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Baghdad: What Might Have Been

My favorite museum in London is without doubt the Soane Museum. Born in 1753, John Soane started his career as a bricklayer, but quickly established himself as an architect and as an eclectic collector, gathering everything from sarcophagae to clocks to nineteenth century latches, weights, and even nails. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he was commissioned to build some of London’s finest neo-classical structures. His best-known work was the Bank of England building, although much of it was destroyed in an early twentieth century renovation. Many of the other structures he designed were never built, owing to the interruption of and financial drain caused by the Napoleonic Wars.

That didn’t stop Soane from painting his monumental structures, not only depicting them as new but also speculating how they might look centuries into the future if in ruins. (A stroll through his cluttered former house—packed so full with antiquities that many of the paintings are hung on hinged panels and can only be seen if the panels are opened exposing the other side—is an experience that won’t be forgotten).

It’s against the backdrop of the window Soane provides into a London that never came to be that this article about a Baghdad that likewise never came to be is so fascinating:

Le Corbusier’s Gymnasium was born during Iraq’s post-Second World War renaissance, when the country was flush with cash from its oil concessions. The country’s ruling elite were desperate to trade their Mesopotamian past for a modern identity. King Faisal II was the third and last of Iraq’s kings, and ruled from 1939 until 1958. He created a Development Board that would invest the country’s petrodollars into massive infrastructure projects and redevelop the city to create a cosmopolitan centre of the Arab world. The board envisaged a set of landmark buildings designed by high-profile international architects. The design for Baghdad University was awarded to Walter Gropius, an opera house to Frank Lloyd Wright, a museum to Alvar Aalto, a sporting facility to Le Corbusier, and the Development Board headquarters building to Gio Ponti… Wright’s opera house was to be built on an undeveloped island, which he planned to name the Isle of Eden, located on the Tigris. The building would perch on a hilltop surrounded by a pool and gardens. His “Plan for Greater Baghdad” also included a cultural centre, a university and a theatre.

My first impression of Baghdad in 2003—before the ubiquitous blast walls went up—was what a depressing city it was, and that impression has not changed. Kanan Makiya—more famous for his books chronicling Saddam’s tyranny—was at his most concise and interesting in The Monument which chronicled how Saddam Hussein sought to remake Baghdad and, more broadly Iraq, in an equally grandiose if not tasteful manner.

This transformation he never completed because of years of war and sanctions, although some of the monuments (and, indeed, his palaces) litter the Green Zone. Baghdad is now starting to change once again for the better, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, as Iraqis gaze back at how history might have treated their city had it not been for the revolutions in 1958 and 1968, and the wars which followed, it will be hard for them not to be depressed, far more so than Londoners were when myriad wars changed George III’s priorities. In Baghdad, at least, the scars of dictatorships past continue to scar the land and will do so for many decades more.



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