with a modern approach. Built in 1965 in the city’s al-Mansour district, the house is an innovative project that displays three historical references, as explained in Chadirji’s ‘Concepts and Influences’. The first is the eastern façade of the Ukhaidir Palace, which dates back to the second half of the 8th century during the Abbasid Empire. The second inspiration is drawn from the openings in the facade of a traditional house in Ashar, in southern Basra. And the last is the south-eastern facade of the Great Mosque of Samarra.
During a personal interview with Chadirji in 2016, he shared his passion for history and heritage:
To be honest, I am influenced by all styles, modern and old… I observe how things are composed. Even a small alley in Baghdad can inspire me. Many different elements influence me. Architecture is not a plan [and] it is not a facade; it is a whole. It is a way of thinking. The facade, the plan, the composition, the attitude of the building… You see, we architects, we do buildings. This controls people’s lives, so you have to know people and know what they need. Not what they want, but what they need. Examples are everywhere. What is important is to read history. I read more about history than I read about architecture.”
The Y. Rafiq Residence was Chadirji’s dream project. When the client gave him carte blanche to build the house, the opportunity for his imagination to become reality presented itself, and the architect made it one of his most cherished and ingenious projects. To build this residence, Chadirji chose three materials he often used in his work: traditional yellow brick, concrete and wood. The choice of materials is in itself very representative of Chadirji’s style – it fluctuates between tradition, as represented with the typical Baghdadi brick, and modernity, via the use of concrete. The juxtaposition of both is seen in the construction techniques of the residence, as well as in the general attitude and design of the project.
At first sight, the Y. Rafiq residence could be mistaken for a fortress, with its curved brick walls that are similar to flanking towers. It seems hard to access and quite protective of the treasures it holds inside. From afar, such a sumptuous palace from the Abbasid Era would deter one from approaching it. However, once beyond the different enclosures, one can appreciate the richness of the residence’s details and its interiors.
The first enclosure, and threshold to the project, is the exterior wall, which surrounds the property and offers two access points: one to the house and one to the garage. Once the surrounding wall is crossed, the inhabitant or visitor arrives to the large garden which constitutes nearly a third of the premise’s land surface.
Past the outer enclosure and towards the entrance of the house, one is met with a second threshold – a detached thick brick wall with an arched entry. A step forward takes us into a small introductory space, covered by a flat concrete roof, and faced by the front door. This small space offers a glimpse of what is to come: the glazing that surrounds the front door is made up of a composition of arches, which is similar to what can be found in the courtyard. Also, a low ceiling gradually adapts the space to human scale and a thick brick wall behind protects those inside from the outdoor heat and views from neighbours.
The curved brick walls of the Y. Rafiq project contain the residence while extending it towards the garden, thus inviting people in. These important cylindrical shapes link the facade of the house to the inside of the home, and generate a transition from a protective enclosure to a partition, sometimes concealing a door, and at other times containing furniture.
The structure of the plan gives an irregular rhythm to the space, a variation that can also be seen in elevation. Indeed, the straight walls are shorter than the curved ones. These walls are also pushed back, introducing depth to the design of the house. A sense of depth and continuity is reinforced with the four overlooked corners of the rectangular plan, which are formed by slender curves instead of angles. This stretched shape in plan is also seen in elevation as every opening is extended to the ground. The rigorous work on both the plan and the facades show the important conversation between the different elements of the residence.
The curve shape brings harmony to the space as it can be found in many different areas of the residence. For example, it is seen in the composition of the glazing around the off-centered courtyard. The courtyard is a direct reference to the traditional Baghdadi — and regional — house, which used to have such outdoor spaces at the centre of the home, offering a breathing and gathering area for the family and its guests. When the houses and villas in Baghdad were modernised and air conditioning was popularised, courtyards — and other notable traditional elements, such as windcatchers and accessible roofs — were no longer part of the city’s architectural vocabulary. Chadirji, though, was the first to introduce courtyards to the modern house, not for climatic reasons, but for aesthetic ones. The architect’s work on light is a testament to his understanding of the benefits of the courtyard. Indeed, light is shaped and worked with as a tool through the rough bricks of the external walls and through the courtyard, creating shadows and different graphic compositions on the facade and inside the house throughout the day.
The centre of the house is shared between the courtyard, which comes right after the reception area, and the living room. The common spaces are thus centred in the plan, giving importance and space to family life. The fluidity in the plan shows spaces open to one another, which testifies to a certain modernity, but also shows the respect towards the privacy of each room. Chadirji’s avant-garde vision is seen in such details. Indeed, the private spaces are usually all accessible through the common areas of a traditional family’s home. In this project, Chadirji gave concealed entries to each room from the garden as well, working on ‘individuation’, a concept often neglected in most conservative societies.
The Y. Rafiq Residence is exemplary of Chadirji’s understanding of traditional and regional elements, paired with his innovative and modern aspirations. During a phone call in August 2017, Dr Khaled Al Sultany, an Iraqi professor and writer who specialises in modern Iraqi architecture, shared the following statement: “The Y. Rafiq Residence is the first brutalist house in Baghdad.”