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October 22 2021 6:09 PM ˚

Rifat Chadirji: The father of modern Iraqi architecture

Rifat Chadriji. (Photos:
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AMMAN — Famed Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji was one of his nation’s cultural giants, embodying the strengths and the struggles of his homeland. Born into a patrician family with aristocratic, Anatolian roots; Chadirji’s grandfather was once mayor of Baghdad and his father Kamil founded the National Democratic Party in 1946. His life and work were inseparable from the history of Iraq.اضافة اعلان

Chadirji was one of the last of a generation of artists, architects, and intellectuals who came of age in the country’s glory years in the mid-20th century, and lived through the fall of the once center of progress in the Arab world. 

His buildings — over 100 of them across Iraq, including the 1975 Baghdad Central Post Office that was damaged and looted in 2003 — bear silent witness to what was once, and what could have been.  

After finishing his architecture studies in London, Chadirji became an early member of the Baghdad Modern Art Group, founded in 1951, which included sculptors Jawad Saleem and Mohammed Ghani Hikmat. While he shared their desire to incorporate Iraqi heritage into contemporary, abstract forms, he remained a modernist at heart, adapting the group’s ideas architecturally into a style he called “international regionalism”.

Since then, Chadirji’s career spanned the dizzying arcs of Iraq’s path through dictatorship, war, and invasion. One of his earliest and best-known works was his Monument to an Unknown Soldier in Fardous Square, commissioned in 1959, which was later replaced by the statue of Saddam Hussein that was removed by US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In the late 1970s, when Chadirji was at the peak of his career, working with many international offices, he was incarcerated, and later freed when then new Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was on a mission to “rebuild Baghdad” for a 1982 conference for The Non-Aligned Movement member states, and wanted Chadirji to oversee the project due to his popularity in the field. 

Chadirji went on to commission prominent international architects including Robert Venturi and The Architects Collaborative (TAC), which counted Walter Gropius in its founding members.

Although the architect was deeply involved in stopping the demolition of heritage buildings in Baghdad and build theaters and pedestrian bridges, he ultimately left Iraq for good in 1983, when he was offered a teaching position at Harvard. 

He was elected Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1982, was awarded the Chairman Award of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1986, and was elected Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1987.

Although many of the buildings — his own and others, both heritage and modern — that he meticulously photographed over three decades have since been destroyed, Chadirji’s legacy lives on.

The Taymouz Excellence Award, founded by young Iraqi architect and academic Ahmed Al-Mallak, gave its inaugural Rifat Chadirji Prize in 2017 to a resettlement plan in Mosul. Sadly, only a year later, Chadirji’s seminal 1966 National Insurance building in Mosul, once a symbol of Iraq’s emerging second city but later tragically tainted by its popularity as a place for Daesh militants to throw victims from its heights, was demolished.

Chadirji passed away on April 10th, 2020, at the age of 93 in London, after contracting the COVID-19 virus.

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