Interview: Iraqi architect Jalal B. Mejel Algaood discusses ‘Villa Mesopotamia’, a community space on the Euphrates River

A recently built villa on the outskirts of Hit aims to reestablish a connection between the local community and the Euphrates River.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, Jalal B. Mejel Algaood is an Iraqi architect whose project in Iraq, ‘Villa Mesopotamia’, challenges current popular architectural trends and attempts to inspire the local people.

Located on the bank of the Euphrates River, 15 kilometres south-east of the city of Hit, the project is an exploration of how to use architecture and context to inspire locals to adopt a more positive engagement with their context. Algaood hopes to show how outdoor-indoor relationships can be exciting, and enhance an end-user’s spatial experience. The villa’s outdoor plaza overlooking the Euphrates is the main attraction of the project, particularly for social activities to which the local community is invited. The plaza offers a public space for workshops, art events, school trips and social gatherings. Villa Mesopotamia emphasises the role architecture can play in bringing people together and empowering communities. 

Here, Algaood speaks with Round City about the project and his hopes for nurturing a greater connection between people and architecture.

Algaood at Villa Mesopotamia

Tell us about your background.
I have a bachelor’s in architecture from USC, LA in California, which I obtained in 1986; a master’s of science in architecture studies from the AKIPA programme at MIT, and Harvard, obtained in 1990; and I graduated from Harvard Business School in 2004. I worked as an architect at Studio Architects in LA between 1986 to 1988, I then worked in my family business in Jordan between 1991 and 1996, and since 1991, I have been involved in investor and real estate development. In 2012, I established Iwan Architectural Design and Engineering services in Iraq. Over the years, I have designed and built several projects in California, Jordan and Iraq, from residences to offices to retail spaces.

Tell us about Villa Mesopotamia – what inspired it?
The villa is located in the country side on the banks of Euphrates River valley, where lush green palm groves contrast against the upper plateau of the dry severe desert landscape, which forms the river basin of the ancient Upper Euphrates River valley. The Euphrates River is so majestic and powerful, as it carves its way through the valley with its annual flooding and water levels that rise six metres above normal. The river is the dominant force in this landscape. It has fertilised the land with its mineral-rich mud that has replenished Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Euphrates’ fast currents are capable of destroying any human settlement that encroaches on its basin. Villagers learned that from their ancestors, and they feared and respected the power of the mighty Euphrates River. For this reason, villagers have long built their homes on the desert high ground in fear of flooding. The community adults tell their kids tales of river beasts that spoke human language to lure kids to the river and drown them.

The design of Villa Mesopotamia was to celebrate the Euphrates River and to reconnect society with it. The simple, modern, minimalist and transparent architecture with multi-level plazas that descend gracefully and safely towards the river water was designed to allow people to touch the river without fear, and to enjoy its power and majesty without hesitation. The terraces were designed to allow the river to rise and submerge them in total submission during flood season, while the plaza opens to the west to witness the river reflecting the spectacular ever-changing skies and sunset every day of the year.

The full floor-to-ceiling windows allow the river to become the main view from every space in the villa, in total submission and recognition of its power. This relationship between the outdoor and indoor is uncommon in traditional buildings. This transparency challenged people’s typical understanding of the built environment. In contrast to their defensive, introverted and dark fortresses, Villa Mesopotamia is flooded with light, and what separates the outdoors from the indoors is only a thin sheet of transparent glass. That experience has a strong positive impact on this traditional community – it challenges them to consider building possibilities other than the typical design-built homes which represent 80 percent of the newly built houses in this area.

Can you describe the architecture of the project?
The architectural language is modern, with environmental consideration in terms of shading and orientation. The project takes excellent advantage of light and solar gain. In the winter, the spaces facing the river with floor-to-ceiling windows are warm and require no heating.

The project is a great exercise on indoor–outdoor relationships. All of the colonnades are covered with local shading devices used typically in local architecture. This was necessary to soften the look and the experience in order to not feel totally alien to the locals.

The design and architecture are meant to become a faint background to the landscape and the experience. It is used as a framing tool rather than the object of the experience.

What is the importance of the villa?
Its importance is two-fold: on one hand, it challenges current local building forms and designs, and on the other, it reconnects the community to the river, offering the people a possibility to enjoy the spectacular landscape that is very close to home. Experiencing the villa results in becoming proud of the community, of the land. And I hope that it inspires people to recognise that it is possible to improve their lives, and to start challenging their traditional thoughts. I often hear visitors say that the place makes them feel relaxed, calm and peaceful.

How does the villa impact its context?
In addition to challenging the status quo of building design and local mindsets, the villa has become a focal point for the community, and it has redefined society’s relationship with the river, which I find to be the most significant impact. Villa Mesopotamia has made people proud of their village, their river and their land. Others have been inspired to build closer to the river and embrace the landscape.

I think the impact on the youth is more profound psychologically. They are happy to come and touch water safely, and that experience will live with them for ever.

How do you feel the villa reflects your approach to architecture as a tool to inspire locals to engage more with their context?
Architecture is more than a shelter. It’s more than object design – it is, fundamentally, an experience. A meaningful one that offers the community ways to deal with their environment and context. In a sense, it should be inspirational. This is a challenging task for architects, but examples such as Villa Savoy by Le Corbusier and Falling Waters by Frank Lloyd Wright illustrate that it’s possible to achieve this.

Villa Mesopotamia was designed to inspire the local community by addressing orientation, views, indoor-outdoor relationships, shading, local materials, landscaping and context. The villa has achieved different levels of inspiration to different people. It challenged many aspects of the visitor’s typical approach to building. In return, I also learned and tested local myths, material selection and traditional methods of building.

Can you tell us more about how the villa challenges the surrounding built environment?
Traditionally, no one builds on the river bank. Except in ancient towns such as Hit, which is 6000 years old and sits 15 kilometres west of the site where water wheels were built using stone and tar. Therefore, the site was not surrounded by any buildings.

Farmers typically build on the higher desert plateau and away from the river basin. Many of the old traditional mud buildings disappeared 50 years ago, and were replaced with stone buildings or a mix of stone-and-concrete-frame buildings. Many quarries exist from ancient times in this area, so it remains the cheapest way to build homes.

Villa Mesopotamia used the same stone and construction techniques that were used in ancient times to stabilise the river bank. Local masons and stone artists were involved in building the multi-level terracing, using very hard stone found 20 kilometres west of the site. The same quarry was used by ancient Babylonians to build the city of Hit, and from here tar was shipped to Babylon. This tar, which is still used by the local community, was used to insulate the villa.

Traditional logs (qawaq) and local reed-woven sheets (barea) were used as shading devices to cover the colonnades, while local stone was cut and polished for the outdoor terraces and walkways. The landscape was done using the palm tree as the main feature, which was applied in both traditional and modern manners. We also introduced many new vine trees to increase shading and create outdoor spaces. These vines, such as bougainvillea, are fit for the local weather, but they have not been used previously.

Tell us about some of the activities that you’ve held in Villa Mesopotamia.
The villa is open to the local community, students, NGOs and local tribes for their events.

A community meeting held at Villa Mesopotamia

What do you have planned for the future of the villa?
The villa will continue to serve local community activities, and in the short term, it will be a centre for art and design, and the revival of traditional weaving and furniture production from palm tree waste. It will also be home of Anbar Architects Association. The midterm plan is to establish a design college in association with Anbar University.