MEA sits down with Rifat Chadirji, the father of Iraqi architecture

One of the most distinguished 20th century architects and theorists from the Middle East, Rifat Chadirji, the father of architecture in Iraq, is a living legend. Born in 1926 in Baghdad to an influential family, Chadirji built more than 100 buildings, homes and monuments across the country, imbuing his work with an innate understanding of authentic regional expression and modernism. His contributions to the field of Middle Eastern architecture transcend construction; his written works and lectures are countless, while stories of his unforgiving character and intimidating genius often spark disquieted respect.

His publications include, ‘The Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace’ and ‘Concepts & Influences: Towards a Regionalized International Architecture’, written during the 11 years he spent teaching at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he’s won numerous awards, such as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which he received in 1986, and the Tamayouz Excellence Award in 2015.

Chadirji, now 90, lives in a small, red brick home framed by a rose garden in London with his wife Balkis Sharara. Their house is filled with artworks and includes a dense, private library just opposite Chadirji’s favourite sitting place – a sun-drenched spot near a window that provides views of the surrounding park and pond. Great writers, artists and architects of the Middle East often visit Chadirji and his wife in their home – no doubt as a way to hold onto the past and to sit amidst proof that Iraq’s glory days truly existed.

“Rifat Chadirji is one of the most prominent architects in the Arab world,” wrote French author and researcher Caecilia Pieri in 2013. “During the 1970s, Chadirji was jailed for 20 months in the Abu Ghraib prison, [but he was] eventually released by Saddam Hussein, who was seeking Iraq’s best architect to oversee the preparation of Baghdad for an international conference to be held in 1982.”

A life-changing experience written about in Chadirji and Sharara’s Arabic-language book ‘A Wall Between Two Darknesses’, Chadirji’s 20-month stay in Baghdad’s notorious prison seemed a catalyst for the architect’s career transition to a lecturer and theorist. According to Sharara, he hadn’t considered leaving the architecture profession until his time in Abu Ghraib.

“He was 48 years old when he was sentenced to life – he could have easily worked another 20 years as an architect,” she said. “His office was the second biggest in the Middle East with more than 90 people, just after Dar Al-Handasah, but it became very difficult to work in Iraq with all the restrictions.”

After his release, Chadirji, who had long been concerned about the deterioration of the architectural and social state of the country, would spend the coming years coyly postponing government requests in his post as counsellor to the mayoralty of Baghdad, before ultimately leaving in 1983 to take an academic appointment at Harvard University.

Despite his opposition to the regime at the time, Chadirji remains vigilant that his work was always for the country. “I had absolute power,” he said.

“I was the consultant that everyone came to for advice. I was the one who made a difference and my work was never questioned.”

During his stay in the US, where he lived for just over a decade before relocating to the UK, Chadirji and Sharara travelled across the US and South America. “We were so active then,” she said. “And if we weren’t travelling, we were going to theatres and art exhibitions.”

Following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Chadirji considered rebuilding the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, which he originally designed in 1959 before it was destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1980 and replaced with Hussein’s famous statue that was later torn down during the war. Rumours flurred around inner groups that Chadirji would return to redesign it, but when he finally went back to Iraq in 2009, the devastation of the country greatly disappointed him.

“We went for 10 days,” said Sharara. “We visited Erbil and Baghdad, but the whole trip saddened him – just seeing what became of the country, what became of Al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad, was enough to send us back to London.”

Chadirji’s revered projects include the Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters in Baghdad, the Central Post Office in Baghdad and the National Insurance Company in Mosul. He has built private homes across Iraq and in Beirut, and designed buildings for Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

As his practice Iraq Consult developed, Chadirji focused on combining western technical advances with local vernacular forms. Fearing the effects of Iraq’s 1960s oil boom on the region’s traditional architectural language and its disappearing customs, he dedicated his work – written and built – to their documentation and preservation.

He was a pivotal cultural figure in Baghdad between the 1950s and 70s, and as an architect and planning consultant, Chadirji was central to the city’s organisation, and its post-war image.

“People still speak about him and his work because he always had a style of his own,” said Sharara. “Since he started, he never forgot the past, but he also never imitated it.”

Still a man of myth, stories of his meetings with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright remain whispered about. “Tell us about your meeting with Le Corbusier, Rifat,” said Sharara during another group visit on a sunny day, but she was met with silence – Chadirji would prefer to let the unhinged imagination of his never-abating audience continue to run.

During a visit with award-winning Palestinian architect Rasem Badran, whose career was triggered by Chadirji’s invitation to participate in the Baghdad State Mosque competition of 1982, the old peers caught up and spoke, of course, of the good times, Arab society and the vast comfort of writing. designMENA has published the conversation here.

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