Deconstruction Images

New York

18 April 2016

“I think it’s important for a city like New York to look at a city like Baghdad, which is not terribly well known apart from through images of the 2003 war and the violence that took place after. We need to try and put these current images into their relationship with a more complicated rendition of Baghdad’s past,” says Mark Wasiuta, curator of Every Building in Baghdad.

This exhibition at Columbia University's Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery is the first public showing of photographs taken by the Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji. The show, which has been organised by the university’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, offers a glimpse of Chadirji’s 100,000-strong photography collection.

Captured between the 1950s and the 1980s, the images record the buildings of Baghdad, including those designed by Chadriji himself. It was a period of uncertainty and of potential mixed with loss; Iraq had only been liberated from British colonial rule in 1958. In Iraq, Chadriji is known not only as an architect but also a writer and a theorist. “He is an interesting figure,” says Wasiuta, in that he is thinking through architecture’s role and its relationship to cultural and political identities in Iraq during that period.”

By positioning urban photographs across from images of Chadirji’s own buildings, the curators have introduced a discursive element to the show. Both groups of images reflect on historical and present threats to Iraqi society. As Wasiuta explains, “there’s a grim clairvoyance within this project, because you see something of the disruption that Iraq is to suffer in the future.” The spectres of Saddam Hussein’s regime and America’s subsequent war on terror loom large.

Wasiuta and his team – co-curators Florencia Alvarez and Adam Bandler – came across Chadirji’s photographs while researching at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. “It’s an incredibly interesting institution," says Wasiuta. "They’re devoted to collecting, preserving and securing the photographic history of the Arab world, and they do that through photographs that serve a purpose rather than through art. For example, images from administrative government agencies or commercial photography.”

With 180 urban photos and 60 sheets of Chadirji’s buildings, Every Building in Baghdad represents a relatively small proportion of the collection as a whole. According to Wasiuta, the chosen photographs best demonstrate the transformations that the city continues to undergo. Some depict shabby low-rise new builds, often with a military truck positioned in the street; others show traditional kilns in the desert, or old brick houses being reduced to rubble by bulldozers.

Other photographs show a city in a period of intense construction. “We have scenes of urban demolition that he took during the late 70s and 80s, when Baghdad was undergoing a massive transformation with the arrival of the power of Saddam Hussein," says Wasiuta. "The show is really trying to focus on the various ways in which we can understand the architectural building culture of the city.” The dusty post-colonial capital is juxtaposed with Hussein’s building mania, creating the sense of a continuous flux.

One of the show’s most intriguing functions is its depiction of Chadirji’s stylistic evolution, which gradually saw him move away from strictly Western models of architecture. Chadirji studied in England, which influenced his early use of the International Style. His early buildings rely on clean lines and expansive interior spaces. However, in the 1960s he began developing his own idiosyncratic style, fusing modernism with the ornamental design of the city’s traditional Islamic building. Chadirji described his style at this point as “An architecture, which at once acknowledges the place in which it is built, yet which sacrifices nothing to modern technical capability.” His contributions as an architect and as an educator should be better known outside of Iraq.

Every Building in Baghdad is a melancholy narrative of destruction and demolition that has played a continual part in Iraq’s history since the 1958 revolution. Wasiuta calls it “a conversation with types of architectural damage and the violence that plays within Iraq and that region.” It is the sort of conversation that should continue.