Rifat Chadirji: 10 buildings and the stories behind them
“Let us architects acknowledge our problems and make art of them. Let us accept our fate and celebrate our art as beautifully as Rifat Chadirji celebrated his.” Robert Venturi,1984
Rifat Chadirji’s early architectural works were influenced by European modernists, while maintaining a focus on climatic solutions. His interest in modernised means of production and materials led him on a path of exploration and experimentation with traditional forms through non-traditional production. He believed traditional form should only be copied as is when using traditional methods of production and for conservation, which, most of the time, included manual craftsmanship. Meanwhile, when using non-traditional means of production, he argued for the decontextualisation of the form, reinterpreting and using it in a way that remains consistent with regional architecture.
Chadirji graduated from the UK’s Hammersmith School of Building and Arts and Crafts in 1952, and later co-founded the practice Iraq Consult in Baghdad, alongside Ihsan Sherzad and Abdullah Ihsan Kamil. Rifat and his firm’s architectural experimentation with heritage and traditional form started what he calls a ‘regionalised international architecture’, which, in the early 1970s was a welcomed approach, particularly in the Arab Gulf countries. A second office for Iraq Consult was subsequently established in Bahrain, which shared the workload of the Baghdad office. At its peak, Iraq Consult had more than 90 employees, making it the second largest architecture firm in the Arab world at the time.
In 1978, at the pinnacle of his career and as Iraq Consult was becoming a household name for Arab architecture, Chadirji was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison. The politically motivated action was carried out by the Ba’ath Party of Iraq during Ahmed Hasan Al-Baker’s presidency. Chadirji was released 20 months later in 1981 by then-president Saddam Hussein to lead the beautification plan of Baghdad, which aimed to prepare the city to host the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. The plan comprised several large-scale projects, which Chadirji was instrumental in commissioning, and he coordinated and managed the work in his capacity as advisor to the Mayor of Baghdad, Samir Al-Sheikhly.
In 1983, Chadirji left Iraq to join Harvard as a Loeb Fellow, a move that also marked his permanent departure from architecture practise. He taught at Harvard for almost a decade before finally relocating to the UK, where he lived the remainder of his life. Throughout the decades since leaving Iraq, he spent his time writing, and published 11 books. Chadirji was always upfront about what influenced or inspired his architecture, which was (and continues to be) a rare thing to read about in architecture. His landmark book, Concepts and Influences (1986), highlights his ideas and theories, and identifies, as the title suggests, the influences behind them.
Although he hadn’t designed or built anything since the late 1990s, Chadirji’s buildings reflect the plight of Iraqis for the past half century: political prosecution and disturbance, destruction in wars, and abuse and disfiguration by the rulers.
The list below highlights the buildings that mark the milestones in Chadirji and Iraq Consult’s architecture. The illustrations have been provided by Saman Sarheng specifically for this piece.
The Unknown Soldier Monument (1958) In 1958, a few months following the 14th of July Revolution and the overthrow of monarchy in Iraq, Chadirji was commissioned by the Baghdad Mayoralty to design three monuments.
A few years before the commission, Chadirji had prepared for a competition to design a memorial for the Arab poet Imru’ Al-Qais in Ankara, where he is buried. For the competition, Chadirji studied the arch of Ctesiphon, and this would later serve as the foundation for the Unknown Soldier Monument.
In 1982, while Chadirji was the advisor to the Mayor of Baghdad, the Unknown Soldier Monument was knocked down and replaced with a statue of Saddam Hussein. This too would be toppled when the American army invaded the country in 2003, which is shown in notorious televised footage that marks the fall of Baghdad and the start of the US occupation of Iraq. In 2009, there was a plan to rebuild the monument in Firdos Square, but this idea has long been abandoned.
Mahmoud Othman Residence (1965) 1965 marks a milestone in Chadirji’s architectural development, as it is the year during which he started exploring traditional forms and elements. The Mahmoud Othman Residence shows Chadirji’s first incorporation of the arch and the wooden shutters that would later come to be common features in his buildings. The Othman house sets a precedent for Iraq Consult’s architecture that follows for the next five years.
Iraqi Scientific Academy (1965)
In the early stages of his career, Chadirji created a mental diagram of geographical axes that share similar architectural styles. An example is the Bahrain Axis, which starts in Basra and passes through major port towns along the Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, reaching Makha and Hudaida in Yemen. It is influenced by the traditional architecture of Karachi and New Delhi, which is visible in the use of timber walls in the upper floors with wooden shutters and shading devices. Another example is the Aleppo Axis, which again starts in Mosul and passes through Syria and Lebanon before ending in Jerusalem; it mainly uses timber and stone in its applications. The Iraqi Scientific Academy is an example of the Baghdad Axis, which starts in Samarra and ends in Basra and is defined by local materials, like timber and yellow brick. As such, the academy uses brick for its arches carried on steel columns, raw concrete for the walls behind a layer of turquoise tiles, and green timber shutters.
Yasoub Rafiq Residence (1965) This fortress-like building was the first attempt by Chadirji to employ semi-rounded walls, and it has been called Baghdad’s first brutalist building. You can read more about it here.
Federation of Industries (1966)
Inspired by traditional Baghdadi houses, the Federation of Industries building is exemplary of Chadirji’s approach to form as sculpture. In the design process, he concealed the scale of the building and the monotony of the functional spaces and floors behind a ‘flying wall’. The wall acted as a curtain, blocking direct sunlight and preventing the overheating of the interior spaces, particularly during Baghdad’s summers. Indirect sunlight was let into the building via the structure’s recessed walls, which would bounce off the reflective surface of the back of the wall. The complex composition that is divided into three parts is brought together by the shanasheel-like balconies and openings in the middle part of the building. The building was burned during the infamous 2003 lootings that took place around Iraq, which targeted public buildings. The building is now in disuse.
National Insurance Company in Mosul (1966)
Designed at the same time as the Federation of Industries building, the National Insurance Company building is the result of a similar approach to design, but the difference can be seen in the materials used, which are in accordance with the Aleppo Axis and local to Mosul and the city’s traditional courtyard houses. In 2014, ISIS captured the city of Mosul and used the building and its roof as an execution zone. The building was later bombed during the liberation of the city and ultimately removed by the local government of Mosul.
Tobacco Monopoly Company Warehouses (1967)
For me, this is Iraq Consult’s ultimate masterpiece. The Tobacco Monopoly Company warehouses were influenced by the towering semi-rounded walls of the Abbasid-era architecture of Chadirji’s most adored building: Al-Ukhaidir Fortress. The delicate composition of the building’s Baghdadi brick walls, the white-washed concrete walls, and the concrete balconies and windows work together to block sunlight, hide the scale of the building, allow in indirect sunlight and, at the same time, create continuity with the local form. And although it draws from local form, the building remains different from it. Unfortunately, the Tobacco Monopoly Company warehouse is located on a narrow sideroad, which makes it difficult to photograph.
Villa Halat (1967) Named after the Lebanese seaside town of Halat, Villa Halat was Chadirji’s vacation house in Lebanon. Before starting the design of what would become his summer residence, he studied traditional Lebanese houses in Amchit, another coastal area. What stayed with him from those four days were the balconies, the built furniture and the Levantine stonework. Chadirji commissioned stonemasons from Hama, Syria to do the stonework, which took two years. During the Lebanese Civil War, the villa was overtaken by the Kataeb Party, but Chadirji renovated the building in 1993. Today, it is a listed building.
Central Post, Telegraph and Telephone Administration (1971)
This high-rise was needed to host Iraq’s central post, telephone and telegraph administration. The main challenge was structural and therefore, it was the designers’ focus. After the structural engineer Artin Levon finished his design, Chadirji tried to create some spontaneity and disrupt the monotony of the building by exaggerating the structural components.
A few years after the building opened and began operating as the main communications tower in the country, it was targeted in the 1980s during the Iraq–Iran War. Later, during the 1991 Gulf War, the American F-117 Nighthawk launched Operation Desert Storm by dropping a 900-kilogram-bomb on the building. It was targeted again in another strike in 2003 by the American army, and later that same year, it was burned during country-wide looting.
After every strike, though, the Central Post, Telegraph and Telephone Administration building was repaired and reused. Its exaggerated structure was never compromised, and it stands tall in Baghdad to this day.
Hadeeb Al-Sheikh Hamood Residence (1972) Hadeeb Al-Sheikh Hamood was a prominent Iraqi politician who was a member of the National Democratic Party in Iraq, which was co-founded by Kamil Chadirji (Rifat’s father), Mohamed Hadid (Zaha Hadid’s father) and several others in 1946. Hamood was from the southern part of Iraq, which, for Chadirji, was a region ripe with influence.
The residence features a synthesis of the reed houses in the marshes, the Baghdadi brick and Mondrian-inspired composition for elevations. Together, the elements resulted in a unique residence that deviates from the usual house designs in Iraq at the time. The house is also a reflection of Chadirji’s approach and reveals how the architect had grown to be more comfortable using the arch as an architectural form, which he had first applied in the Mahmoud Othman residence as a subtraction in the wall.
The Round Arch (Bonus) Though not a building, this is a story about arches in a country whose architects tried to create an architectural language inspired by its rich heritage – an ongoing attempt that has always been challenged by politicians and their improvisation. Since the mid-1960s, Chadirji and Iraq Consult used arches in their architecture; however, in the early 1970s when the deputy president suggested that all new public buildings should incorporate arches, the element of experimentation was stripped from the process – it became too direct.
In 1982, Iraq Consult faced another political decision aimed at changing the arches of the then-under-construction Cabinet of Minister’s building (designed in 1975) from round to pointed, with pointed arches indicating a closer relationship with Arab Islam (a reference to the Abbasid era). Thus, the arches were changed. Shortly after, the marble was stripped from the building to be reused for a new presidential palace for Saddam Hussein. In 2003, the building was heavily bombed during the first strike by the US army on 19 March, and it is now part of the Ministry of Defence’s complex, although unrepaired and disused.
In 2013, a decision by the mayor of Erbil to knock down the gate of the Citadel of Erbil (designed by Iraq Consult in 1975) was issued. The gate was seen by local government as a remnant of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its effort to manipulate the local identity of Erbil. The gate was removed.
Our Bedouin culture glorifies the word and ignores the object, hence our monuments disappear.”