Babylonian dreamer

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Posted by Tiglath from ( on Monday, July 07, 2003 at 10:14AM :


Lost cities aren’t discovered all that often these days. But visitors to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona are privileged to cast their eyes over one such missing metropolis. There, amid the more familiar paeans of praise to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, or the architect’s "prairie style" houses, lie drawings from Wright’s final years that offer an intriguing glimpse into an alternative, unbuilt world.

Wright was over 90 when he visited Mesopotamia for the first time in 1957, and the experience had a profound effect on him. When he saw the river Tigris he knew this was a place where he could build. His plan was to create an entirely new city on the great plain between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Iraq as a whole and the city of Baghdad itself deserved nothing less.

The elderly architect set to work and, in a matter of a few months, produced designs for everything from a central post office to museums, parks and gardens, as well as a new campus for Baghdad University. For good measure he threw in designs for a casino, shopping complexes and a new opera house, to be situated on an island in the Tigris.

This was his "Plan for Greater Baghdad," dedicated in part to the great ancient cities of Sumeria and Babylon. Although architectural drawings can give only an imperfect idea of what might have been built, they are sufficient to suggest that had Wright been given his head something remarkable would have been built on the banks of the Tigris.

Imagine a world in which Camelot met the Arabian Nights and you get some idea of what America’s greatest 20th-century architect had in mind - and of why his last dream has been left unbuilt. His plans were just too ambitious, too outlandish to be considered. Today his determination to build bridges between past and present, Islam and the West, might have been welcomed; when they were submitted they seemed dangerously close to the last lunatic ravings of an architect whose genius had faded.

Half a century on, fashion has in one sense at least swung back to support his point of view. According to Mina Marefat, Rockefeller Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, studying again Wright’s plans for Baghdad could help ease the culture of mutual suspicion that currently prevails in Iraq and bedevils reconstruction efforts.

"Iraqis think we want to kill their culture," she told the Washington Post last week, "yet when America’s greatest architect drew a plan for Baghdad, where did he turn for inspiration? Not to American or European modernism which was so fashionable at the time, but to Arab and Persian architecture, which had shaped the famous Baghdad of the eighth and ninth century." Marefat hopes that Wright’s example can be an inspiration today, as the United States struggles to come to terms with the scale of the rebuilding required in Iraq following the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Back in the late 1950s, when oil production was bringing Iraq great wealth, King Faisal determined to bring his desert country into the "modern age", hiring the greatest western architects as a means of demonstrating Iraq’s progress and increasing sophistication. In 1950 he had sanctioned the establishment of a Development Board to oversee the construction of a new infrastructure network. Baghdad, and by extension Iraq, would be the most modern, progressive, western country in the region and, as it had been in ancient times, the envy of the Arab world.

Wright’s inclusion on the shortlist of architects invited to submit their ideas was an afterthought. Le Corbusier from France, Walter Gropius from Germany and Gio Ponti from Italy had already been invited - Baghdad was showing signs of becoming an architectural crucible. But, latecomer or not, Wright threw himself into the project with enthusiasm.

He spelt out his hopes - and fears - for the project: "I happen to be doing a cultural centre for the place where civilisation was invented - that is Iraq," he wrote. "Before Iraq was destroyed it was a beautiful circular city built by Harun al Rashid but the Mongols came from the north and practically destroyed it. Now what is left of the city has struck oil and they have immense sums of money. They can bring back the city of Harun al Rashid today. They are not likely to do it because a lot of western architects are in there already building skyscrapers all over the place and they are going to meet the destruction that is barging in on all big western cities. So it seems to me vital over there to try and make them see how foolish it is to join that western procession."

His Baghdad project was, he wrote, a "great opportunity" to "demonstrate that we’re not destructive but constructive where the original forces that built the civilisations of the world are concerned." Above all, it was vital to remember - and remind Iraqis - that "we are not there to slap them in the face but to do honour to them".

Wright’s references to Harun al-Rashid reflect not just the architect’s romantic side, but an awareness of, and need to acknowledge, the importance of a distinct Arabian culture that had reached an apogee in Baghdad. Harun al-Rashid’s Caliphate at the end of the eighth century witnessed an artistic revolution that made Baghdad the cultural centre of the Arab world until the mid-13th century. Harun - to whom Wright planned to construct a memorial - remains an immortal figure in the Arab consciousness, forever associated with the glorious days when Arab scholars safeguarded the accumulated knowledge of Greece and Rome during Europe’s Dark Ages.

"Baghdad, the city of wisdom. It’s a defining narrative," argues James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "The city represents, and not only for Iraqis but for Arabs across the board, a time when the Arab world knew itself to be the centre of civilisation, of science and art and mystery. The symbol of Baghdad is richer, and deeper, than whoever is messing it up right now."

Wright was himself familiar with the tales of Sinbad and of Arabia, remembering them from his childhood. (Visitors to the house he designed for his family outside Chicago can still see murals depicting episodes from the Arabian Nights in the children’s nursery.) It’s easy to see why he was so drawn to the idea of designing a new Baghdad that honoured that glorious past. His vision for the city, says Marefat, "was intended to reinforce a cultural identity rooted in a rich historic past. To this end he mined both Islamic and pre-Islamic imagery, relying as much on myth and memory as on historical context."

Wright’s designs for the Iraqi capital were the last significant body of work he undertook before his death in 1959. Here was a chance to do something on an unusual, epic scale - a chance for ambition to be set free to soar wherever the wind took it.

In the event his fantastic designs - featuring ziggurats and other nods to the glories of ancient Babylon and Assyria - were widely derided, not just by the modernist architects then in vogue but by the Arab world itself. They were too much out of the pages of the Arabian Nights for a regime determined to chase everything that represented western progress. In any case, Faisal was overthrown in a coup in 1958, ending the project. The Baathists were now in power, and modern architecture was not one of their primary concerns.

"The irony," says Marefat, "is that Wright was the only one of the architects giving a thought to Iraq’s cultural heritage in his designs, and his weren’t built. The others created ‘modern’ architecture of the era that had little or no relation to Iraq or its history." The result, she argues, is that Baghdad today could be mistaken for Los Angeles on the Tigris - admittedly, made worse by the crassness of Saddam’s pompous and ridiculous homages to his own power, his palaces.

Baghdad has survived so much in its history that it seems certain to struggle on, regardless of whoever happens to be in charge and regardless of their intentions. If the city has evaded - just - the onslaught of the Mongols, Tamerlane and Saddam, it may be able to absorb the consequences of American occupation too.

Marefat, meanwhile, hopes that a new awareness of this final episode from Wright’s long and prolific career can act - as the architect himself always hoped it would - as a unifying force between East and West, ancient and modern. By challenging Americans and Iraqis alike to recognise the importance of Baghdad’s history and understand what it was that made the city great in the past, it may be possible to make it so in the future.

-- Tiglath
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