In search of Baghdad’s identity, Paris-based architect Zeina Magazachi explores four different buildings that express Iraq’s modern architecture. This is part two of the series – part one explored Baghdad’s first brutalist home, the Yasoub Rafiq Residence by Rifat Chadirji.
Forming an identity specific to a city that has lost sense of itself repeatedly, as suffered wars and witnessed different cultures settle on its land, is the extremely complex challenge that faced Baghdadi artists and architects during the 20th century. This first manifested in Iraq’s capital city gradually developing an eclectic style derived from a rich heritage of additions and subtractions. Baghdad’s identity was then re-evaluated under the new influence of modernism, introduced to the country by the British and the recently graduated Iraqis who returned from the West. One such individual, Dr Mohamed Makiya, a prominent figure of architecture in Iraq, specifically worked on celebrating the traditional aesthetic of the region while working with building techniques nourished by his studies abroad.
Language is extremely important in the process of shaping an identity as it defines one’s intentions; but this need to define can limit understandings. Because Makiya developed a regional approach and used Arabic calligraphy in his work, he was often categorised as an ‘Islamic architect’ — terminology given by Westerners to define in one word the vast diversity that shapes the region. The West’s influence on the Middle East sometimes materialises indirectly, from the way people from the region are perceived to how they perceive themselves. When one studies the projects of great figures like Makiya, and others including Rifat Chadirji, one needs critical distance to be able to appreciate the depth of the research they undertook in order to rediscover what local architecture truly is to them first as individuals, then for their city, country, history and finally, their region.
To my mind modernism is almost synonymous with Westernism. To be Western is to be modern… The contemporary architecture scene created by prestigious firms from all over the world is a break in the continuing history of Arab-Islamic civilization. The new environment created is unworthy. Buildings, maybe good in themselves, have been imported without consideration of the local environment... Their architects have proved not up to the task because of the limitations imposed by their own background and education. Opportunities unique in history have been missed for three decades. These handicaps can only be overcome by additional research towards a clearer understanding of the context. We are now in a transitional phase where a new intellectual approach is evident, and the traditional quality of space and architectural form is being reassessed. This approach is very different from Western modernism.”Mohamed Makiya, on the outlook for the mid-80s; ‘Post Islamic Classicism’ by Kanan Makiya
In the quest to define Baghdad’s identity, the choice of context is key, but which one? Do we regard Baghdad as part of Iraq, or Mesopotamia? As part of the Middle East, Asia, or the world? Chadirji and Makiya illustrated how different visions helped shape the city. While Chadirji advocated for a regional international architecture, mainly inspired by Iraq’s traditions and history, and nourished by modernism (refer to part I of this series), Makiya saw Baghdad as a descendant of the wider Arab-Islamic civilisation in which the West’s influence should be more discreet.
Al-Khulafa Mosque is a notable example of Makiya’s work in which the architect celebrated and restored Iraqi heritage, while adapting and reinventing local architecture through his masterful blend of traditional and modern building techniques. Built between 902 and 908 by the 36th caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, Al Muqtafi, the original al-Khulafa Mosque has had multiple lives. In 1258, it was razed by the Mongols under the lead of Hulagu Khan. It was then rebuilt in 1272 — and the minaret in 1279 — under Ala al Din Ata Malik Juvayni, the Ilkhanid governor. The mosque was destroyed a second time in 1957 leaving behind only the Souk Al Ghazl minaret, which became the heart of Makiya’s reconstruction effort three years later in 1960. The minaret’s name stems from the wool and cotton market that developed to the east of the site, and where once, a small mosque erected under the Ottoman Empire called the ‘Mosque of Souk Al Ghazl’ could be found.
With a minaret of this stature illustrating the country’s storied and unstable history, Makiya was given the responsibility of an important element of Baghdad’s cultural heritage, which he loved to observe and study at length. To highlight the minaret’s central place in the project, and protect it from the domination of the tall buildings surrounding the site, the architect chose to stage its position and work with a composition of different monumental elements, instead of designing a unique mass. The power of proportions is a crucial characteristic of Makiya’s design, as it enabled him to separate at times and connect at others, the mosque to the rest of the city. As one steps inside this sacred place, through the immense arcades which form the entrance to the mosque, one’s gaze is lifted up towards the sky as one looks at the majestic dome and the grandiose minaret, both symbolic of Iraq’s many traditional building techniques and loaded architectural history.
Once inside, views from the courtyard or through the arcades towards the city offer glimpses of Saint Joseph Latin Cathedral, which sits on the opposite side of the al-Khulafa Street. Amidst the chaos of this commercial area, the two religious buildings, though separated by a large roadway, are harmoniously connected to each other by the use of Baghdadi brick in both landmarks. Makiya’s monumental proportions dramatise the echo between the two entities, reminding one of the old city that once existed.
The relationship between inside and outside (in terms of inside the plot and outside towards the city, as well as between inside the region and outside towards the West) is given particular attention especially in the project’s thick northern wall. This “wall bay unit”, as Kanan Makiya, the architect’s son and notable academic, likes to call it, is a composition made of brickwork and concrete elements, shaping a complex layering of arches complemented by a Kufic calligraphy frieze. During a telephone interview with Kanan in 2017, he shared his late father’s approach while designing this thick wall:
He was incredibly influenced by the minaret, the Abbasid tradition of great architecture and carving bricks and metal work as well. But if you look closely, you can see how concrete also integrates with the brick, especially in the section of the wall of the mosque, which I call ‘the wall bay unit’. This is something that he thought very deeply about and if you can speak of an innovation on his part, it would be in the way he treated that wall bay unit. It derives from the idea that walls were very thick in ancient times and for good reasons, including climatic and environmental. It also had a big effect on space and on the perception of space and so, my father tried to return to that thick wall without building solid masses in brickwork. Using concrete and steel, he would then want to lighten it considerably but with the effect that the great big walls created… The central innovation of my father, I believe, is the way in which he used tradition with modern materials.”Kanan Makiya, telephone interview, 2017
The bottom part of the wall bay unit consists of a set of larger and thinner columns. It is rather opaque as it only reveals a few glimpses of the city that lies behind the mosque. However, as one looks up, this thick wall unfolds its layers, and what were once understood as thin columns in the lower part of the composition, now join together to form beautifully precast white concrete pointed arches. These arches become openings towards the sky, and offer a sense of lightness to the monumental composition. They dramatise the spiritual value of this project which gently encourages its visitors to look up, either towards the mosque’s ancient and newest architectural accomplishments or directly towards the sky.
A sumptuous addition to this composition is the carved brick frieze covered with Kufic calligraphy which is perfectly placed to facilitate the transition of the heavy bottom of the wall to the lightness of the concrete arches. The lightness is reflected once again at the top of the composition with a set of small suspended arches floating above. At the top of the wall, and towards the end of the plot, a yellow brick geometrical frieze ends the wall’s ascension. The carved brick is a recurring motif that can also be found in the thickness of the arcades surrounding the sahn, on the minaret and on both the domes of Saint Joseph Latin Cathedral and al-Khulafa Mosque.
Under an imposing seven-metre-high dome, to the north-east part of the site, is the prayer room. The dome is carried by a crown and eight concrete columns, between which are U-shaped, non-load-bearing brick walls. These six brick walls, which are suggested from the outside, are covered in marble on the inside, featuring geometric motifs, and pierced with niches which are lit from above. One of these brick walls embodies the mihrab. Above the bottom part of the prayer room, a circular structure that appears to float, supports the dome. It is covered by black and white ceramics forming texts in Kufic calligraphy. The prayer room can accommodate around 50 people. Again, the proportions of this project show the intentions of Makiya, who himself said that he was building “a cathedral on a land which couldn’t fit more than a chapel”. One might expect a large prayer room based on the monumental elements of the site, but this project was designed as an ode to Baghdad’s traditional architecture and heritage, and staging the minaret and its history was the most important part of this project.
In other words, it’s more like a theatre production stage. You realise there is a lot of illusion introduced into the elements. When you look through the arcades, you imagine that it’s much bigger than it really is, in fact it’s very, very small. I think that quality was a fantastic success on his part.”Kanan Makiya, telephone interview, 2017
Through the comparison of Chadirji and Makiya’s approaches, one can begin to grasp the Iraqi paradox in the search of its own identity. Chadirji worked on developing Iraq’s local heritage to achieve a regional modernism and saw Baghdad’s architectural development as part of a wider international research. On the other hand, Makiya worked on the re-appropriation of Iraq’s traditional architecture as part of the Arab-Islamic heritage. Even though his ambition was not to modernise — or westernise — Iraqi architecture, one might say that the West’s influence is suggested in Makiya’s work, particularly in his use of concrete for the structural elements of the al-Khulafa Mosque. Both of these approaches put forward the complexity of the West’s contribution to the Iraqi architects’ research and the importance of context in the understanding of Baghdad’s identity.