Rifat Chadirji and Abbad Al Radi. Image courtesy of Abbad Al Radi

Rifat and my Baghdad days

About the Author
Abbad Al Radi is an Iraqi architect and city planner.

Iraqi architect and city planner Abbad Al Radi reflects on the professional and personal ways his life was influenced and inspired by Rifat Chadirji.

Rifat Chadirji’s role in my professional engagement with Iraq cannot be understated. I left Iraq at the age of three and did not return to live and work there for almost three decades. Our families knew each other well and were connected by both friendship and relation. Going back over 100 years, my father’s diary (dated in 1918) has multiple entries recording his friendship with Rifat’s father, Kamel, and his uncle, Suleiman. Theirs was a friendship that opened unexpected doors for my professional career.

I met Rifat and his wife Balkis in Baghdad during a few short summer holiday trips while I was studying architecture in England; however, deeper interactions between us did not start until mid-1974, when I was completing my studies in city planning at MIT (where Rifat would find himself many years later). Rifat was aware by that point that I had over five years of experience in the field, which included leading an urban design study, when he contacted me and asked if I’d lead the Basra masterplan study. Much like his approach to life, he was persistent and goal-oriented, for which I am truly grateful – his sureness resulted in my move to Baghdad, and reacquainted me with the country of my birth.

September 1974 – September 1975 | Iraq Consult and the Basra Masterplan Study
Working with Iraq Consult, the company Rifat co-founded, on the Basra masterplan study was instructive and fun. For this project, an associate firm in London was responsible for the economic, demographic and transportation planning, while Iraq Consult was responsible for the physical planning (i.e., the design), which involved developing the comprehensive ‘Land Use Plan’ for the city. Not only did Rifat open the door for me to reconnect with my own heritage but he, in his true practical fashion, found a way to instill in me a sense of obligation and investment towards Iraq. This sense of belonging was bolstered by the team of architects that Rifat created and that included Ma’ath Alousi, Atilla Saeed, Wijdan Mahir and Faris Namiq, to name a few. These colleagues not only became good friends, but they were instrumental in grounding my roots once more in Iraq. Rifat and Balkis cultivated these relationships frequently through gatherings in their home, recognising the value in professional and personal balance. While often apart and at times in the background, Rifat’s role was much like a conductor: he gathered talents who balanced and inspired one another, and his sense of others and forward-thinking created music during times that were often chaotic. 

September 1975 – December 1978 | Deepening Friendships
Among the group brought together by Rifat at Iraq Consult was Nazar Ahmad, who would become my partner and life-long friend. We established our firm PLANAR in 1975. Throughout our formative years, I would frequently visit Rifat and Balkis at home or on their houseboat. Much like in his professional life, Rifat (and very much Balkis) brought together people from various walks of life – architects, artists, friends – and they created a space of deep discussions and even deeper laughter. Ideas and debates flowed and it was not uncommon to find intellectuals like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra present in the mix. These evenings were often not just social, but they would also sometimes lead to the expansion of possible ideas. Rifat was extremely organised and industrious – his idea of casual leisure often entailed rising early to take photographs around Baghdad. The photographic documentation of life in Baghdad, as well as of its architectural heritage, was started by his father, Kamel Chadirji, and became even more extensive and archival with Rifat. Rifat showed his dedication to Iraq in his actions, in his meticulous sense of details, and in his extensive knowledge of its past. It was hard not to feel compelled by the same desire to build, to be of use, and to work towards the Iraq that could be.

December 1978 – August 1980 | Abu Ghraib Prison
Here came the shocking period when Rifat was incarcerated in Abu Ghraib, like many others, for no apparent reason. My uncle was among those incarcerated at the time, and I used to visit them there. These visits had a profound impact on me, and I was struck by Rifat’s method of coping with the situation. His calmness remains etched in my mind. With leisure being a word absent from his vocabulary, even within the confines of prison, he created a space in which he programmed his time and remained active. He created order through his sense of discipline and meticulous approach to all things – even when much was out of his control. Rifat was truly stoic, always exercising immense self-control, and fortitude and austerity in his habits, never showing excess. That he was able to continue doing so in such an ill-defined and complex situation is a testament to his character.

August 1980 – October 1982 | Rifat’s Appointment to Special Councillor at Amanat Al Assima
Baghdad was scheduled to hold the Non-Aligned Nations Conference in 1982, and Saddam Hussein took Rifat out of prison to become special councillor at Amanat Al Assima. Rifat’s role was to lead in organising the massive new development projects aimed at remaking the image of Baghdad. The budget seemed to have no boundaries, and within this role he reported directly to Saddam. In retrospect, I think of this period as Baghdad’s very brief renaissance period, lasting just a few years for formal design appointments, with implementation extending quite a few more. It was a period of immense activity and excitement on new projects for architects and artists. Rifat selected individuals such as Mohammed Ghani and Nuha Al Radi to work with great urgency on selected projects. These were truly heady days, and who better to manage the mayhem and set a sense of order to the chaos than Rifat? As the consummate leader, he trusted his teams and led diligently from the back. In this brief Iraqi renaissance period, Rifat acted as a conductor of a symphony orchestra (the orchestra being made up of architects and artists, who all made contributions to this effort).

Rifat invited many architects to be a part of this period of creation, and we all approached the opportunity with gusto. During this time, he called me to his office and asked me to undertake the design for the redevelopment of Abu Nawas Street’s frontage area, among three other big contracts. The brief from Rifat was to renew the image and housing of a key four-kilometre strip that faced the Tigris River and was opposite the palace and parliament areas on the other bank of the river. Saddam made specific requirements for this project in his discussions with Rifat, including the use of solar panels as sources of power for air conditioning. Rifat’s sense of belief in others instilled them with confidence in all that was possible. And when faced with the impossible, he navigated it as deftly and systematically as he could.

While being a time of excitement, one always recognised that their position was tenuous under Saddam and vulnerable to any whim. To illustrate, as part of conducting a general and photographic survey, we had to first get the approval of the General Security Department (Amn Al Aam).  I met two representatives of the Amn Al Aam near the suspension bridge with our team standing some way off. During this discussion a large black vehicle stopped nearby, and out jumped a few palace security agents who engaged in a heated conversation with the Amn Al Aam agents, which culminated in their being bundled into the vehicle and driven off. Amidst the chaos, they ignored the team and I, and we completed our surveys unhindered. Rifat was amused by this story, laughing as he contemplated the scenario before returning to work. His orderly mind always found a way forward despite what arose.

Rifat left Amanat Al Assima in October 1982 for the US for approximately two to three years, returning briefly to Baghdad in 1985. It is worth mentioning that just prior to leaving, he was instrumental in establishing the Abu Nawas brick factory to ensure the right quality of brick for the project. It was yet another gesture that showed his commitment to the country through his actions. The project was completed in 1986.

Upon reflection, Rifat was, in most ways, a minimalist. I distinctly remember visiting him and Balkis in their house on the sea just outside of Beirut. Everything about the spaces and contents of their home had a purpose, and all the pieces fit. There was no excess, but an aesthetic functionality. I think perhaps he considered his actions in life similarly. There was room for beauty and efficiency to co-exist and thrive, and he used that sense of order and purpose to not only capture, but to inspire beauty.

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