#Archifocus: Rifat Chadirji buildings in Iraq

“Rifat Chadirji is one of the most prominent architects in the Arab world,” wrote Beirut-based 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.”

Considered one of the major 20th century Iraqi architects, Rifat Chadirji, born in Baghdad in 1926, imbued his work with his innate understanding of authentic regional expression, as well as his appreciation for modernism and its principles.

Though he helped erect nearly 100 buildings, Chadirji’s contributions to the field of Middle Eastern architecture transcend tangible construction. From his work with the Baghdad School of Architecture, where he taught for years, to his photographic documentation of regional architecture between Iraq and Syria that borders on ethnographic, Chadirji remains a living legend.

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“I set out to learn from traditional architecture,” he once said, “and to achieve a synthesis between traditional forms and inevitable advent of modern technology. My aim was to create an architecture which at once acknowledges the place in which it is built, yet which sacrifices nothing to modern technical capability.”

Developed through his architecture practice, Iraq Consult, a handful of Chadirji’s projects include the Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters, Central Post Office and the Hamood Villa in Baghdad, as well as the National Insurance Company in Mosul. He was a pivotal cultural figure in Baghdad between the 1950s and 70s, and as an architect, planning consultant and Director of Buildings for various government agencies, Chadirji was central to the organisation of Baghdad, and its post-war image.

Rifat Chadirji

As his practice developed, Chadirji focused on combining western technical advances and 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.

Chadirji ultimately fled Baghdad in 1983 to the US, where he would remain for the rest of the decade. But it was during this time that he released two books: ‘Taha Street and Hammersmith’ and ‘Concepts and Influences: Towards a Regionalized International Architecture’.  He has since published more than 10 more academic publications, and today, at 90, he lives in London with his wife Balkis Shararah.

For the past 30 years, Chadirji’s name continues to pop up. In 1986, he won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for lifetime achievement, and recently, the Graham Foundation in Chicago dedicated a three-month exhibition to his intellectual and architectural contributions to the heyday of Baghdad. In 2015, Chadirji was awarded the Tamayouz Architectural Lifetime Achievement Award.

Coinciding with Tamayouz’s Rifat Chadirji Prize for Architecture, which is currently accepting design proposals for Mosul’s housing shortage, DesignMENA dedicates this week’s #Archifocus series to Iraq’s beloved architect – Rifat Chadirji.

Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters, Baghdad

The Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters is one of Chadirji’s most recognised works. The vertical and cylindrical language of the exterior walls alludes to old Iraqi forms, which can also be seen in its use of arched openings. The warehouse is largely considered the launch of the architect’s expressionist phase.

Consisting of seven buildings spanning an oblong site, the tobacco warehouse was built in 1974 in Baghdad to offer space for the storage of tobacco bundles and the company’s departments of administration, information and sales. While the tobacco was cured in two large rectangular structures, a series of drying fields separates the buildings from the offices. The plan of the office building consists of a central circulation spine off of which the offices are arranged.

Central Post Office, Baghdad

Adjoined to a 10-storey equipment tower, the public post office, which was completed in 1976, is a four-story, long block that contains the postal hall on the ground level and additional public services on the mezzanine. The building’s top two levels host workspace for staff.

Hamood Villa, Baghdad

A private residence built between 1972 and 1977, the Hamood Villa exemplifies Chadirji’s quest to apply local build techniques through a modernist lens. For the villa, he used local motifs reinterpreted in a contemporary approach, like the mudhifs of old Mesopotamia (a reference to the traditional reed houses made by the Madan people in southern Iraq). Long inspired by the marsh Arabs of the region, which can be gleaned from his photography, Chadirji intended to preserve aspects of their architectural culture in this project.

National Insurance Company, Mosul

Built in 1960, the construction of the National Insurance Company came on the heels of his position as head of the Building Department of Waqaf – the government body responsible for the maintenance of mosques, khans and old houses throughout Iraq – which came to an end in 1957. The modernist influences here are ripe — from the bare, geometric forms to the undecorated facades.

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