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Photos of a lost Baghdad from its greatest modern architect

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Rifat Chadirji’s pictures of his own buildings chronicle a Middle Eastern capital in flux

Street photography plays a vital role in charting and chronicling the changing streets of modern cities. But when that photographer is an architect, one who helped create the shifting city he’s documenting, the imagery captures different perspectives.

Every Building in Baghdad: The Rifat Chadirji Archives at the Arab Image Foundation, an exhibit that recently opened at Chicago’s Graham Foundation, explores the images and curbside documentation of Chadirji, a famed Iraqi modernist architect who created the styles and symbols that define much of the metropolis.

Chadirji may not be a name recognizable to western audiences, but he’s a legend in the Middle East. Born into an influential family in Baghdad, he served as president of the architecture firm Iraq Consul and during a career where he designed nearly 100 buildings, became a cornerstone of what would be called the Baghdad School of Architecture (Zaha Hadid studied with him one summer).

What makes Chadirji so intriguing, according to curator Mark Wasiuta, a professor at Columbia University’s architecture graduate program who organized the exhibit, is the way his buildings evolve and transform throughout his career, especially after the 1958 Iraq Revolution and his country’s independence. Chadirji began incorporating regional designs into International Modernism, developing a design method, theory, and approach that speaks to the city and its rich history.

“He doesn’t attempt to erase a complex history, he attempts to channel it.” says Wasiuta.

Chadirji worked in Iraq from the ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a period when his great influence helped shape the way government buildings represented new political structures, all while incorporating modern and traditional elements, such as the Mesopotamian arch. Work such as the Central Post, Telephone & Telegraph Offices from 1975 present a powerful, indigenous example of modernist architecture.

That’s what makes his photo archive—the centerpiece of the exhibit and his own way of chronicling and having a dialogue with his own work—so interesting. Rather than capture finished projects with magazine-ready glamor, Chadirji took street-level snapshots of buildings sites and finished structures, fleeting glances of what was being gained and lost as the city modernized.

Wasiuta sees the vast collection, which comes from the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, as a series of covert snapshots. The architect foresaw instability and disruption ahead—he was briefly jailed by the Hussein regime in the late’ 70s—and wanted to create an archive that couldn’t be damaged or lost

“Within his collection of 100,000 photos of the city, you can find disappearing social rituals and spaces,” says Wasiuta. “There can be a feeling of disappearing and lament.”

At a time when war-damaged Middle Eastern cities have become all-too common sights in the media, it’s refreshing to see Baghdad through the eyes of both a citizen and expert.