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Baghdad: Mirages and Melancholia

[A Model of Ricardo Bofill's Entry to the Competition for the National Mosque of Baghdad, 1982. Image from Amin Alsaden] [A Model of Ricardo Bofill's Entry to the Competition for the National Mosque of Baghdad, 1982. Image from Amin Alsaden]

It is well known that preeminent figures of early modernism, such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, designed architectural proposals for Baghdad around the middle of the 20th century. Many may be surprised however to discover that several other important international architects were also involved with the city at one point or another in its recent history, hoping to erect some remarkable structures that would have transformed Baghdad beyond recognition. A current exhibition at the BSA Space, home to the Boston Society of Architects, titled City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952–1982, brings together some of these proposals and presents the work of Alvar and Aino Aalto, Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, Walter Gropius, José Luis Sert, GioPonti, Alison and Peter Smithson, Constantinos Doxiadis, Ricardo Bofill, Willem MarinusDudok, in addition to Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The proposals on display are part of a travelling exhibition that was initially installed at the Collegid’Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC) in Barcelona in 2008, before moving to the Center for Architecture in New York City in early 2012, and eventually landing in Boston. The BSA Space exhibition (October 2nd - January 10th, 2013) features thirteen architectural and urban proposals, covering a wide range of building types, such as housing, civic centers, museums, educational facilities, mosques, among others. Unlike conventional architectural exhibitions, the curators chose to exhibit the material in a very particular manner: as archival objects rather than museum pieces. The emphasis is not on the aesthetic merits of a particular drawing, or the conceptual position espoused by each proposal, but more on raw informational value that all proposals offer collectively. The visual material in the exhibition is laid out on equal terms with the accompanying textual description, all displayed in small panels organized in constellations that introduce each proposal. These undistinguished constellations pasted on the gallery’s walls, along with the scale models distributed across the floor, constitute the specific curatorial strategy employed, which invites the visitor to study the material presented in its totality.


 [A General View of the Exhibition "City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952-1982" at the BSA Space, Boston. Image by Amin Alsaden]

Following a quick survey, the visitor discerns that out of the thirteen proposals on display, only three were built but subsequently damaged or torn down, and three others were partially realized, while the rest remained ideas on paper. It soon dawns on the visitor that the exhibition tells the history of a modern Baghdad that could have been, not the Baghdad that was. It also becomes evident that the title of the exhibition is not just a title, but more of a metaphor, an underlying theme, a larger phenomenon that the displayed material both points to, and in a way, also represents.

The exhibition suggests a connection between the chosen title and a work by the pioneer of Iraqi and Arab modern poetry, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964). His piece "City of Mirages" is the first text that visitors read upon encountering the exhibited material: "The years stretch out in front of us; blood and fire, I forge bridges with them; But they become a wall... For ten years now I have not ceased walking; Towards you, 'City of Mirages! Destruction of their life!'". These verses, which immortalize the poet’s absorption in grave mourning toward the end of his short life, set the scene for the exhibition’s contents, repeatedly narrating the tragic story of how the displayed proposals were not realized because of political turmoil, and they also set the tone for what the exhibition itself stands for. Indeed, it becomes abundantly clear that the visitor is not simply apprehending the story of modern architecture in the city of mirages, but is also perceiving the many mirages latent in the exhibition, and is ultimately confronting the melancholic reality of contemporary Baghdad.

The idea of the mirage operates on numerous registers, and emerges in various guises. The exhibition itself can be thought of as a mirage, as a manifestation of something illusory, without content or reality. In that regard, the choice of material on display is very telling. Never original, the material presented consists of facsimile reproductions of various archival documents that exist elsewhere. The curators seem to also have consciously chosen not to include photographs of what little has been realized. The strategy is understandable –recent photographs of built projects could have proven disappointing, revealing the decades of poor maintenance, not to mention the damage these precious structures have undergone. Historical photographs would have been equally disappointing, largely because they would only depict the partially realized proposals, the half fulfilled dreams of architectural modernism; or they would be sad reminders of the decline that took place ever since. Instead of photographs, the exhibition chooses to present the proposals exclusively through typical means of architectural representation: drawings, renderings, models, and text. The exhibition, in other words, conveys a vision for a potential future Baghdad as strictly imagined by the featured Western architects. The exhibition is thus a secondary simulation, of a simulated Baghdad that was never attained. The mirage is experienced here as an obsessive-compulsive reenactment of a particular imaginary, one that induces pleasure by distancing itself from the real.

The exhibition is also a mirage in the way it characterizes Baghdad as a distant land of mirages, that is, in its conflation of the visual phenomenon of mirage with Baghdad itself. The visitor is challenged to question this notion of the mirage, and is prompted to ask: to whom exactly is the city a mirage? How can a city be a mirage? And what gives it this distinctive quality? Whether the curators are cognizant of the fact or not, the message of the exhibition is precisely that: just as mirages in the desert disappoint the thirsty, Baghdad was a land of architectural opportunity that eventually disappointed those who perceived it as such. The exhibition does not necessarily address those who lived within the mirage city, whose lives were shaped and affected by the mirage city, or who actually built and modified the mirage city. It is primarily concerned with how Baghdad is perceived and valued from the outside, by the cohort of foreign architects mesmerized by the possibilities of building ambitious projects in the nascent oil-rich nation. The fact that most of their ambitions were thwarted, and that the history of architecture had to contend itself with a host of unrealized proposals for Baghdad, makes the city a mirage for those looking at it abstractly from a distance.

This distant reading, and the specific context that the exhibition considers, points out that Baghdad is also still being portrayed in the most traditional sense of what the mirage connotes: the Western imaginary of Arabia, the land of the desert, of scorching heat, of hallucinatory oases, and thus of the very optical illusion of the mirage. After all, the word mirage is deemed more appropriate for cities like Dubai, Marrakesh, or Baghdad, than it is for Paris or Berlin – the latter association would simply be ludicrous. The exhibition therefore conjures the mirage of Orientalism, a discourse that reduces the complex cultural, geographic, and historical diversity of the "Orient" to a manageable set of stereotypes. The exhibition seems preoccupied solely with a modernism whose protagonists are from the West, reaffirming the by now widely challenged canonical Euro-centric narratives of modernity, and overlooking the recent critical and revisionist approaches to inclusive international narratives of architectural modernism. Cursory mention of a few notable Iraqi modern architects, such as Rifat Chadirji, Muhammad Makiya, Nizar Jawdat, and Hisham Munir, does little in countering the fact that the exhibition shows no interest in what has actually taken place in Baghdad. It disregards the unique local brand of modernism which distinguished the metropolis from its Middle Eastern counterparts, and which elevated it to an emulated model for emerging urban centers particularly in the Gulf region, where many Iraqi architects continued their careers as conditions in their home country deteriorated. The exhibition can easily be defended by its curators of course, who may claim that the show is aware of the existence of a larger picture, and that its focus on the famous Western architects working in Baghdad was entirely intentional. But it is precisely this distinction that is problematic. It is the conventional hierarchization or categorization of various modernisms by various agencies that perpetuates the customary divisive and essentializing narratives of modernity.

[A Model of Gio Ponti's Built Headquarters for the Development Board and Ministry of Planning, 1958. Image from Author]

What is most alarming, however, is not this exhibition's truncated understanding of the history of built form in modern Baghdad. What is distressing is the realization that besides this delimited approach, there is perhaps very little documentation of the development of built form and its relationship to larger socio-political processes in modern Iraq. The idea of the mirage surfaces here again, lodged in the exhibition’s value as an emblem for a larger crisis of history that lies beyond the limited scope of the material presented. But the exhibition does hint at some of the reasons behind this crisis: it incessantly reiterates the history of turmoil, violence, and instability, and it points out the detrimental effect war and internal strife had on a complete understanding of the legacy of modernization in Iraq. But instead of these volatile circumstances serving as props for a rich historical record that chronicles the myriad events and milestones of the country's recent past, they became excuses for a lack of engagement with historical scholarship, and a customary justification for the current knowledge vacuum. It certainly cannot be denied that historical scholarship is difficult to sustain during troubled times. But it is one thing to have a destroyed city, and another to not have a record of the destruction. Most historical accounts of modern Iraq available today concern themselves with the political or economic history of the nation, paying little or no attention to artistic, architectural, or cultural developments. It is not necessary to make an argument here for the centrality of history to several crucial aspects of a properly-functioning modern society, from national identity and nation building (or nation re-building in the case of Iraq), to rigorous academic scholarship, or for the mere purpose of documenting a society's achievements to date, preventing it from lapsing backwards, and providing it with the milestones and impetus for further developments. But it is imperative to note that there is a collective responsibility for the preservation and recording of this history. That this exhibition attempts to put together a history of modernism in Baghdad is its redemptive merit – it is an initial step toward an understanding of perhaps not the complexities of modernization in Iraq, but the enormity of the task of writing the actual complex history of modernization awaiting scholars.

A history of modernization which simply documents the key actors, from political figures, to architects and planners, and their role in transforming modern Iraq (a strategy followed by traditional general histories) is inadequate. What is needed is an appraisal of what has actually been erected, how Iraqi society has produced and interacted with the new spatial realities, how it perceived the various institutions and monuments it built and inhabited - in short, how architectural modernism was lived and how it shaped Iraqi society, rather than how it was brought about. But considerable challenges present themselves in the context of Iraq when one begins to wonder how to write this history, when Baghdad has been mutilated over and again, when archives have been looted and burned, when the local educational and research establishment has been paralyzed, and when international scholarship continues to find little interest in probing topics related to local built form in Iraq. Indeed, the obstacle to historical work presented by these challenges seems insurmountable at times. Disturbingly, Baghdad's deplorable contemporary reality may even begin to be conceived as the norm, rather than the exception. If other global cities have particular stereotypical identities, Baghdad has become synonymous with destruction, erasure, disappearance. Upon closer inspection, the idea of the mirage is not really that foreign to the city - it is perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for its existence.

In opposition to this notion, and perhaps in a direct response to it, the exhibition relays yet another mirage to the visitor, which has to do with the hint of tacit optimism detected in its overall tone – optimism that does not fail to betray an awareness of the sad reality of contemporary Baghdad. The exhibition’s credits offer a glimpse of this mirage. Naming the Spanish Ambassador to Iraq from 2005-2008, D. Ignacio Ruperez, as the figure behind the whole initiative, the exhibition suggests the mixed feelings that external observes in Iraq must have experienced as they witnessed the realities of Baghdad a few years after the 2003 occupation: pity toward the country's modern heritage and the destruction it has undergone, but also, and more importantly, a realization that a massive reconstruction campaign was to ensue in the very near future. The timing of the exhibition is not arbitrary, after all. The exhibition can be understood as both nostalgic, documenting the history of modern architecture in Baghdad at a time of extreme loss, but also potentially opportunistic, implying a possible resurrection of some of the displayed schemes, and envisioning a future for Baghdad along similar lines of development. And although the mirage lies in the bleak realities on the ground that promise no such scenario in the near future, that is, of an informed, massive government-led reconstruction effort with a clear vision for the country's development (given the ongoing political impasse and the reported pervasive administrative dysfunction), the exhibition does succeed in insulating the visitor, at least temporarily, and inducing the faint sense of pleasure inherent in pondering an exciting Baghdad that could have been. In other words, the exhibition succeeds in concocting a delusional defense mechanism, in the show’s deliberate, although perhaps partly unconscious, attempt to distance the visitor from the hideous realities of contemporary Baghdad.

But despite this momentary success, the exhibition does not manage to alleviate the suffocating weight of melancholia the space is saturated with. As Freud posited, melancholia, as opposed to normal mourning, is characterized by a sense of deprivation that is not of a conscious kind - there is an acknowledgement that something has been lost, accompanied however with a lack of awareness of a more profound, and painfully deep, loss. The exhibition mourns the loss of the opportunity to realize some fine examples of modern architecture in Baghdad, but the real mourning, exacerbated by the series of mirages conjured, is an internalized one that devotes itself to remembering the loss of a larger history, the history of numerous irretrievable episodes, ideas, agencies, enunciations, and objects. It is this intense mourning that produces the acute melancholia endured during a visit to the exhibition. Indeed, the exhibition leaves the visitor utterly speechless, with an ambivalence about what the exhibition conveys, vis-à-vis what it laconically evokes. The exhibition violently represses the visitor’s desire to confront the losses of Baghdad the city - a potentially painful confrontation, no doubt - by displacing this desire onto the pleasant mirage of Baghdad the imaginary.

To diagnose a melancholia is the first step toward catharsis – both a coming to terms with a profound loss, as well as a possible remedy for the pondered condition. If not catharsis, then at least a partial amelioration. The diagnosis presented here is therefore not simply about lamenting the tragic reality of modern Baghdad and its emaciated, or even nonexistent, history; neither is it about suggesting that Iraqis, and the rest of the world, should resolve themselves to the inevitability of the current situation, and accept it as though an unalterable fate, or an acceptable and unique quality that characterizes the city; nor is it about extending an invitation to making predictions about Baghdad's future, or to propose a propensity the city has for self-destruction. It is instead an attempt to identify a crisis, to highlight a grave and pressing situation that requires not just attention, but urgent action. The action needed, by Iraqis and the international community, entails addressing several fronts simultaneously: identifying whatever is left of Baghdad's salient built heritage, modern or otherwise, protecting it from further damage; locating, collecting, and properly preserving whatever is available of historical documents to form a body of archival material that can begin to narrate the city's history; and most importantly, urging scholars, both within Iraq and outside, to work on grappling with the present challenges of the knowledge vacuum, and to work diligently on producing works that engage with the city's history. But above all, the action needed today entails a radical revision to the way built form is thought about and interacted with in the region. Built form needs to be accorded more reverence, and should be appreciated for its value as a historical record for both Iraqis and humanity at large. One has to remember that the main difference between Rome and Baghdad - both capitals of vast empires, built over several centuries, and whose legacies continue to influence the world - is that Rome became the Eternal City, the archetype of the historical urban record, with its built form encapsulating multi-layered, coexistent, and mutually enriching epochs; Baghdad, in contrast, was condemned to repeatedly losing the traces of its history, and thus part of its evidentiary claim to civilizational contribution. Not that there is much to be done about what has been lost to date, but to continue to treat lightly and dismissively the city's built heritage is to perpetuate a tragedy that must be brought to an end. Preserving and documenting the history of modern Baghdad in particular should not remain a mirage. Baghdad must be kind to its own history, if history is to be kind to Baghdad.

[An amended version of this article is being publishing in a special issue on culture in Iraq, WTD Magazine, Dubai]

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