Dubai: Caecilia Pieri visited Baghdad for the first time in 2003, accompanying a friend who was preparing for an exhibition of Iraqi artists in Paris. The trip, as it turned out, was to change her life in a way she never imagined.
Moving through the city with her friend, Pieri discovered an aspect of Baghdad — its architecture — that had for all practical purposes been turned invisible for the world for more than two decades.
It was, unsurprisingly, a revelation for her because, like millions of others, she had no idea of what Baghdad was really like.
For years, there was only one kind of a reality of Baghdad as depicted to the world by the Western media, which had conferred upon itself the role of Iraq's adjudicator. In doing so, it provided unending templates of rubble and wreckage as the city's true, and arguably only, condition. Baghdad, the world was made to believe, was a saturate of fractured, blown-apart, gouged-out landscape and buildings.
What Pieri discovered instead was a historic city that clung to its wonderfully amalgamated heritage with tenacity. The city's architecture was an uninhibited, enduring display of calibrated liberalism (adopting influences) merged with the rigour of its inherent forms.
Streets, houses and buildings of Baghdad, like an architectural mille feuille, were monolithic as a design example and yet existed in layers. For this scholar and pursuer of history's urban imprint, this was an opportunity to study the layers, as well as step back and look at the whole.
The result was a seminal book, Baghdad, Arts Deco, Architecture in Brick (1820-1950). (Pieri uses the term Arts Deco as a heartfelt contrivance. She doesn't defer to the original French movement that spread across the globe in the early part of the 19th century as much as she skillfully defines the radical breakaway of Baghdad's architecture.)
In every age — from the Mesopotamian era when Assyrians and Sumerians brought this art to a peak through to the Hellenistic times followed by the stunning architectural configurations of the Abbasid empire, to the reign of Harun Al Rashid when Baghdad was at its finest — the layers of time gave the city a unique palimpsest.
The Ottoman reign that began in 1534 cast a unique ochre layer over Baghdad. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689), the great French traveller and pioneer of trade, describes Baghdad thus: "…the houses were always made of vulnerable dried brick work, baked by the sun, of a lovely monochrome hue ranging from creamy beige to ochre to saffron according to the time and light."
Says Pieri, "Indeed, our current image of Baghdad is warped by a preoccupying and ugly context. And yet… this legendary City of the Caliphs which became the leading city of the Ottoman Wilayat as the centuries went by… and with the advent of the monarchy in 1921, and of the Independence in 1932, [it] was to experience an incredible development, political as well as economical, intellectual and artistic which transformed it into one of the avant-garde figures of the Middle East, what with its millenary culture and receptivity to modernity."
It is the period from 1920-1950, a period of "receptivity" as she calls it, that Pieri focuses on. The influence of British rule is 20th century's layer in the architectural strata of Baghdad.
"The British," says Pieri, "were the first directors of the modern Public Works Department (PWD) in Baghdad starting from 1920. It is logical that their education and professional skills had to intermingle with the Iraqi building tradition."
She quotes architect J.M. Wilson, who was the director of Baghdad's PWD at that time, as planning to develop an "Arab Renaissance" in Iraq in the 1920s. The tradition she invokes is vast, complex and yet easy to observe in today's Baghdad.
Between 2003-06, Pieri travelled to many homes of Baghdadis, exploring their individualistic and traditional spaces, observing the merging of the classical and the modern, pain-stakingly documenting the transitions in urban flux.
She says in her foreword to her book, "From the Twenties to the Fifties, residential architecture becomes a model of excellence, inventiveness and know-how. Where the other countries worked with stone, stucco or wood, and before the generalisation of the use of concrete for building, brickwork allowed Baghdad to become, along with the birth of its own vernacular style, the harbinger of the architectural Arab renaissance."
The central motif of Baghdad's architectural evolution is the centuries-old artistry gained by the use of brick as a building material and ornamentation as embellishments to the urban living cells. In fact, much of the architectural skill of Baghdad's homes and buildings is due to the now sadly declining trade of the ustas or Baghdadi master masons, who excelled at brickwork, which is at the core of the city's architectural continuity.
"Before the creation of the School of Architecture within the Baghdad University (1959)," says Pieri, "the houses and public buildings were mostly executed, and sometimes, even designed by ustas." In fact, this superlative knowledge of brickwork has an unbroken connection to the Assyrian times.
This continuum, working as a magnetic force, also attracted the 20th century additions.
The new techniques and designs taken from Europe at the start of the 20th century, combined with the city's tumultuous socio-political history, lent Baghdad the next stage in an originality that sets it apart from its peer cities like Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo and Cairo.
Pieri calls this phase defined by a "special design" as ‘Baghdadi'. The salient features of this period of design co-habitation are the redefining, in residential terms, of classical-cultural aspects such as inner courtyards, personal spaces as per familial absolutes, facades, balconies, intricate detailing on surfaces and introduction of newer materials as design accessories.
Many homes began adopting an outward facing design as opposed to the traditional inward facing seclusion of space.
As Pieri explains, "The Baghdad of the Twenties to the Fifties became all the richer … its urban visual identity is absolutely unique; it is impossible to confuse, despite their common points, its Ottoman bay windows with those of Beirut; nor to take a Baghdadi Shanasil for a corbelled window in Aleppo, or its ‘urban cottages' for those existing in Tehran; the Neo-Baroque style of Waziriya is not the same as that in Alexandria, its peacock-feather balcony railings are not to be confused with those of New Delhi [despite the common marker of British influence]."
Effect of conflict
However, this architectural accruement of "hybridity" over the decades, she says, has led to a section of Baghdadis criticising it for moving away from "Arab" character. But that's a debate she is not plunging into at the moment. What clearly excites her right now is that Baghdad needs to be acknowledged for its astonishing capacity to uphold both the ancient as well as the new.
The architectural Baghdad of today breathes with powerful lungs, standing high over the rank fumes of war that have blanketed its skyline for years. It is important, she says, to know and acknowledge this reality.
Of the many decades of war and destruction, she has an obverse view. "The damage began long before: with the war against Iran then followed by the Gulf War, then the sanctions: the three provoked huge exoduses of educated people, professors, architects. The biggest damage is not in the physical destruction: it is in the neglect, abandonment and dilapidation of a city," she says.
But this very dilapidation she hopes will provoke a possible tabula rasa, such as what was done elsewhere: "Eastern Europe 30 years ago, for example."
But as that takes its time to happen, the inherent spirit of Baghdad, she believes, lives on defying the whims of history to snuff it out.
Pieri's documentation of the city's architecture, one of the few existing efforts thus far, acts like a voice that silences the shrillness over Baghdad's bleakness. It speaks, and exemplifies, the fecundity that underpins its evolution.
Unbroken architectural tradition
The central motif of Baghdad's architectural evolution is the centuries-old artistry gained by the use of brick as a building material.