The Genie in an Architect's Lamp
Frank Lloyd Wright's '57 Plan for Baghdad May Be Key to Its Future
By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2003; Page N01
Many stories in recent weeks have told us that the United States fights an uphill battle for public support in Iraq, partly because of a persistent belief on "the Arab street" that the West is intent on erasing Islamic culture. How can the United States convince Iraqis that it's not true?
Two Middle Eastern specialists at the Library of Congress say the answer lies in little-known plans by the celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for rebuilding Baghdad into a glittering capital of Islamic culture like the one that once dazzled the world.
Why not call on Iraqis to embrace Wright's grand vision, the scholars ask: a dazzling new, high-tech Baghdad deliberately rooted in its fabled past?
It is impossible to overemphasize the power of such a vision to unite Iraq's religious factions and tribes, says Mary Jane Deeb, who has lectured on Arab history and culture from Sweden to Morocco as well as in her native Beirut.
Even the most illiterate Iraqi child -- "or, indeed, any Arab child," she says -- has heard of the Baghdad of Scheherazade, Sinbad and "The Arabian Nights." They all know that when Europe was wallowing in feudal darkness, "Baghdad was a triumph of civilization -- a place of tolerance and philosophy, of poetry and music and great architecture and science. Why should it not be that sort of city again?"
Mina Marefat, Rockefeller Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Library of Congress's Kluge Center, agrees.
The significance of the Frank Lloyd Wright drawings, she says, is that they show such profound respect for the very cultural heritage to which the West is supposed to be hostile.
"Iraqis think we want to kill their culture," she says. "Yet when America's greatest architect drew a plan for Baghdad" in 1957, "where did he turn for inspiration? Not to American or European 'modernism,' which was so fashionable at the time, but to Arab and Persian architecture, which had shaped the famous Baghdad of the 8th and 9th century."
That realization might help inspire Iraqis to lift their sights beyond the immediate squabbles and resentments of occupation, she says. "Wright's vision for Baghdad need not be the only vision," she says. "Other architects, Iraqi architects, could be called on to submit designs. The key factor is to focus on the ingredients that made Baghdad great long ago" and challenge Iraqis to make their greatest traditions live again in a reborn city.
Marefat is hoping to arrange an exhibit of Wright's Baghdad drawings both at the Library of Congress and in Baghdad. She is also hoping to interest some filmmaker in making a documentary about Wright's Baghdad project.
Wright's plans for Baghdad remain a little-known last act in the long career of the flamboyant architect. He was 93 when he traveled to Iraq in May 1957 to take up a commission for an opera house that would "help modernize" the capital city of what was then a kingdom ruled by King Faisal II. Dissatisfied with the site selected for the opera house, Wright lobbied for and received permission to build it instead on an island in the Tigris River. He then expanded his proposal to include a civic auditorium, a landscaped park with monuments, fountains and waterfalls, a parking deck in the shape of a three-story ziggurat, museums for both ancient and modern art, a botanical garden and zoo, a casino, a bazaar, an amphitheater and an entire university complex. He also designed a new post office in the old city of Baghdad.
"We've got a great opportunity there," he wrote, " . . . to demonstrate that we're not destructive but constructive, where the original forces that built the civilizations of the world are concerned. . . . We are not there to slap them in the face but to do honor to them."
In a chapter she authored on "Wright's Baghdad" in the book "Frank Lloyd Wright: Europe and Beyond," Marefat wrote that Wright's proposed Baghdad civic center "was intended to reinforce a cultural identity rooted in a rich historic past. To this end he mined both Islamic and pre-Islamic imagery, relying as much on myth and memory as on historical context. His circular plan was in fact reminiscent of al-Mansur's city" and featured "domed shapes and lofty spires" of Islamic memory plus ziggurats and terraces "alluding to the ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian heritage" of Iraq.
Mindful of such modern urban challenges as traffic flow and communications towers, she added, "what Wright prepared in Baghdad was a rare mixture of respect for the past and for the technology of the future. . . . But the city he evoked was [the] city of memory . . . of imagination," the Baghdad of Scheherazade and Sinbad -- powerful enough to endure for centuries even when the real city was long destroyed."
However much Arab storytellers have embroidered it over the years with magic lanterns and flying carpets, Deeb and Marefat point out, the fabulous Baghdad of the Middle Ages was more than just an Islamic Camelot: It really did exist.
It was built between 762 and 766 by 10,000 slaves laboring under the orders of the Abbassid al-Mansur, the second of the 37th caliphs of that dynasty. Mansur thought himself an architect. He envisioned a perfectly circular walled city roughly a mile and a half in diameter, its sections radiating out from a central palace and mosque like the sections of an orange. To double-check the geometry of his design before construction, Arab chronicles say, he had his workers outline the path of Baghdad's intended wall with a shallow trench, fill it with a mixture of cottonseed and oil and set it afire while he watched from a nearby height.
That Baghdad was destroyed in 1258 by invading Mongols who burned its mosque and minarets and libraries and looted its splendors, and went on killing for 40 days. Arabs have been mourning its loss ever since.
"There is no way to exaggerate the hold the myth of Baghdad has on the Arab imagination," Deeb says. "Arabs know their civilization was great once. They don't understand why that greatness passed away. The fundamentalist Mullahs tell them it is because they have been corrupted by infidel teachings from the West" -- never mind that Baghdad was sacked not from the West, but from the East.
The more likely explanation for the decline, she says, is that the greatest thinkers of the Arab world were killed by the Mongols. The surviving Muslims, much like Catholic Spain in the same era, turned against rationality and scientific inquiry, considering them subversive of religious orthodoxy and faith. That attitude in Spain inspired the infamous Inquisition, expulsion of the Jews and a long twilight of bloodshed and intolerance. In the Arab world it led to increasing Islamic factionalism and tribal enmity and a long decline in the face of the technologically superior West.
Nowadays, Deeb says, young Arabs are being asked to choose between a faith-based Islamic fundamentalism with ties to their cultural past and a high-tech Western culture that they're told exploits them to marginality.
"They look around and see nothing that echoes this great past they've heard about. The prospect of a Baghdad rebuilt to mirror that greatness could be a profoundly inspiring and healing vision," she says. "One vital not just for Iraqis: one in which all Arabs could feel they share."
Wright had grown up with the "Arabian Nights" tales and was so fond of them he adorned his own children's playhouse in Oak Park, Ill., with a mural depicting "The Fisherman and the Genii," Marefat writes. But his involvement in Baghdad was anything but fantasy.
Iraq had come into being as a nation in 1924, its boundaries conforming not to any resemblance of its past kingdoms but to the negotiated wishes of the great European powers in the wake of World War I. The British, who with the aid of Lawrence of Arabia had evicted the Turks during the Great War from their long dominion over Arab lands, installed Faisal I of the Hashemite family as Iraq's king. They continued to influence Iraqi affairs even after World War II when the country nationalized its mushrooming oil production, making vast sums available for public development projects.
In 1950 Iraq created a Development Board to chart a path for using the oil money to move the still primitive desert country into the modern age. For the first five years the board targeted the country's infrastructure: roads, flood control, sewerage, hospitals, schools and the like.
By 1957 the basics had been taken care of and the board was ready to move on to more ambitious public works. With Iraqi architects scarce at the time, leading architects from the West were invited to submit proposals for specific projects.
Among those who did were Germany's Walter Gropius, France's Le Corbusier and Italy's Gio Ponti. Wright was enlisted almost as an afterthought.
"The irony," says Marefat, "is that Wright was the only one giving a thought to Iraq's cultural heritage in his designs, and his weren't built. The others created 'modern' architecture of the era that had little or no relation to Iraq or its history."
Those designs, she said, influenced the design of buildings in the years since, "so that today Baghdad looks like any Western city . . . maybe Los Angeles. The chance to reshape it with a distinctive character was lost."
It is the chance to recover that character, she says, that continues to fuel her fascination with Wright's vision.
"Americans -- and I am one myself -- are not very good at grasping the importance of traditional culture in a country like Iraq," she says. "We tend to think that because our political and economic system makes life good for us, it will solve problems for others if we just transport it. But Iraqis must feel they are holding onto the culture that makes them Iraqis as they adapt their society to the post-Saddam era. They are a proud people. We should help them express that cultural pride in a constructive way. It would solve so many of their present problems. And ours, too."
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