In conversation with Dr Rifat Chadirji

About the Author
Zeina Magazachi
Paris-based architect, Zeina is currently studying for a second Master's in Interior Design at the Royal College of Art in London. This is part one of a series of articles inspired by her architecture graduation thesis ‘Bagdad entre Orient et Occident: Les Mille et Une Vies’, published in 2017 at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris Belleville.

Paris-based Iraqi architect Zeina Magazachi provides the transcript of one of her final conversations with the prolific Iraqi architect.

On 18 June, 2017, I had the honour and privilege to meet and interview Dr Rifat Chadirji at his home in Surrey, England, as part of the research for my graduation thesis, Bagdad, entre Orient et Occident. Les Mille et Une Vies, published at the Ecole National Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris Belleville. During the short time we spent together, I learned a lot about Baghdad and Chadirji’s work, but what moved me the most, was his high expectations for his home country. He only ever wanted the best for his country, whether it was during his time there or after he left. Here, I provide the transcript of that conversation, which sheds light on his philosophies and hopes for the future of architecture in Iraq.

Zeina Magazachi speaking with Dr Rifat Chadirji at his home (2017)

Zeina Magazachi: Hello Dr. Chadirji, it’s an honour to meet you. I’m in search of Baghdad’s identity for my architecture graduation thesis, and I thought your experience could help me with that.

Back in the 1950s, you were part of the group of people who worked on bringing modern architects from the west, such as Le Corbusier, Franck Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, to Baghdad. Why did you choose to invite them instead of asking Iraqis or British architects who were already familiar with the country?
Dr. Rifat Chadirji:  First of all, it was not only me. It was Qahtan Aouni and myself. We were discussing the architecture of the British in Iraq and thought it was very conventional. The ones we chose were amongst the best in the world. So, we asked for an appointment with the Minister of Planning and met him at his home. We asked him, “Why do you always go to the British architects? Why not go to the best architects in the world?” He replied “Who are they?”, and asked us to prepare a list. We did so and we handed it back to him. That is what happened.

What did you think of their work?
They just did their modern architecture and gave it to us. They gave us the experience to be with modern buildings and at the same time to be in contact with them. There are four or five good modern buildings in Baghdad.

Which ones?
The stadium, the Ministry of Planning…

The 1950s are considered the golden age of modern Iraq, when architecture and art shaped a grandiose image of our country. Today, the situation is much more difficult for architects and artists. What are your thoughts on the future of the country?
When a group 1000-year-olds comes and controls the thinking of the people, this is what happens. Look, as long as the people who control education are not religious and are free to think, there will be good architecture – that is what happened in the 1950s and 60s. I mean, most of the architects I know aren’t religious. At the present, all of them spend so much time on their religious practice and their thinking is 1000 years old.

Would you say this period of time was unique and will never come back?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Culture comes in waves. It comes and goes… comes and goes.

So you do have hope?

Me too.
Maybe in 50 years, when Iraq is no longer dominated by religious people, young Iraqi architects will start thinking. You see, architecture is not sitting at a desk. It’s a way of life!

As an architect, what inspires you or inspired you at the time? I feel like the Abassid period influenced you a lot.
Actually, I am influenced by all styles, modern or old. I observe things [and] how they are composed. For example, in Iraq, in a narrow street in Baghdad, I notice how things are composed. All these things influence me.

Do you focus mostly on plans, structures, facades? Could you tell me a bit more about your process?
Architecture is not a plan, it’s not a façade – it’s the totality. It’s a way of thinking. The facade, the plan, the structure, the attitude of the building. We architects…we do buildings and this controls how people live. Therefore, you have to know your people and what they need. Not what they want, but what they need. Examples can come from anywhere. What’s most important is to read history all the time. I read about history more than I read about architecture.

What place does art have with your work?
An architect should be influenced by dancing, ceramics, design… All these things are a part of life. That’s what architects do: they reorganise what people should live in.

On that note, I’d like to bring up another one of your passions, which is photography. You and your father collected a lot of moments from Iraq through your photographs.
My father did photography in the 1930s and his photography is entirely different from mine. He photographed artifacts. His photographs are a piece of art. My photography is anthropological. I would make a survey.

Would you say your photography enabled you to transform the ephemerality of Baghdad’s ever-changing built environment into an eternal memory?
Yes. It’s to record the situation as it is, because Iraq is changing. Now, since I photographed it, Baghdad has changed a lot. It changed for the worse and my photographs have been taken by MIT… 80,000 of them! They are a record of what Baghdad was back then. Of course, they are not a comprehensive record because I had many other things to do. Also, I didn’t know how these photographs should be taken. [In hind sight], I know where I made mistakes. For instance, when photographing one of the traditional houses in central Baghdad, I should’ve photographed the street first, and then the entrance and then the house. I only photographed the house and missed the context.

Yes, but the photographs you took regardless of how successful your method was, are an incredible collection of memories that help us go back to a time we all would’ve loved to experience. For instance, some of your buildings were damaged during the war — having pictures of them is precious.
I mean this is natural. When there is war, buildings are damaged.

So you accept it because you knew what the outcome of that situation would be?
Yes. But what I don’t accept is when Saddam Hussein demolished the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier only to replace it with his portrait!

Would you be happy for someone to rebuild it or do you consider that ‘what is gone has left’?
I would be happy because it would mean it had importance for people.

Do you still design?

In your head?
Yes, in my head yes!

If you had the opportunity to build anything in Iraq today, what would you do?
I wouldn’t do anything because ideas don’t come out of the blue of the sky. You have to have an organisation and you have to work all the time, and study. I used to be really into studying architecture. I was reading all the time, at an average of one book per week. I had subscriptions for about 30 periodicals about science, architecture and so on.

You believe you would have to be there to build something then?
Even that is not enough. You have to be part of society! Visiting Iraq for 10 days and coming back is not good enough.

Read more of Round City‘s tribute to Rifat Chadirji.

Read more by Zeina Magazachi: A step into Baghdad’s first brutalist house: The Yasoub Rafiq Residence by Rifat Chadirji