Architecture is at the founding of Baghdad, when Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur, not trusting the drawings of his architects, ordered a trench to be dug in a vast circle, filled with flaxseed oil, and lit ablaze to mark the edges of the future city.
Saddam Hussein often alluded to the age of the Abbasids, under whose leadership Baghdad flourished as the cultural and economic center of the Arab world. Hussein, like many political leaders, was obsessed with architecture as a means of statecraft. The palaces and monumental projects of his late career were, as Kanan Makiya has suggested, an expression of his overbearing personal joy in the practice of politics.
Makiya was born in Baghdad and left to study architecture at MIT, later joining his father Mohammed Makiya’s firm, where he designed and built projects in the Middle East. He is the author of The Monument, a study of the aesthetics of power and kitsch in Baathist Iraq. Beginning in 1993, he participated in the Iraqi National Congress, a transitional parliament then based in northern Iraq. He recently founded the Iraq Memory Foundation.
C-Lab: Hussein was known to supervise his state architectural projects very closely. What drove his interest in architecture, and what is it about architecture that seems to have lent itself so well as an expression of his rule?
KM: Architecture is a medium in which tyrants think they can indulge. The fascination with architecture is as a symbol of their longevity and their place in history. It tends to come at a late point in their career, when they’re thinking about mortality. Hussein’s interest in architecture begins in 1980, around the beginning of the war with Iran. So he’s at war at the same time that he’s reshaping Baghdad. In part society is being distracted and preoccupied with the building process. It is a political use of architecture.
C-Lab: How would you describe the formal qualities of the palaces?
KM: A definite style of architecture did emerge in the latter Baath years. It is very interesting and it hasn’t been studied yet, and I think it is very worthy of study. It tends to have a huge emphasis - new by the way – on the façade. The buildings feature enormous porticos, and often false fronts that don’t do anything, but are just there for show. It’s grandiosity and pomp, and often the rooms don’t work, because the whole building has been made subject to the façade. The façade and the columns and porticos are everything, and behind it are these puny, miserable rooms.
This is the architecture that began to develop of the elite, the elite that benefited from the years of the Baath regime. I don’t expect it to last as a style. It’s already being much criticized and is the butt of all sorts of jokes and ironies inside Iraq, but obviously the buildings will take a long
C-Lab: As someone trained as an architect, what role do you see the architecture of the Hussein regime playing in the future public life of Iraq?
KM: The palaces will survive and may be converted to government uses, and probably one or two will be museums. If the way that the palaces are used and adapted is to acknowledge the victims, then it will have a healing effect, but it can be done in other ways, and how it’s done is crucial, how to adapt them so that they become part of a remembrance of what that regime was about. The possibility definitely exists, and even governmental institutions are talking about it.
C-Lab: The Iraq Memory Foundation’s mission includes not only the preservation of paper documents and files of Hussein’s reign, but also the preservation of its monuments and architecture. How is the work progressing?
KM: The main work thus far has been focused on documents and films of survivors, the eyewitness testimony of people who survived the atrocities of the Baath era. We’ve made about 80 such films. They air on Iraqi television regularly, but they are also historical films, made for the long-term. But on the architecture side, the Victory Arch [Swords of Qadisiyyah] monument and parade ground was deeded to us by the Iraqi interim government. We recently signed a 40-year lease for it, and we’re coming up with ideas for the site, not yet architectural designs, but ideas for what might happen on the site, in terms of a remembrance archive or library for these documents. We’ll have a whole view of that in a few months. We are focusing on the Victory Arch, and we’re making the argument that it should be preserved.
C-Lab: Are symbols and memorializing what Iraq needs now from architects, given that the abuse of memorialization was a staple of Hussein’s state architecture?
KM: No, it isn’t what Iraq at large needs. It is not housing, or anything like that, and in that sense it is not the dire question. There is a sense that we are still very close to it all, maybe too close to do this well, to do the memorialization well, to do the conversion of the uses of these buildings well. That question is very real. The pain, the hurt, the blood, are all still very close to the surface in Iraq. People want to move on, they want to build new lives. It is perfectly understandable. But the issue of identity, the question of how you construct a sense of who you are after this kind of atrocity and violence, that’s still a real question, and you can’t just proceed as if this didn’t happen. Our future as Iraqis will depend on it, and the next generation is going to understand that more than anyone else. I’m convinced that this is a very worthy moment.
C-Lab: How has returning to Iraq changed your thinking about the architects and sculptors who worked on Hussein’s projects? How do you now regard their involvement with Hussein, both ethically and aesthetically?
KM: Firstly I did not hold them responsible, even in The Monument, which was written a long time ago. I pointed out the degradation of visual culture that had taken place in Iraq. So that is not on a moral or ethical level, though it was caused by the fact that a layer of individuals collaborated with the regime and participated in its projects. Now after going back, that judgment hasn’t changed as a judgment on the work previously produced. But now I understand some of the forms of resistance that took place inside, forms of resistance that were harder to see on the outside. I don’t make judgments any longer, and if I were in their place I would have done the same. Going back has deepened my knowledge of what it means to produce anything creative of value in that environment. On the Victory Arch site, we’re working with some people, artists and architects, who had to so-called collaborate.
C-Lab: You helped write a draft of the Iraqi constitution, and worked with the Iraqi National Congress. Given your highly politicized status and involvement with ‘exile politics,’ how do you respond to the criticism that you may not be an appropriate custodian for Iraq’s national history?
KM: I did not seek a position in government, nor would I. And I had many opportunities and did not want to be involved. Some of the exiles that went back behaved in very unseemly and undignified ways, scrambled for power, though also many were voted back in with the elections. The younger generation is very supportive, particularly of the fact that I didn’t join the government, which has performed so badly. And there is a whole group of new intellectuals writing, who have been in Iraq the whole time.
C-Lab: What so far has been the architectural legacy of the American occupation, beyond the destruction of buildings? Is there room for optimism in the rebuilding of Iraq?
KM: Yes, but the US will not be the driving force. They went to schools and repaired them, they worked on hospitals, and roads, and infrastructure. But architectural projects haven’t happened at all. Our project for the Victory Arch will be the first to try to do it, to present the argument for a major international architectural competition for this site, which is laden with the symbols of the old Iraq. It’s the first project of its kind since the war.
Swords of Qadisiyyah Monument
Monument to the Unknown Soldier
Palace in Tikrit
After the occupation began, the complex was renovated into a recreational retreat for the American military, which enjoyed its many indoor pools and found its grandiose marble halls well suited for baseball. The Tikrit palace was formally handed over by top US military and civilian leaders to the new Iraq government on November 22, 2005, in a ceremony temporarily interrupted by an incoming mortar. Within weeks, looters stripped the palace, leaving only plaster and dangling electrical wires. The looters were likely members of the Iraq security forces, possibly led by the deputy governor of the region.
Palace in Mosul