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Volume 34, Number 2March/April 1983

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Renewal in Baghdad

Written by John Bulloch
Photographed by Jill Brown

The urban planning conference in Baghdad was droning on in its predictable way as Dr. Ihsan Fethi rose angrily to his feet: the speakers reading papers, the audiences applauding politely, the dignitaries on the platform under the portrait of Iraq's president, listening benignly, if drowsily, to the familiar arguments for conservation, urban renewal, and the rest of an all too familiar litany.

But then Dr. Fethi, a professor of architecture at Baghdad University, began to speak and the calm was shattered - not by noise, but by the intensity of an unscheduled intervention that would launch one of the biggest urban renewal projects in the Arab East.

Dr. Fethi, it seems, had had enough, and was willing to say so. "We talk of urban renewal," he said, "but all I see is destruction. We discuss the need to build up, not to tear down, but everywhere the bulldozers are at work. We are agreed on the need to plan our city in keeping with its past, but everywhere concrete blocks more suited to New York than Baghdad are springing up."

Suddenly, the lethargy of the previous days was gone. When he finished Dr. Fethi received the first real applause that had been heard since the meeting began. And within minutes aides were dispatched to invite Dr. Fethi to back-room meetings, city officials and other architects were called in and - in one of the most dramatic developments in the history of urban planning - Samir al-Sahab, the mayor of Baghdad, made an immediate, impressive and far-sighted decision. "Stop the bulldozers," he said and they stopped.

Simultaneously, at the conference hall, the mayor turned to Dr. Fethi and, in effect, said: "Right, now what should we be doing? We had decided to clear away the hovels and the shacks and you say we are wrong, what should we be doing?"

Dr. Fethi, whose doctoral thesis at England's Sheffield University was devoted to Baghdad's historic buildings, was ready: Call in specialist architects, he said. Call them in and ask them to renew Baghdad. Ask them for a development plan in which there is room to create new but traditional quarters. Ask them to save and restore the hundreds of beautiful old Baghdad houses.

Ask them to revive the two great mosques of our capital, to restore them to the life they must have known when first erected.

The actual execution of these plans was not, of course, carried out at the same pace as the original decision. Nevertheless, when a competition for the appointment of specialist architects was held, the winner, John Warren, an Englishman, and his company, the Architectural and Planning Partnership, were not slow in getting started; three months later elaborate feasibility studies had been completed, by 1981 the municipality had approved the idea and by that summer work had begun.

John Warren, in fact, had been at the conference and, as electrified as anyone else, was enthusiastic about this rare chance to see ideal theories translated into homes, shops, cinemas, hotels and other structures.

With the backing of the municipality, the Aminat al-'Asima, Warren and his planners first identified two districts as "preservation areas," one around the mosque of al-Kazimiya, "the Golden Mosque," with its four soaring minarets and vast golden dome, the other at Bab al-Shaikh, the neighborhood surrounding the mosque of al-Gilani, a more modest but no less beautiful structure.

Then, in those areas, they picked out several hundred houses whose outstanding architecture made them worth preserving- and went back to Horsham in England to start on the first plans.

Their goal was not to provide a copy of what had originally existed, nor to experiment with Western ideas of what would be suitable for a Muslim city; rather, they wanted to express the ideas which Middle East planners and builders - and the people - had found appropriate over the centuries.

As in all major cities of the world, the planners discovered, Baghdad was once divided into neighborhoods, each a mahalla, a village in itself, a tight community inside the city, where people who were linked together by family, work or social position chose to live. In Baghdad, however, as more and more people flooded into the capital over the years, the newcomers gravitated towards the great mosques -Shi'i Muslims generally settling by the al-Kazimiya, and Sunni Muslims largely around the al-Gilani mosque - and the influx soon exhausted available accommodations. As a result, shanty towns sprang up, some in the shade of grand old houses and courtyards, or under the overhang of the balconies, and soon those who could began to move out. It was the start of urban blight and as the years went by things got worse - especially after two new roads were driven through the al-Kazimiya area; though badly needed to give access to the mosque, they split the neighborhood into separate parts.

Recognizing the trouble, the city planners, lacking cash, could only come up with one easy solution: clear away the slum buildings and turn the adjacent areas into parks and gardens; pretty enough, perhaps, but doing little to provide housing space for those who needed it. Such an approach also ignored urban history; in all Muslim countries, houses, shops and other structures have always crowded up close to the walls of the mosques, making them a vital part of the community, rather than something separate and apart.

In the wake of Dr. Fethi's challenge, therefore, the Baghdad planners decided to put buildings right up against the huge, nine-meter (30-foot) walls of the mosques, and recreate as far as possible the feeling and atmosphere of the traditional madina. This meant, basically, that the pattern of the old, narrow streets had to be followed, not eliminated. As John Warren explained: "The street is much more than a mere passageway in the Arab city. Ifs the meeting place of the community, so if it's an uncomfortable place, the social life and the quality of life of the community will suffer in consequence. The narrow street has persisted in the Arab city because with its narrow opening to the sky it stays relatively cool in summer."

All very well, but Iraqis, like everyone else, are attached to their automobiles, and thus need both garages and parking places and since the old urban maze provided neither, space had to be found elsewhere: at a new level - an underground level for not only garages and parking lots, but also other services needed in a modern city - all in a vast subterranean cavern.

Thus a huge excavation, with access to all the houses, shops and hotels which were to be built, and with space for sewers, lighting cables, telephones, air conditioning and everything else needed had to be dug.

This decision to go underground, however, led to a particular form of construction. Since the soil was a loose compaction of ancient mud-brick and general debris, thousands of piles would have been needed to support the new buildings. But the architects decided that it would be more "structurally honest" to build directly off the base slab - using the slab as bedrock, and this entailed removal of three meters (10 feet) of soil, a weight equal to the load of the structure to be erected.

The new houses also presented problems: since they had to be in keeping with the older patterns, they should have been built around a central courtyard. But since in Iraq the birth rate is falling, people no longer need the large traditional houses. The architects, therefore, came up with a "generic" house or prototype and then designed various scaled-down versions which have a large hall opening onto a central courtyard, two essential areas in a Muslim home.

Today, less than three years after Dr. Fethi persuaded the mayor to stop the clearance, all the underground work has been completed and the way is clear for the second stage of the project: the construction of a hotel, a supermarket, houses, hundreds of shops and everything else needed in a self-contained city-within-a-city.

So far, only John Hatch love, a model maker in Horsham, knows the full shape of things to come, but the idea is clear to all concerned: to turn each of the areas back into a mahalla, a self-contained "village" in which the inhabitants will have a sense of identity and place, and in which thousands of small businessmen, artisans and craftsmen who now work in the existing old buildings can be joined by newcomers seeking premises.

Work has also been going on in restoring some of the old houses, each one picked for its fine design or its position; some are in places where they will either blend with new structures, or provide a pleasing contrast, a change in perspective or a visual focal point.

The work, done by teams of craftsmen employed by the Bengal Development Corporation, is painstaking. Layers of paint are stripped away from wooden panels; facings of intricate glazed tiles are cleaned or reproduced; mirrored screens are restored; and the graceful wooden columns supporting balconies are copied, since most original columns have been destroyed by termites.

One thing is clear: the houses are not antiquities. With many of them stripped to the essentials, it is possible to see what flimsy structures they are - usually single skins of brick between the wooden reinforcing posts, with roofs made of woven reeds over poles. Unlike the great al-Kazimiya Mosque, completely restored in the early years of the 16th century, and as good now as when the masons left, the Baghdad houses were not built to last; then, as now, there were probably speculators who balked at investing too much time or money in housing.

Nevertheless, by modern standards each of the preserved houses is a work of art, with intricately fretted wooden screens, colored glass bosses in the ceilings, from which to suspend lamps, roof tunnels -badgirs - to catch every breath of air and route it into the rooms below, overhanging balconies with close woven screens -mashrabiya - to allow the ladies of the household to see without being seen, and at the same time provide shade for passers-by in the street below (See Aramco World, July-August 1974) and massive brass door knockers and locks.

Archie Walls, an expert in the restoration of Muslim architecture, works with Leila Youssef, the young civil engineer who represents the Aminat al-'Asima, and who has been so taken with the whole idea of what is being done that she is waging a single-handed campaign to get similar projects approved in other areas of the city. Together, these two know every nook and comer of the dozens of houses being restored, and never allow anything to be botched, or permit substitute materials to be passed off as original. When something has to be replaced completely, no attempt is made to "age" it, or to make it appear as anything other than the modern material it is.

"We want to put these houses back as they were," says Walls, "but we also have to make them habitable for people used to modern ways. So electricity is being laid on, bathrooms installed, new roofs provided, and some of the small rooms knocked together to make better use of space. When we do have to use new materials we make no bones about it. We are creating houses to be lived in, not museums."

Iraqi authorities have already decided that some of the best houses should be used as club houses and meeting places, rather than as private homes, and other houses are likely to become "grace and favor residences," that will be rented to Iraqis who have given distinguished service.

This upheaval has had considerable impact on the two areas concerned, but in both cases, the authorities of the mosques have given their full support to the work. At Bab al-Shaikh, members of the al-Gilani family still own some of the best of the old houses surrounding the mosque and the present head of the family, Sheikh Youssef, a scholar and former member of the staff of Baghdad University, takes a personal interest in the project, often acting as a representative of the planners when they differ with their clients, the Aminat al-'Asima.

For the municipality, Rifat Chadirji proved a hard taskmaster as he pushed the architects and contractors ahead far faster than they wanted to go or believed possible. Now, while the rest of Baghdad is turning into just one more modern city - people boast there are now more cranes than palm trees there - it is all proving worthwhile; some of the past is being preserved, but, more importantly, the ideas and atmosphere of earlier times are being used with new materials for new purposes to create living communities within the city as they were centuries before.

Rarely can a speech at a learned seminar have had such immediate and far reaching effects. When, in the fullness of time, Ihsan Fethi's epitaph comes to be written, like Christopher Wren it will be said of him: "If you seek his monument, look about you."

John Bulloch, Diplomatic Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in London, has covered the Middle East since 1969 and is the author of two books on Lebanon, and a general history of the area.

This article appeared on pages 30-35 of the March/April 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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