Architects advise against ‘low-quality schemes’ on site of Baghdad’s famous Al Shaheed Monument

Recent reports and images have surfaced confirming that local authorities and developers in Baghdad are moving forward with the construction of a commercial project on the site of — and blocking the view of — one of the country’s most famous and beloved memorials, Al Shaheed Monument.

Built in Baghdad in 1983 and designed by Iraqi sculptor Ismail Fatah Al Turk and Iraqi architect Saman Kamal, Al Shaheed Monument, or the Martyr’s Memorial, is dedicated to the Iraqi soldiers who have fought in historic wars as well as more recent conflicts. With its split turquoise dome and the surrounding gardens and ponds, it is also a nostalgic symbol for Iraqis worldwide, as well as a reflection of the country’s appreciation for those who have fought in battle.

Image source: the United States Navy (2003) licensed under Public Domain. Above: A famous photograph of Al Shaheed Monument taken by international photographer Steve McCurry

Designed on a circular platform of 190m in diameter in the centre of an artificial lake, the modernist structure’s two halves are slightly offset as they protect an eternal flame that sits in the middle. Constructed using a galvanized steel frame with glazed turquoise ceramic tile cladding that was pre-cast in carbon fibre reinforced concrete, the dome is said to resemble those of the Abbasid era.

The monument’s historical and cultural significance is further cemented by the museum, library, cafeteria, lecture hall and exhibition gallery that are located on the two levels beneath the dome. And expansive views of it from the nearby streets have long been admired and photographed.

Recently though, the sudden construction of what is expected to be a commercial outlet have caused architects and individuals alike to question the Iraqi government’s plans for development, and call for an explanation from the Martyrs’ Foundation.

In a video titled ‘What is the truth behind destroying the Martyr’s Monument’ published online by the organisation, the foundation’s president, Dr Najiha Abdulamir, explains that the development is singularly intended to find investors that will provide funding for maintenance of the monument.

“The Martyr’s Memorial needs renovation,” Abdulamir said in the video, justifying the foundation’s cooperation with on-site construction. “It pulls people in to visit. Therefore, [the foundation] needs money to support and cover the building and maintenance costs.”

In addition to seeking investors to supply funding, the president denied rumors that the monument will be transformed into a park or mall. Confusingly though, she goes on to explain that the new construction is not located on the monument’s sight, but nearby; however, architects and academics reject this comment.

“It is all within the area originally allocated to the monument,” said Ahmed Al-Mallak, academic at Coventry University and founder of international architecture initiative Tamayouz Excellence Award. “And the travesty of it is that Al Turk and Kamal designed Al Shaheed with the view of the dome in mind — which this development would block. You are meant to have an unfolding view of the monument and its split as you walk by.

Image of the construction going up on the monument’s site – courtesy of Mustafa Fouad

“And this is also the basics of deigning a monument — it is meant to be accessible to everyone, but now they will likely enforce fees if you want to see the dome from this point.”

According to Al-Mallak, “low-quality schemes” are becoming dime-a-dozen around the monument and across Iraq in general. And this commercial development near the monument is no exception.

Image of the construction going up on the monument’s site – courtesy of Mustafa Fouad

“It’s time for the government to use advisors,” he said. “In Iraq, we have a few good advisors who could form a committee that would advise the government on big projects such as this one… The monument needs to go back to its original state and officials should interfere and stop the construction. And moving forward, the government should be firm with its regulations and guidelines for all upcoming developments, as there are certain contractors and investors who benefit from the current situation.”

He added that renting or selling land for commercial use is not the only way for the Martyrs’ Foundation to come up with the necessary funds to maintain the monument. “You could tax all candidates running in the upcoming elections,” he said, in reference to Iraqi bureaucracy that often taxes individuals when submitting applications or paperwork.

“There are almost 7,000 people running in the current elections, and not one of them has been taxed. So if you taxed each one, they could have raised the funds and helped generate the necessary finances for maintaining Al Shaheed Monument,” he added.

“What they are doing sends a bad message about what martyrs mean to Iraq. It contradicts everything that a foundation like this should be saying. To the families who sacrificed their dearest, the foundation and the country are telling them that they are unable to maintain their sacrifice and their monument, so they are giving it to investors.”

It remains to be seen what the new development will be and what purpose it will serve — it also remains to be seen how the foundation will actually use the money that comes from renting that portion of the monument’s site.

designMENA recently reported on Iraq’s Ministry of Youth’s activity in ‘severely altering’ Baghdad’s cherished modernist building, the Olympic Club. Read More.

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