Rifat Chadirji (1926–2020)

Rifat Chadirji. Courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award, Rifat Chadriji Photographic Archive.

RIFAT CHADIRJI, a pioneering Iraqi architect and architecture theorist, died in London on April 10 from complications related to Covid-19. He was ninety-three. He had continued until late in his life to expound his views on buildings, culture, history, religion, and Iraq. His design days may have been behind him—he had not built anything in more than forty years—but his influence on an expansive notion of modern architecture encompassing bold regional experiments has not waned.

Chadirji was a leading figure among a group of exceptional artists and architects who, after studying abroad in the 1940s and ’50s, returned to Iraq imbued with patriotic fervor and a modernist spirit. In 1952, he established his own practice, which played a major role in laying the foundations of contemporary architecture in Iraq. His many residential and public structures merged a spatial and compositional equilibrium with a set of historically rooted elements, foremost among them the arch and the iwan (a large alcove). In the process, Chadirji devised an approach all his own, which he dubbed “International Regionalism.” The term presented a semantic paradox yet captured the aspirations of this cosmopolitan Arab who, like many postcolonial intellectuals of his generation, strove to reconcile his Western-influenced modernity with his cultural identity.

Chadirji’s break as an architect came in 1959, when General Abdul Karim Qasim, the leader of the revolutionary coup against the monarchy, commissioned him to design several memorials in Baghdad, of which two were completed. The first was the Freedom Monument (1959), whose dramatic figural bas-reliefs, cast in bronze, were designed by Iraq’s premier sculptor Jawad Selim, a close friend of Chadirji’s. The monument still stands in the center of Baghdad today as a symbol of modern Iraq. The second and the more architecturally stunning, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, was completed also in 1959 and demolished by Saddam Hussein in 1982. A tapering, attenuated alcove of brick-encased concrete, it referenced two iconic architectural types initially developed in Mesopotamia. First is the reed vault of southern Iraq—a marshland known today as al-Ahwar—where the Sumerians discovered the tensile quality of reed bundles and used them in assembling vaulted halls in the fourth millennium BCE. Second is the iwan, the dominant architectural form in Mesopotamia and Persia; its most imposing example, the Iwan Kisra, variably dated to either the third century or the sixth century CE and still stands today in the ruins of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sasanian Empire, south of Baghdad. Chadirji forged from these primordial models an abstract representation of Iraq, the cradle of civilization, the land of the confluence of the two rivers—the Tigris and the Euphrates—and the origin of arcuate architecture.

Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad, 1959. Courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award, Rifat Chadriji Photographic Archive.

The rhythm of his facades, distilled from the arched form, became the hallmark of Chadirji’s subsequent public buildings, such as the Offices and Tobacco Warehouses (1969), the Rafidain Bank (1970), and the Central Post Office (1972), all in Baghdad. Throughout his practice, he pursued a long-term photographic project to record the rituals, crafts, and architecture of Iraq (including his own work), both as subjects of his research and as an attempt to preserve a world fast changing under the double impact of modernization and tightening political despotism. Chadirji himself became a victim of the latter when he was thrown in prison in 1978 on flimsy charges only to be released twenty months later, when Saddam Hussein wanted to use his expertise to give Baghdad a facelift.

The experience shook Chadirji to the core. Afterward, he abandoned design almost entirely and devoted himself to writing. His first two archi-biographical books, Taha Street to Hammersmith (1985) and al-Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace (1991), which were conceptualized in prison, did not come out until after he and his wife, Balqis Sharara, left for the United States on a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, in 1983. They never returned to Iraq except for one short visit. A later memoir, A Wall between Two Darknesses (2004), written by Chadirji and his wife, recounts the painful prison episode, as they faced it separately: one inside and one outside, both distressed by the opacity of the tyrannical regime.

Elevation of Rafidain Bank in Baghdad, 1971. Kamil and Rifat Chadirji Photographic Archive, courtesy of Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries.

In Cambridge, Chadirji engaged with cultural, philosophical, and architectural programs at both Harvard and MIT until 1992. He received the Aga Khan’s Chairman’s Award in 1986, followed by several international recognitions. He authored several more books, established a foundation in Lebanon in 2000, and donated his archive to MIT in 2017. Slowly, he and Balqis withdrew from public life to devote themselves to writing and reading in their London home. Philosophical till the end, he took the long view when reflecting on the fate of many of his masterpieces, destroyed by Saddam’s vanity or the incessant war in Iraq. “Our Bedouin culture glorifies the word and ignores the object, hence our monuments disappear,” he observed in an interview, echoing Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth-century history theorist. What Chadirji so shrewdly omitted was that he had already ensured his legacy through his autobiographically flavored architectural meditations, diffused over more than ten books, and his obsessive documentation of his own buildings in thousands of photographs, now housed at MIT. If his demolished or maimed architecture receded as a lieu de mémoire (site of memory), to use Pierre Nora’s term, Chadirji deftly reinvented his work as a milieu de mémoire (realm of memory) in profuse and beautifully crafted texts and images.

Nasser Rabbat is the is the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.