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A dream for Baghdad

Abu Nuwas Water Garden Scheme

Arthur Erickson’s 40-year-old plan to revive Abu Nuwas to its former glory has yet to come to fruition

Abu Nuwas, Baghdad’s once grand riverside boulevard, has weathered Iraq’s changing fortunes. It began life as an 18th-century embankment, a bulwark against flooding from the Tigris, but as Baghdad grew beyond its old city walls in the early 20th century, its prominence increased as a pedestrian thoroughfare. Around the time of Iraqi independence, it became one of the first roads for motor vehicles and eventually a popular picnic area in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as a riverfront idyll for the wealthy and their villas. The 1950s – both during the monarchy and after the 1958 revolution – marked its golden age as an entertainment and recreational hub, with families gathering at riverside cafés and swimming clubs. It was a centre for fun that would have inspired its eighth-century poet namesake, whose libidinous verse celebrated life’s pleasures.

Abu Nuwas began to decline in the 1970s, when trade union clubs became recreational centres, a trend that continued through the Iran/Iraq war and 12 years of post-Gulf War sanctions. However, for one shining moment in the early 1980s, it was the site of a remarkable project designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. The Abu Nuwas Conservation and Development Project was commissioned in the heady days of an Iraq flush with oil money and the hubris of a newly empowered Saddam Hussein, who set out to ‘rebuild Baghdad’ for a 1983 conference of Non-Aligned countries.

Muqarnas brickwork Abassid Palace

Muqarnas brickwork Abassid Palace

Muqarnas brickwork, Abassid Palace

This was also a high point in Erickson’s career with many international commissions, including several in the Middle East, and three main offices – in Vancouver, Toronto and LA – and one in Riyadh. A decade later, he would declare bankruptcy.

In the end, the conference never happened due to the fact that, by then, Iraq was deep into a war with neighbouring Non-Aligned nation Iran, a conflict that would last eight bloody years and set Iraq on course for three decades of disaster. And Erickson’s designs for the Abu Nuwas project – whose urban masterplan extended along a 3.5-kilometre section of river bank – were never realised. Not the history museum, national library, performing arts complex, arts school nor the series of fragrant gardens.

But poring over Erickson’s mirage-like renderings some 35 years later, it’s easy to see how he was inspired by the area’s history and promise. And the optimistic images of a modern, flourishing national capital are a poignant reminder of what Iraq once was, and what it has become.

Isola Bella

Isola Bella

The terraces of Isola Bella in Italy inspired Erickson’s island for the middle of the Tigris

Abu Nuwas Baghdad History 2

Abu Nuwas Baghdad History 2

 Erickson’s team was inspired by the floating bridges and reed boats that formerly linked two halves of the city

I’ve always been drawn to Abu Nuwas. On my first trip to Iraq in 1997, playing hooky one day from a New York Times story on weapons inspections, I wandered around the east side of the Tigris with an affable minder from the Ministry of Information, who turned out to be the nephew of Tariq Aziz. As we walked along the river’s edge, past cafés and shops, and then through the old Ottoman villas of Bataween, we discussed not presidents and weapons, but the literature of Naguib Mahfouz.

Great Mosque Samarra

Great Mosque Samarra

The articulated river wall in Erickson’s final Abu Nuwas scheme was based on the semi-circular buttresses of the Great Mosque, Samarra

Before the invasion Abu Nuwas was home to many art galleries, notably the al-Akkad, housed in one of the 1930s era villas and one of the few survivors post 2003 (but sadly closed down two years ago).

After the invasion, the area was full of blast walls, barriers and street children high on illegal pharmaceuticals. At the time of my 2010 visit, a series of bombs ripped through three Baghdad hotels popular with Western journalists and NGOs, including the towering Sheraton built in 1981 and designed by TAC (in collaboration with Hisham Munir) – by then no longer a symbol of Modernist cosmopolitanism, but one of foreign occupation.

But long before Baghdad was a city of suicide bombers, it was a city of peace. Caliph Al-Mansur’s perfectly imagined and conceived round city. A place of learning and delight, not of longing and regret. It was this Baghdad and its heritage that inspired Erickson’s design for a transformative series of terraced buildings, perfumed pleasure gardens and cultural centres along the riverfront in 1981.

The Mustansiriya

The Mustansiriya

The Mustansiriya, one of two great buildings remaining from Baghdad’s Abbassid period, was a significant source of inspiration for Erickson and his team, giving form to the major cultural facilities proposed for the Abu Nuwas area

The Mustansiriya plan

The Mustansiriya plan

The regular geometric plan of Balkuwara Palace in Samarra, one of the greatest urban complexes of the Abbasid period, inspired the articulated street layout, gateway buildings and formal gardens in Erickson’s Abbasid street scheme for the Abu Nuwas riverfront

It was also the 1957 drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Edena Island – a scheme for an opera house in the middle of the Tigris that was part of his plan for greater Baghdad – that sparked Erickson’s concept for an island of amusement parks, theatres and science centres. Wright’s designs never came to fruition, not because of war, but regime change. When Abdul Qarim Kassem overthrew King Faisal II in 1958, he found Wright’s plans for a university, museums and a towering golden statue of Harun al-Rashid rather extravagant. In the words of Robert Twombly, his new government found that ‘the people needed food, clothing and shelter more than floating gardens, gold fountains and a mammoth zoo’.

But 1981 was a key moment in Iraqi history, when the new president Saddam Hussein asked Rifat Chadirji (recently liberated from jail by the man himself) to commission international architects to make Baghdad glorious again, a new Abbasid capital of Modernist renown.

Among the architects invited via Rifat Chadirji were: Ma’ath Alousi of Technical Studies Bureau (TEST) who worked on a series of apartment and office buildings along Haifa Street; Arup Associates and Richard England, who worked on housing projects in Bab El-Sheikh; TAC, who built some government buildings on Khulafa Street; and Denmark’s Skaarup & Jespersen who did a residential development along the southern edge of Abu Nuwas.

Baghdad has a history of international architects and unbuilt designs (notable exceptions being part of the University of Baghdad designed by Gropius, and a sports stadium designed by Le Corbusier not built until the early 1980s), so unsurprisingly few of the Non-Aligned nations conference projects were finished. 

Abu Nuwas Abassid Street

Abu Nuwas Abassid Street

Plan view of the central part of Erickson’s Abbasid Street scheme; aerial view of the central part of his interim scheme for the Abu Nuwas area; detailed view of Erickson’s early island scheme, looking back to Abu Nuwas along the axis of the new bridge across the Tigris; model view of Science Discovery Island in Erickson’s island scheme

Hotels such as the Al-Rashid, the Mansour Melia, the Sheraton and the Meridian were built along with much of TEST’s Haifa Street project and a conference centre that is the current Iraqi parliament in the Green Zone. But Erickson’s grand plan for Abu Nuwas languished at design stage as the Iran/Iraq conflict drained funds for the war chest and the project was abandoned.

Still, architect Mowaffaq Altaey – who worked under Sabah Alazzawi who administered the early 1980s Baghdad building schemes for the city – saw merit in the plan, and kept copies of the drawings. Altaey – who recently authored a book in Arabic called Frank Lloyd Wright: Genie of Baghdad, and is himself a wily survivor of various regimes, coups and monster palace commissions – reintroduced the Erickson plan to the mayor of Baghdad in 2014. At the time, the septuagenarian architect and planner who was both lionised and terrorised by the old regime – as a design consultant on some of Saddam’s more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist – was working as an advisor to the mayor.

Altaey, who walks with a limp after he was shot by US forces in 2004 while working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the south, but still possesses both an irrepressible charm and an unbridled enthusiasm for his country’s heritage, was charged with a Sisyphean task. His job was to try and reintegrate Baghdad’s post-invasion neighbourhoods, separated by blast walls and sectarianism, and he saw in Erickson’s plans a way to facilitate this.

‘Abu Nuwas’, Altaey explains from his home in Baghdad, ‘is a spine linking different areas, including Karradeh, Bataween and Sadoun Street’ and, in that way, has great potential to ‘connect people’. Erickson’s plan, he contends, was to create a common public space for people of different backgrounds – as well as cultural, scientific and other activities that bring people together. A key point, especially in post-invasion Iraq, he notes, is that ‘Abu Nuwas is not a religious but a secular space – and now we are in great need of such spaces.’

abu nuwas abassid street scheme

abu nuwas abassid street scheme

Erickson’s plan also embraced the waterfront, with buildings opening up to the Tigris, he says, ‘rather than turning their back to the river as they do now’. While Altaey acknowledges that implementing the entire plan might be impractical, ‘at least we could create some of the “water gardens” and landscape design he envisioned’.

Sadly, the political will needed to implement Altaey’s recommendations was lacking. Undaunted, in 2015 he presented the Erickson scheme to the mayor of Baghdad, Dr Zekra Alwach. While Alwach – who has a PhD in civil engineering – appreciated its merits, she spoke frankly about the state of things in Iraq, devastated by declining oil prices and ongoing attacks by Daesh. ‘It’s a nice idea,’ she said, ‘but now we don’t even have a budget for the street cleaners.’ Altaey still holds a torch for the plan, and uses it when he teaches at the University of Baghdad. ‘My students,’ he tells me, ‘are always very impressed.’

The Erickson plan, detailed in a bilingual urban design summary report, was meant to both redevelop and revitalise Abu Nuwas. As written in the original project description provided by Vancouver-based Alan Bell, who was Erickson’s project director: ‘The masterplan focuses on Abu Nuwas Street as a formal boulevard, punctuated by a number of major cultural facilities. The city and the river are reunited by extending these cultural facilities out to the river edge, redeveloping the existing riverfront park as a varied series of gardens, and providing a continuous pedestrian route along the articulated river edge. 

‘These new facilities, gardens and urban recreational activities hark back to the Abu Nuwas area’s traditional role as the cultural and entertainment centre of the city, to the historic importance of Baghdad and Iraq as the primary cultural centre in the region, and to the cultural and intellectual activities that were focused in Baghdad during the Abbasid period.’

Abu Nuwas Island Scheme 2

Abu Nuwas Island Scheme 2

Erickson offered two main conceptual options. One was a man-made island in the Tigris, inspired by both Frank Lloyd Wright’s mid-century island concept as well as by Italy’s Isola Bella, whose terraces and plantings were referenced. ‘Arthur envisioned a landscaped island,’ recalls Bell, who says an Islamic Science museum designed for a Saudi client also inspired the idea of a ‘science discovery island’. The idea was first expressed on a visit to Baghdad in August 1981, when Erickson met with the mayor who, putting him on the spot, asked for some ‘big ideas’. Without missing a beat, Erickson said ‘an island in the middle of the Tigris’.

A 1981 rendering reveals an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. Its north end boasts an amphitheatre with a floating stage surrounded by water, a domed IMAX theatre and, on its far end, a triangular astronomical observatory inspired by a similar one in Jaipur. ‘This was a time when Postmodernism was having its moment,’ recounts Bell, ‘and Arthur was struggling with how to relate to that within a heritage context,’ allowing certain elements of historicist architecture into the designs that were not his norm.

Simple, monolithic walls with few openings – in response to the local climate – lend a feeling of medieval island fortress. But where the ground plane is limited, a variety of roof forms open to the elements. This was typically Ericksonian says Bell, of the late architect who enjoyed designing ‘buildings you could walk on top of’.

‘Arthur hated to see empty roofs,’ recalls Bell, preferring to employ water elements and plantings as he did for the island scheme’s roof terraces.

In the end it was security concerns that foiled the island concept. The proposed bridge would have led directly to the government precinct – towards what is now the (recently penetrated by Sadrist protestors) ‘Green Zone’, only half a kilometre away.

Abu Nuwas Island Scheme

Abu Nuwas Island Scheme

The second concept, ‘that Arthur faxed in a single drawing to our Vancouver office’, remembers Bell, was for ‘a water garden scheme’. The proposal entailed reclaiming the riverfront by extending the land out into the river. ‘The idea,’ explains Bell, ‘was to reintroduce a linear water feature next to the street.’ Erickson’s concept was to build a canal on a high level – not subject to floods or low tides – that spilled into the river, delineating the Abu Nuwas thoroughfare from the gardens and connecting them by a series of pedestrian bridges.

A gushing fountain with a waterfall element at the north-western tip – expanded southward towards a series of squared gardens and a walled cultural building with an open courtyard – was inspired by the nearby Mustansiriya University (or perhaps even Cairo’s Al-Azhar that Erickson told me influenced his open mall in Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University).

The building formed an axis that extended across the length of the site, including densely planted areas, fountains, pleasure gardens, tree-lined piazzas, Ferris wheels and even a man-made lake with an adjoining roof-top amphitheatre. Erickson’s plans for the scented garden included roses, jasmine and lilies, as well as orange and lemon trees.

It was his plans for this garden of paradise that Bell recalls Erickson describing at a conference/exhibition on the development of Baghdad in November 1981. Seated beside the then mayor of Baghdad, and consultant George Dudley, who had first recommended him to Chadirji, Bell remembers Erickson waxing poetic on the joys and the subtleties of the Islamic garden and his contemporary interpretation of it, when suddenly there was a loud interruption. Saddam, together with an entourage of machine-gun wielding soldiers, stormed in, just as Erickson was extolling the virtues of orange blossoms in full bloom.

Abu Nuwas

Abu Nuwas

Central Baghdad model, showing Erickson’s Abu Nuwas project and the other major urban development projects being overseen by Chadirji, 1981-82

Bell remembers the president attending each day of the conference and listening intently. While he declined to comment on the design or planning side, ‘He did say he wanted to “make Baghdad great again like in Abassid times”.’ With a nod to the conflict with neighbouring Iran, he also said that ‘Abu Nuwas [the famed poet] was an Iranian’ and the ‘only reason he was famous was because he lived in Baghdad’.

But Altaey recalls that at the beginning of the conference, a group of Sunni imams protested that the project and the area should be renamed, because the poet Abu Nuwas was ‘a drunk and a pederast’. On the very day that Sadrists protesting government corruption overtake the Green Zone and dire warnings of inter-Shia strife abound, he tells me, ‘Saddam defended the name, and insisted on keeping it.’ After the conference was over, recounts Bell, ‘we all went to Rifat’s house.’ 

In the midst of wartime, foreigners were confined to hotels and rather unpalatable meals, and Chadirji’s wife Balkis recalls hosting several dinner parties for the many foreign architects. Erickson, she remembers, was ‘very friendly and talkative and had a good sense of humour’. Later in 1983, after the Abu Nuwas project had been abandoned and the Chadirjis had left Iraq, they would meet again in Erickson’s own Vancouver home, dwarfed by his semi-wild West-

Coast-meets-Zen garden, a contrast to the tightly choreographed plantings of his Baghdad designs.

Saddam the Mayor and Rifat

Saddam the Mayor and Rifat

Chadirji presents a model of Erickson’s scheme to Saddam Hussein, while the Mayor of Baghdad looks on, Baghdad, 1981

‘Rifat didn’t know what the exact instructions would be,’ says Bell, ‘but after he sent our drawings and reports back to the mayor the instructions that came back were for Abu Nuwas to become an “Abbasid street” … We interpreted this as a call for “monumental streets”, with architectural references back to the Abbasid period.’  These included Baghdad’s Abbasid Palace and Mustansiriya, the mosque in Samarra and the Ukhaider Palace (in the south of Iraq) whose images are all referenced in the Abu Nuwas project booklet.

Erickson was inspired by the plan for Caliph Al-Mansur’s round city with its series of gateways and segmented streets, coming from the outside to the centre. The idea was that each gateway would usher in one of the new cultural buildings. ‘It was very impractical, Erickson’s plan,’ Rifat Chadirji says dismissively from his London home. ‘There was far too much water and it was far too expensive.’

Chadirji is almost 90 and can’t remember too many architectural details – but he’s sharp as a tack when it comes to other things. When asked whether Erickson’s local partner Hisham Munir was jailed during design stage on trumped-up charges of illegal currency trading he replies: ‘No, he was jailed because he refused to accept a marriage offer for his daughter with someone in a high government position.’

In 1981 Chadirji himself was released from 20 months of harsh imprisonment (at the hands of the previous Hassan al-Bakr regime) by Saddam Hussein who asked him to coordinate the great rebuilding of Baghdad project. Shortly after his liberation, he began commissioning foreign architects. He remembers the era as ‘a very good environment’. There was a sense of optimism with the change in leadership ‘and my relations with Saddam were always good’.

abu nuwas design vocabulary

abu nuwas design vocabulary

This is corroborated by Altaey, who says ‘war is good for the economy’. At least it was at first, before the price of oil dropped and currency reserves drained. In 1981, munitions factories and construction projects were booming. A popular billboard slogan of the era was ‘Iraq fights on, Iraq builds on’.

‘We didn’t discuss the past – all that had happened,’ Chadirji tells me. After Chadirji left Baghdad in 1982, Saddam had Chadirji’s elegant monument to the unknown soldier (inspired by the arch of Ctesiphon) replaced with a statue of himself. ‘When Saddam first came to power, he wanted to improve Baghdad,’ relates Chadirji.

At odds with Bell’s recollection of instructions coming from ‘on high’, Chadirji says, ‘We [Saddam and I] never had a discussion about architecture. I would simply send a report about what we were doing and he would OK it. There was no interference. It was my vision and the vision of the architects.’ (Bell contends that this was likely true for all of the projects except for the Abu Nuwas one, which was very much directed by Saddam.) But Chadirji would leave Iraq for Harvard in 1982, saying in a 2003 New York Times interview:

‘I could not stay in a country that treated me this way.’

Balkis Chadirji fills in some blanks when her husband’s energy and memory begins to flag. She reminds me that there was a strong conservation element to the Abu Nuwas and associated projects. ‘Rifat was very concerned about preserving architectural heritage,’ she explains, and that included plans in the Abu Nuwas project to preserve historic areas in Bataween.

‘It was all destroyed,’ she notes bitterly. ‘Bataween, Rashid Street, the old Jewish area, the British-era houses. In Haifa Street they only preserved four houses … Iraqis don’t believe in preserving heritage. They just destroy and rebuild. Ah, Baghdad,’ she sighs, ‘has become an ugly city. Ignorant, corrupt people are ruining it.’

But Alan Bell still has fond memories of Baghdad, including the home of the Chadirjis, with its ‘huge fig tree and lovely garden’. Although, toward the end, as the war with Iran progressed, his various trips from Vancouver to Baghdad were less about rebuilding the city in all its neo-Abbasid glory and more about chasing payments. (Erickson’s firm was eventually paid 90 per cent of its fees.) He recalls a vaguely post-apocalyptic taxi journey to Kuwait in the mid 1980s, witnessing burnt-out tanks and army trucks on the side of the road.

Oddly enough both the lawyer the firm hired to extract payment from the Iraqi government and the chief administrator of the project Sabah Alazzawi ended up seeking refuge in Vancouver.

Baghdad boating lake

Baghdad boating lake

Iraqis on a boating lake in a humble amusement park on run-down Abu Nuwas street in 2013

Now the only ghost of Erickson’s grand plan is a river wall installed after the first Gulf War – with none of his geometric articulation at the edge, and random plantings and local shrubbery standing in for the formal gardens he had envisioned.

‘The area is rather derelict now,’ says Altaey, although families still stroll there in the evening and pose for photos in front of Mohammed Ghani Hikmat’s early 1970s statue of Scheherazade and Shahryar, or frequent the few remaining cafés. Some of the buildings, like the Lebanese restaurant Al-Mudeef that was looted in 2003, are still in ruins.

The neighbouring Bataween area, with its crumbling 1930s terraced houses, has become a crime-ridden home to the displaced and the dispossessed, as well as a few surviving carpentry and plaster workshops. The remaining British-era villas on the waterfront have become local offices for multinationals like Samsung. Abu Nuwas is a shadow of its former self, when casinos, restaurants and nightlife made it one of Baghdad’s liveliest quarters.

If Erickson’s project had been realised, Altaey contends, ‘this place would have been a paradise’. It would have been great for tourism, he surmises, and for archiphiles. ‘It would have been a masterwork not just for Iraq but for the world.’

‘Arthur was from Vancouver,’ he notes, ‘but he understood the regional systems at work here and was sensitive to local needs.’ Like Chadirji, says Altaey, Erickson’s work ‘beautifully expressed the regional and the international’.

‘Erickson,’ he concludes, ‘spoke in two languages, not only one.’ For now, his designs live on in the minds of Altaey’s young students, who may well dream of a new city on the Tigris, restored to its former glory.