Name an Iraqi architect who has built something in Abu Dhabi. Simple, no? As most people will tell you, the answer is the late Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), “Queen of the Curve” and all things amorphous, multi-millionaire starchitect and designer of the Sheikh Zayed Bridge.
Prior to the completion of the US$300 million (Dh1,102m), 842-metre-long crossing in 2010, however, the answer may have been quite different.
Before projects such as the Vitra Fire Station, Innsbruck’s Bergisel ski jump and Cincinatti’s Contemporary Art Centre propelled Hadid to the ranks of architectural megastardom, Rifat Chadirji’s was the most illustrious Iraqi name in the modern architectural history of the region.
The designer of 96 buildings in his native Baghdad between the 1950s and the 1980s such as the Monument to the Unknown Soldier (1958) in Firdos Square, which was later destroyed by Saddam Hussein, Chadirji was also responsible for creating an enormous, 100,000-image archive that chronicles Iraq’s heroic moment of modernisation.
A selection of Chadirji’s drawings and images were displayed in Every Building in Baghdad: the Rifat Chadirji Archives at the Arab Image Foundation, which was exhibited at Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in 2016 and as the title suggests, the archives are now housed at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut.
As well as including drawings and images of Chadirji’s acknowledged masterworks such as Baghdad’s 10-storey Central Post Office, Telegraph and Telephone Exchange (1970) it also contains overlooked and unexamined evidence of a link between the architect and Abu Dhabi.
In 1977, Chadijri won a competition to design Abu Dhabi’s new national theatre, a new cultural institution for a young nation that was being developed at the same time as The Architects Collaborative (TAC) were designing and building Abu Dhabi’s new Cultural Foundation and National Library, which is currently undergoing restoration alongside Qasr Al Hosn.
TAC won the Cultural Foundation competition in 1974 thanks to the work of another Iraqi architect, Hisham Ashkouri, who completed the competition proposal in 1973 at the tender age of 25 during his gap year between postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard-MIT.
Ashkouri was assisted by another Iraqi expatriate, Basil Hassan, who was working as an associate architect with TAC and the submission was overseen by Louis McMillen, one of the seven partners who had founded the firm in 1945 alongside Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, in 1919.
So is The National Theatre Chadijri’s? At the moment nobody seems sure, but what is certain is that the theatre and the Cultural Foundation were both completed in 1981.
If it is the product of Iraq’s master Modernist, then the theatre lacks the bravura detailing and finishes of projects such as Chadirji’s Tobacco Monopoly Company Headquarters (1974), but its arches, windows and coffered concrete ceilings are the product of a moment when Abu Dhabi’s megaprojects were designed by Arabs for Arabs and also reflected on the region’s forms and history.
Infirm and recently recovered from a stroke, the architect celebrated his 91st birthday this week at his home in London but Chadirji’s name continues to make headlines thanks to a new competition that bears his name.
In November the winner of the inaugural Rifat Chadirji Prize was announced following a competition that challenged architects to find solutions to the housing challenges that now face the city of Mosul, which was declared liberated by the Iraqi government in July.
The competition was won by Ania Otlik, a graduate of Wroclaw University of Science and Technology in Poland, who devised a flexible housing system that allows families to design their own homes and neighbourhoods in a way that is reminiscent of the national housing programme that was first launched in Abu Dhabi in the late 1960s.
The programme was the subject of Yasser Elsheshtawy’s UAE National Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, an exhibition about Emirati home-making that is yet to find a permanent home of its own.
Even if it isn’t Chadirji’s, might the old National Theatre not serve as the perfect venue for a show about the national house and a more general history of architecture in the UAE?
In advance of the forthcoming Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2019 one is certainly needed, as is confirmation of The National Theatre’s authorship, the possible product of an Iraqi architect whose influence and legacy just might outlive Hadid’s.
This article was originally published in The National