Image via Arkitera
Like most devotees of modernism, the last king of Iraq labored under the myth that vast architectural mega-projects had the alchemic power to transform any defunct city into an affluent, buzzing metropolis of the future. Spurred on by an influx of oil money and the temptation of a looming Olympic bid, in the 1950s, King Faisal II enlisted a coterie of architectural heavyweights—Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Josep Lluís Sert, and Alvar and Aino Aalto—to reimagine Baghdad as a bustling, cosmopolitan city.
King Faisal's monumental plans were certainly of a type: Corbusier presented his totalizing plans for Algiers in 1933, the failed fascist plans for Mussolini's Addis Ababa were drawn up in 1936, the fraught city of Chandigarth, India rose in 1951, and the entire city of Brasilia was built from scratch between 1956 and 1961. Pieces of this dream for Baghdad managed to outlive Faisal II—who was assassinated in 1958, at age 23— through two decades of uneven construction, heavy edits, and many concessions. Sert's embassy was built and quickly abandoned, Corbusier's stadium was shelved (only to be built by Saddam Hussein years later), Aalto's museum was dismissed entirely, and only "a few dozen" of Gropius' 137 commissions reached completion under the new regime. Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt plan, which was one of the keystone pieces of King Faisal's new city, paints a picture of a very different Baghdad.
· Frank Lloyd Wright, Baghdad master plan, 1956-1958.Image via Snipview
When Faisal II asked Frank Lloyd Wright, age 90, to draw up a master plan for Baghdad, Lloyd Wright wrote back that, "to me this opportunity to assist Persia is like a story to a boy fascinated by the Arabian Night Entertainment as I was." His master plan for Baghdad one of his very last commissions.
A small island, which Wright wanted to rename from Pig Island to Edena, was one of the keystone pieces of the plan. Two long white bridges connected the island to the rest of Baghdad, one pointing towards Baghdad's nascent university and the other in the direction of mecca. Naturally, the proposed plan—ziggurats that hid parking lots, cascading spires, cut and pasted Arabic symbolism—was more an orientalist grab bag than a depiction of the region's vernacular architecture. For example, Wright's opera house was topped by a (retrospectively cringeworthy) statue of Aladdin holding his lamp. The plans, which died with the young king, are best explained by Robert Twombly, "the people needed food, clothing and shelter more than floating gardens, gold fountains, and a mammoth zoo."
Here's how the rest of King Faisal II's commissions fared.
· Walter Gropius, Rendering for Mosque on Baghdad's University Campus, 1958-1963.
Gropius, alongside The Architects Collaborative, was tasked with designing Baghdad's brand new university campus, situated on a grove of palm trees that hugged the shore of the Tigris River. Only a few of Gropius' designs—the faculty tower, a few classroom buildings, and the Open Mind monument— survived into the campus' final iteration. The spitfire regionalist Ernesto Rogers praised Gropius for "setting aside" the architect's "Bauhaus purity" to "make room for liberties of the vernacular."
· Le Corbusier, Baghdad Stadium, 1955-1983.Images via Hypotheses and Maison
Le Corbusier has more than earned the moniker of architecture's Bible salesman. Orchestrating the onward march of the international style—the unrealized plan for Addis Ababa, the built city of Chandigarth, and even the light consulting work he did with a pre-Brasília Niemeyer—has made his name synonymous with the modernist mega-project. It's no surprise that Faisal II chose Le Corbusier to design the crown jewel of his grand revolution, the Baghdad Stadium. After the July 14th Revolution, Saddam Hussein was the savior of Le Corbusier's unfinished project; he found the plans, cleared the site, built the 50,000 seat complex, and renamed it in his own honor. The stadium is technically Le Corbusier's last built project.
· José Luis Sert, U.S. Embassy, 1955–1961.
The exiled Catalan architect and Harvard dean was chosen to create Baghdad's embassy. Designed as a kind of oasis, the compound is marked by undulating bodies of water and high latticework walls—the classic tropes of tropical modernism. The embassy was abandoned in 1967 by the U.S. government for a site that was easier to surveil and hasn't fared well since.
· Alvar and Aino Aalto, Project for the Fine Arts Museum of Baghdad within the Civic Center, 1957-1963
Alvar and Aino made no attempt to temper their Finnish modernism with local vernacular in the structure they proposed for Baghdad's fine art museum. With propped up wedge-shaped columns, the virtually square, three-story building was to be clad in a dark-blue ceramic tile. The floor plan—which was made up of five asymmetrical galleries—bears an uncanny resemblance to Aalto's other unbuilt projects, particularly a museum in Estonia and the Johnson Institute in Sweden. It's probably a good thing that Aalto phoned it in, considering the project never came to fruition.
This post has been updated with several changes to reflect factual inaccuracies: Something closer to a "few dozen" of Walter Gropius's buildings were completed, not 15; his group was called The Architects Collaborative, not The Artists' Collborative; and Sert's embassy was built between 1955–1961, not 1957-59.
· Architecture in Baghdad [Dwell]