UK-based Iraqi architect Ayad Al-Tuhafi shares his experience of working with Rifat Chadirji on his last design.
On 29 April 2008, Rifat Chadirji visited my office in London and asked me to help him design a flat in Beirut. I had met Rifat in the past around 1990, when he used to visit the office of the great Iraqi architect Dinkha Latchin, where I was employed from 1988 to 1992. The recommendation for our meeting, now years later, came through his assistant Ban Ismail and my business partner Nasser Abadi.
At the time, Rifat was in the process of buying a new flat in a prime location in Beirut’s Mar Elias – Msaytbeh area, close to the Order of Engineers and Architects.
During our early conversations, I grew to understand from Rifat that the new flat was not going to replace his main home in Beirut, but rather, serve as a more central hideaway location. Rifat also mentioned that he had not worked on any designs for a long time (I recall him saying around 20 years), and he asked me to work with him to achieve what he wanted for his new home.
Originally, Rifat agreed to buy a flat on the ninth floor of a new development, referred as ‘B2’, which was a two-bedroom unit; however, after receiving the floor plan and engaging in negotiations, he agreed with the developer to replace it with a larger three-bedroom neighbouring flat, referred to as ‘B1’.
The design process stared on 1 May 2008. It was obvious to me from the start that Rifat, like most architects, was not going to settle or accept the developer’s layout and was going to modify it to suit his own design and lifestyle. The project was not going to be just an interior design and furnishing job, but a complete remodel. To make the process easier for Rifat, I highlighted the walls in red and printed the existing plans with and without the partitions (while keeping the structural columns and service ducts that could not be removed). He would later use these printouts to sketch what he had envisioned.
Rifat’s main requirements were:
- Separate room for him to the front.
- Separate room for his wife, Balkis Sharara, to the back.
- Bedroom for the maid.
- Small kitchen.
- Separate television area.
- Small living space.
- Dining area.
Between 29 April and 2 May 2008, we worked on over 10 design options. These included some of the obvious commercial layouts to maintain a reasonable balance between living and bedroom accommodations, while trying not to overly personalise it to the point that we would devalue the flat. The two layouts below are examples of what we sketched, drew and discussed.
However, not one of the 10 schemes was satisfactory to him. I recall seeing Rifat think deeply – he would go quiet for long periods of time. Then he made up his mind and was clear about his decision: the flat was going to be for his own use and therefore, it should be personalised to his liking without consideration of impact on the unit’s commercial value. He only needed single beds, limited cupboard space, desks for writing and no kitchen. A little kitchenette would be enough for him and Balkis.
We finally agreed on his preferred option, which was sent to the developer with a letter that I typed for him.
Although we had come to the end of the design process, Rifat was torn between having a bigger living room with a television inside it and having a separate television area all together. It took several meetings between 2 and 19 May to agree on the final layout, which contained a separate television area. He simply did not accept having a television inside his living room, which I believe he saw as a distraction to his work and, as conceptually, he felt that it should be in a separate designated space. I was glad he did not see how I live, with a screen in every corner of my house!
I was not convinced with two decisions: the small kitchen, which was too small for a 100-square-metre flat, and the location of the television area. I felt a small kitchen would devalue the flat and make it unsuitable for future users. I also found the television’s location, now placed at the entrance of the flat, not only unwelcoming, but also disturbing; but for him, I suppose the idea was to control the amount of time he would waste watching it. There was no flexibility or provision for extra wiring in multiple locations to allow for changes in furniture layout if later desired, so I tried to convince Rifat of my views, but his reply was clear: this flat was for him to live in how he wanted, and it would not be designed for sale or profit!
Rifat knew exactly what he wanted: a very functional design that suited him and his wife’s lifestyle with a minimum amount of furniture.
We had a small break while the purchase legalities were being completed, then we started working again in June 2008 on the design development. Rifat’s time schedule was specific – he would arrive to my office twice a week in the late morning, and we would work for a few hours before stepping out for lunch at a nearby restaurant. On more than one occasion, my father would accompany us for lunch as he lived nearby and knew Rifat from when they both lived in Baghdad. Political views were often the main topic of discussion, as well as how and why they both left Iraq. Rifat would tell us about his antireligious views, which we did not share or accept, and about his design for the new Iraqi flag (and how upset he was that it was not implemented).
Rifat often spoke with passion about how he was able to quality-control his projects and produce the same type of drawings across his three different offices (I believe he meant the offices in Baghdad, Bahrain and London). Later, I was told how he developed his office’s standards during the 1970s by creating his own coding and labels, which needed to be implemented on every drawing. He had with him old copies of printed papers (manual) showing details such as curtains, kitchen units and so on. So, I retyped these for him.
Although this was a small project and we could have easily covered all the requirements on the drawings, Rifat was happy to share his coding and labelling system, and we reproduced and implemented it in this small project. I saw in Rifat so much enthusiasm and happiness to work on this design, and it was obvious that no research or other achievement could ever replace the passion and satisfaction of working on a design, especially for the soul of an architect. I felt that he wanted to come to the office every day, but he refrained to visiting only two times per week, and he was incredibly mindful of and apologetic about the time that he felt was taking from us. For me, though, it was an opportunity to spend time with him, enjoy the stories and learn from the master.
Rifat would sketch everything with his own hand and pen, but unfortunately, I could only find the following sketch in my files. I believe he took all the other sketches with him. Regardless, the following image shows how specific he was about his labelling and coding methods and he was proud of having the Beirut apartment drawn using his old way.
Then an interesting change happened with regards to the furniture layout. I recall Rifat saying that he was not going to have guests in the flat and therefore, he did not want more than three seats in the living room. On a related note, I am still not sure why then, we had four dining chairs.
The final drawings were produced on 23 June 2008, and they reflected the coding and labelling system exactly as Rifat wanted. As he sat with me staring at my computer monitor, he would ask me to place codes where he wanted and would ask that I move something up, down, left or right.
At the time, we were proud of our ability to produce a complete project with all services on a single sheet of paper, but Rifat had his own way of producing multiple drawings and separating the information for openings, services, fixtures, installations and secondary elements.
It was a remarkably interesting lifetime experience to have worked with Rifat on what I believe was his last involvement in any design project. He was adamant about paying for the work, but I categorically refused, and instead accepted a kind dinner invitation to one of his favourite restaurants overlooking the river in Kingston Upon Thames, near his London home.