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3 Architects and Builders Discuss Iraq's Reconstruction Challenges

Mosul Dam dangers highlight incredible difficulties in nation's architecture and construction industries

In a country that’s been challenged with years of war and sectarian strife, the recent news about the potentially imminent collapse of the massive Mosul Dam is especially tragic. Built 30 years ago, this towering engineering achievement has weathered wars, ISIS occupation, and deferred maintenance, and threatens to burst as winter snow melt adds pressure to an already compromised superstructure. Iraqi engineers who built the damn suggest that a collapse could result in massive flood waves that could reach almost one million people in both Mosul and Baghdad. The government has employed a team of Italian engineers to attempt repairs, and urged Iraqis to move after from the Tigris river as worries of a disaster increase.

"It is going from bad to worse, and it is urgent. All we can do is hold our hearts," Nasrat Adamo, former chief engineer, told The Guardian.

The dam presents a pressing, and extreme, example of the challenges of recovering and rebuilding from war, ISIS, and sectarian strife, especially repairing infrastructure in the face of so much damage. Talent, funding, and materials are in short supply. It’s been an uphill battle since the United States invasion; the 2013 final report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., noted that the $60 billion the U.S. spent on the reconstruction effort was largely ineffective, plagued by contracting abuses and mismanagement.

Earlier this year in London, at the Iraq Architecture and Planning conference held by the Al-Kindi Society for Engineers, engineers, architects, and preservationists gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities faced by those attempting to rebuild in Iraq. Curbed spoke to three of the attendees to learn more about the realities of working in such a difficult environment, and their predictions for the future.

Amir Mousawi: Director, AMBS Architects

What kind of project/projects are you currently working on?

"The majority of the projects that we were working on have been put on hold due to the current financial and political situation. We were working, or have worked on, the following: the Youth City masterplan, Baghdad Library, a Baghdad spa, Basra Sports City, Al Menaa stadium, a pair of five-star hotels in Basra, and three hospitals in Basra."

What are some of the unique challenges you're faced with building in Iraq?

"There are many problems that one would expect in a country facing the difficulties Iraq does today. Due to the current security situation, there are many logistical difficulties, which inhibit the type of products available. As there has been very little construction in Iraq since the late ‘80s, there is a lack of local skilled laborers, meaning we are currently reliant on foreign workers. Iraq has a vast population, many of which are eager to work, so we expect that they will inherit these skills as more projects are implemented."

How do your projects exemplify local, vernacular architecture?

"Each project involves a process of deliberation, engagement, analysis, and interpretation. As AMBS has been delivering projects in Iraq since the late ‘60s, we have a very strong understanding and respect for vernacular architecture. There should be a delicate and realistic process of restoration for the well-defined historical areas within Iraq’s cities. However it is equally important to allow modern architecture and design to thrive. Cities such as Baghdad have many layers of history, however, one must try not to see it as an orientalist fantasy, and instead appreciate that it had, up until the late ‘80s, a very modern layer of urban development. Baghdad has every right to be as modern as more ancient cities in the west, such as London, however we must ensure that the marriage between past and future is done in a respectful way that puts nature first. We do not need to restart from the ‘90s. We have the opportunity to build a sustainable future that is not dependent on oil."

How did previous conflicts harm the construction and architecture industries? Have they recovered?

"Any country that has been through the trauma of war will see their most skilled and educated individuals leave, in order to find a better life for their families. Other than the tragedy of death and destruction that is associated with war, this is probably the biggest and most damaging effect on the country. Once a powerhouse of education and culture, Iraq has been relegated to a mere reflection of what it once was, and until there is true stability, we will not see a large homecoming. Therefore, we must invest in the minds of our future, and the biggest challenge Iraq faces, other than the political, financial and security issues, is re-establishing the educational infrastructure. In addition, they must aim to re-engage themselves with the natural environment they live in. As the migration between rural to urban areas rapidly increases, architects and urban planners will need to accommodate for this, and one must not be tempted to make the same mistakes that other cities have made, and allow urban sprawl to further destroy the precious lands that envelop our cities. The paradox of being environmentally concerned, and against dense urban environments, will need to be resolved for Iraq to embrace its future."

What are some of the more high-profile projects happening in the country right now in terms of architecture and urban planning?

"The Youth City masterplan is an example such a project that embraces sustainable design in a modern context, and will hopefully set a precedent for more developments to adopt."

What is the state or architectural preservation in Iraq? How has the government been involved in this area?

"We are not currently involved in any preservation projects, but we have been involved in masterplans for historic areas within Baghdad, such as Kathmiyeh. The client had defined all the historical buildings that are to be preserved and restored, and our masterplan aims to ensure that this unique urban environment remains intact, whilst simultaneously accommodating for the new facilities and open areas that had been a requirement. Preservation is extremely important to these unique areas, however one must devise a realistic implementation plan that can be agreed upon with the the public.

Akram Ogaily: Senior Vice President, Hill International (Middle East)

What kind of project/projects are you currently working on?

"I am leading a senior technical team overseeing design and construction throughout the region, to make sure that the project development programs comply with quality, time, and cost goals. Those major complex projects include the Muscat International Airport, Qatar National Museum, Grand Egypt Museum, and European Investment Bank building."

What are some of the unique challenges you're faced with building in Iraq?

"The main challenge now is the recent financial crises due to low oil prices, which led to the suspension of most of the public sector projects we are involved in. Other issues include contractors, poor procurement system, the security and entry visas process, and the general lack of responsibility."

Can you explain what kind of Iraqi styles you might see in local projects?

"There are different approaches and schools of thought in architectural design. Most Iraqi architects migrated to countries in the region and either established their own offices or work with international or local design firms. These architects follows client demands and international trends. A limited number of architects tried to maintain what I could call the "Baghdad Design School" set by Dr. Mohamed Makiya in 1958, which was based on local cultural conditions. Other such local styles can be found in the work of Rifa-At Chaderchi. Both approaches produced significant designs which are highly appreciated, and placed Iraqi architecture on the international map."

How did previous conflicts harm the construction and architecture industries? Have they recovered?

"Previous conflicts affected the construction market big time. Recovery will only be possible once the public project finance will be available. The supply of local materials like cement could be interrupted by security events.The financial capacity and cash flow of suppliers, traders, and contractors can stem the flow of imported material."

What are some of the more high-profile projects happening in the country right now in terms of architecture and urban planning/development?

"The Council of Ministers, the Central Bank Headquarters, and Parliament buildings. Although such projects were budgeted for last year’s strategic development plans, they’re expected to face budget challenges this year. The only ongoing project with slow progress is Bismayah New City, which face different challenges mainly due to power shortages."

What is the state or architectural preservation in Iraq? How has the government been involved in this area?

"Professional preservation is not popular, well-known or appreciated due to a lack of education, a shift in society, and unavailability of planners, architects, engineers, contractors, and decision makers in this field. Amanant Baghdad (city hall) has made limited attempts at preservation, but the process didn’t meet international conservation criteria. Despite the fact that Baghdad is considered one of the Middle East’s most historical cities, it’s ongoing deterioration is leading to the loss of historical monuments. There is no plan or strategy to address urban conversation, as well as categorizing or archiving buildings. Cultural preservation is fragmented between different stakeholders, with no clear responsibilities."

Mohamed Al Assam: Dewan Architects and Engineers

What kind of project/projects are you currently working on? How large are the buildings, and when do you expect to finish?

"We are working on a variety of projects at this time, include hotels, shopping malls, mixed-use sites, and urban planning. Dewan is the lead consultant on The Fountain Views, a mega project for the Emir in Dubai. In Iraq, we’re planning the old centers at the holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and Kadhimiya, working on a master plan for Kufa University, and doing other projects for the hospitality, retail and commercial sectors. I must add that most of the projects are still on paper because of the difficulties and conflict in the country."

What are some of the unique challenges you're faced with building in Iraq?

"The Iraqi market is one of the toughest in the region. Challenges include almost continuous wars, corruption, lack of knowledge, and political conflicts. The situation in Iraq for the past almost sixty years resulted in a very little progress compared to other nations worldwide or regional. I cannot see any positive signs for improvement of the situation in the near future. It may take, in my opinion, twenty years or more to recover."

What are some of the more high-profile projects happening in the country right now in terms of architecture and urban planning/development?

"Not many, it’s very easy to count. In addition to the projects we are working on, projects by others include the Central Bank, the ministry of the cabinet project and some smaller projects."

What is the state or architectural preservation in Iraq? How has the government been involved in this area?

"I can answer in one world: catastrophic."