Kahtan Al Madfai: Baghdad Visionary, Octogenarian Architect
The southern marshlands, the dances of Kurdistan, and the linguistics of Arabic poetry all had an artistic origin – a convergence – which inspired the designs of Kahtan Al Madfai in the 1950s. This still rings true today for Al Madfai, an iconic figure in the intellectual life of Baghdad, who roots his architecture in such diverse influences as the human and natural landscapes of Iraq, quantum physics, and Islamic aesthetics.
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Finding Kahtan Al Madfai’s house on Maghreb Street in central Baghdad is not so easy. The small, wrought iron door hides behind a giant rock carrying traces of ancient carvings, and behind the iron door stands a mystical-looking blue stone arch. Not only the gate is difficult to find, but the house itself is obscured by restaurants, pharmacies, shops, and stalls littering the pavement on both sides of the street, selling almost everything one can imagine. On top of all this comes the hustle and bustle of cars and raucous children scaring pigeons into a clear blue sky. It feels as though the house of Al Madfai, one of Baghdad’s foremost architects, is a relic of a bygone time. Indeed, the capital seems to exist in a different era, moving to a rhythm other than the one Al Madfai has been accustomed to since the 1950s.

Baghdad has changed a great deal, and so has Al Madfai, who is now more than eighty years old. But one undeniable truth remains: walking through that small door – Kahtan Al Madfai’s door – is nothing short of taking the first step in a journey into the history, identity, and soul of modern Baghdad. Inside, the traditional front yard acts like a buffer between the chaotic noise emanating from the street and the stillness surrounding the glass façade and narrow passageways of the house. When I arrived, the architect, a large man dressed rather simply, had a smile on his face. The halls were adorned with paintings by pioneers of Iraqi visual arts, such as Naziha Salim, Shaker Hassan Al Said, and Jawad Salim. Al Madfai, a painter himself, has kept eighty or more of his own paintings. His bookshelves are packed with hundreds of books in several languages, including Turkish, English, German, and Arabic. The tall octogenarian, who walks with a somewhat unhurried stride, likes to sit behind his desk, designing projects and architectural layouts. Only 30 percent of the projects preserved in his archives have been realized, according to Al Madfai. Nevertheless, he has remained, for fifty years, one of the most prominent figures of modern architecture in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Our conversation took place over many sessions on account of his age and my curiosity about his vast, rich world of experience. At the end of our discussions, Al Madfai revealed that he had donated his entire archive, including his blueprints, projects, books, slides, and a large number of images, to the Department of Architecture at the University of Baghdad for the benefit of future generations. The department is presently preparing a monograph about him, which gives him peace of mind. Today, however, he feels as though existence is closing in on him because of the cumbersome nature of age on the body. Such is life.

Shaker Al Anbari: You started by “landscaping” Baghdad. This suggests you had a deep relationship with the city, one that requires a comprehensive knowledge of history and urban planning, along with a vivid imagination. Why did you choose to begin by designing open spaces? What are the ideas and concepts that inspired you in designing these green sites?

Kahtan Al Madfai: It was human presence in nature that gave me this initial inspiration, in addition to historical topics of interest to my family. For instance, I inherited from my father his love for nature. He was a provincial mayor, and by virtue of his job, he had to travel to various parts of Iraq. As a child, I had diverse experiences in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, and other places. I also inherited from my father a large library that included a number of books in Turkish, which he could speak fluently, and many other books in English. I am not fluent in Turkish, but one important thing my father bequeathed to me was his interest in Islamic heritage. My father could memorize any poem by only reading it twice.

SA: Did that heritage inform your architectural vision?

KM: It has added a great deal to it indeed. I for one find the roots of Arab thought to lie in language and religion too. I have conducted research on this subject. I have a file of research materials that I named The Divine Language. The languages of the Sumerians and the Babylonians were constructs that pertained more to religion than to linguistics. The sign for “house” was drawn as if it were a divine house. The Arabic language also inherently contains the fundamentals of philosophy, since the construction of sentences and semantic fields are intertwined.

Further, language is the brainchild of people and society. The fundamental shapes for Plato were the sphere and the cube. According to Plato, the sphere had no direction. In Islam, there is no sphere; rather, there is a vector space, and this represents the Islamic response to Plato. For us, the sphere points in the direction of Mecca. We know no directionless spheres. This is where my philosophy in architecture began. When one enters the Al Mustansiriya University, for example, the perspective is a visual one rather than a spiritual one. It is these same principles that I had in mind when I designed the Beit Bunniya Mosque, opposite the railway building in Al Karkh.

SA: Your experience in designing the Iraqi pavilion at the 1954 Damascus International Fair seems to have been pivotal in your architectural career. After that watershed moment, your work became marked with an expressionist streak that relied on producing sharp impressions. Pavilions in international exhibitions usually seek to express a country’s identity, creative and cultural components as well as its horizons and future aspirations. You designed Iraq’s pavilion under the monarchy and decorated it with a royal emblem. Then after the monarchy was ousted in 1958 when the pavilion was still on display, you were taken along with the sculptor Jawad Salim on a private plane to remove the emblem from the design. Did this make you more aware of the significance of symbols associated with a particular political regime?

KM: I am more interested in the main part of the question than I am in its closing. I am against any political orientation as a principle of architectural philosophy. The work done at the Iraqi pavilion in 1954 at the Damascus International Fair was both exciting and impressive. The design had deep roots, thanks to my intimate awareness of the diverse life around me in Iraq. I had visited Kurdistan and saw the folkloric dances and the cooperative spirit among the people there and also observed the world of Al Ahwar (the marshlands) in the south. All these environments had one origin, which was artistic. There are elements that suggest there is a convergence among rituals, traditions, and ethics – and this is what I did in designing the Iraqi pavillion. The design was inspired by the human and natural geographical landscape that was Iraq.

At the time, there were fourteen governorates, which we call provinces today. Iraq also has two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, under its stars and sky. I turned those symbols into architectural designs. The base comprised two columns while the ceiling was divided into fourteen spaces, and the subtext of that design was easily understood. I drew the royal emblem in green neon over the façade of the Iraqi pavilion. When the Revolution of July 14, 1958 broke out, Jawad Salim and I were sent to remove it. When we arrived in the wing, I asked Jawad, what shall we do with the emblem? Then an idea quickly came to me: I grabbed a brick from the ground and smashed the glass emblem, to Jawad’s shock and surprise.

SA: The Liberation Square Monument designed by Jawad Salim represents his most established work in Baghdad. What structures do you think best immortalizes your architectural undertakings in the capital?

KM: The most prominent of such works are the Finance Ministry building, the Beit Benya mosque in the Alawite area, and Sports City in Rusafa, whose design embodies the idea of “tolerance.” In addition, there is the Agricultural Engineers Association building, the building of the Iraqi Fine Art Association, and the monument and gardens of the July 14 Park in Kadhimiya. I also designed the home of the artist Nuri Al Mustafa in Al Mansur and the home of the late artist Faik Hassan in Al Sulaikh. Of course, there are many designs that were not realized for various reasons, such as the central post office building, and that distinguished design for Al Karkh Gardens, which I undertook in memory of the late Baghdadi poet Mulla Abboud Al Karkhi, who was a friend of my father’s. The design was inspired by his poem “Al Majrasha” (The Miller), which described the suffering of women. That was in the early sixties.

But perhaps the work that best represents me is the design of the columns in the Opera Garden opposite the National Theatre. I take great pride in that work because I carried out a column design that is fundamentally modernist. Rendering the top in inclined form, which you see from more than one angle at the same time, resembles what Picasso did in his Cubist paintings.

As for your question about the Freedom Monument by Jawad Salim, I have a critical opinion about it. Sculpture is not a two-dimensional painting but rather a complete unit surrounded by a space. What Jawad Salim sought to do through that monument was to convey the spirit of those days following the July 14 Revolution led by Abd Al Karim Qasim and also capture the demonstration slogans. It is the architect that helped him convey that spirit. Sculptures should not be two-dimensional. I have debated this with both Jawad Salim and Ihsan Shirzad. The architect behind the Freedom Monument was Rifaat Chaderchi, the concrete implementation was done by Ihsan Shirzad, and the two-dimensional work was done by Mohammed Ghani Hikmat, who helped Jawad in the realization.

Because Jawad’s mural overlooks Liberation Square while its back has a view of Al Umma Park, it was proposed that this second side should be accentuated by affixing over it ceramic artwork by Mahmoud Sabri. But Sabri suddenly left Iraq, and the project was never finished, so the back of the mural remains bare to this day. For this reason, you see that the Freedom Monument from the front was done by Jawad Salim, while the back was supposed to have been done by Mahmoud Sabri. This, in my opinion, would have been sacrilege in the world of sculpture because it is not right that two works by two different artists should be placed on the same pedestal.

“I told Doxiadis that I was going to pursue a PhD at the German Bauhaus School and study architecture. He said, ‘I won’t allow you – you will stay with me to work on the housing project in Iraq.’ He went on to give me a car full of books and references on architecture. So I worked with Doxiadis, who was given the responsibility for the entire housing sector in Iraq.”

SA: Once, during a lecture at the Al Mada Cultural Foundation, Rifaat Chaderchi said that Baghdad was not designed – nor suited – for this many people. Since one cannot evict half of the capital’s population, hypothetically speaking, what can be done to reconsider Baghdad’s urban landscape?

KM: Evicting people from their homes to solve the problem of overcrowding in Baghdad is not a realistic or humane solution. But by persuasion, one can entice people to relocate. Overpopulation can be addressed gradually by establishing industrial and residential hubs, and centers for crafts around Baghdad, in Al Souaira, Fallujah, Yusifiyah, and other areas around the capital. Preference for work and housing in those centers would be given to people who come originally from those areas. I submitted a proposal along those lines to the current government, and I think they will approve it.

I have developed plans to address the environmental and demographic situation for all regions in Iraq, and these plans are stored in my archives. There is a line that starts in the southwest of Iraq and makes its way north. The line consists of valleys that can be linked together, rendering it a low region that can collect water. This way, we could get a third river in Iraq with power generation plants that rely on solar power, which I term “hydro-solar generators.” The idea is to connect population activity to the features of the terrain. We can thus achieve growth without overexploiting nature. This is the modern trend, and this can and should apply to the capital Baghdad. In Iraq, we ought to build national parks for animals, plant trees in open and public spaces, and protect wild plants. Today, Baghdad has no identity, and this can be easily seen in its architecture, streets, and residential areas. In truth, even socially the city has no identity. This has everything to do with the rural-to-urban migration to the capital, the lack of planning, and the arbitrary manner in which the political authorities deal with a mega-city such as Baghdad.

SA: You have experience in planning housing projects in the fifties, when you were inspired and influenced by Doxiadis, the Greek expert on housing and planning, and you carried out field surveys of urban and rural population centers in Iraq. What were the results of those surveys? How did these studies, which tackled geographical and social environments, influence your architectural methodology and your architectural applications? How does the imagination function in understanding places and urban spaces?

KM: I have all of Doxiadis’s books. He was charged with the gargantuan task of solving the problem of housing in Iraq. The issue of housing was raised by the British Embassy in Iraq, and it gradually made its way to the United Nations. There was a researcher at the United Nations, at the rank of consultant, tasked with solving this issue; however, he refused, claiming that he had turned to politics. At that point, the job went to Doxiadis. He came to Iraq, and I was invited to meet him at the British Embassy during a cocktail party there.

After making his acquaintance and chatting, he asked me to work with him on the project, but I refused. I told him that I was going to pursue a PhD at the German Bauhaus School and study architecture according to the Bauhaus theory. He told me: I won’t allow you, you will stay with me to realize the housing project in Iraq. He went on to give me a car full of books and references on architecture. Then whenever he returned to Iraq from Europe, he brought me books and magazines. The goal, as people know, was to find solutions to the housing crisis in Iraq by designing housing units in most Iraqi provinces, such as Mosul, Baghdad, Basra, and Ramadi – and this is indeed what happened. It was a large undertaking that dealt with public housing in all of Iraq: in the North, the South, the East, and the West. I worked with Doxiadis in both Greece and Iraq.

In Athens, I worked in his office for six months, spending three or four days in each department to learn all the tricks of the trade. I also met my Greek wife there. By the way, she did not want to come to Iraq after the end of the 1980s, as she was not fond of the Iraqi lifestyle; she lives in Greece now. One great advantage during my work at Doxiadis’s office was that he gave me the freedom to choose the project that best suited me, including allowing me to experiment in architecture. Doxiadis was given the responsibility for the entire housing sector in Iraq, including urban housing and planning and rural housing.

We thus divided Iraq to four sectors for housing and began studying the conditions of the populations in the countryside, the climate, and the per capita income, all with a view to design housing units that were suitable for people with limited income. We studied the marshlands and the deserts – Najaf, Basra, and the rural villages all the way to the border with Iran.

Throughout my work with Doxiadis, I became acquainted with applied architecture. One of the amusing things we discovered during our study of the marshlands was a two-story house built from bamboo and papyrus, a very rare thing indeed. I completed four volumes of this study, which are still present in my archives.

And yes, imagination was relevant in these projects. For instance, by virtue of imagination, we would reach possibilities that reality allowed us to realize and then imagine the things that we could build upon that reality. We succeeded in using our imagination in the designs and in imposing it on reality, as much as it was allowed by the constraints arising from affordability – or lack thereof – of owning a home by Iraqi people back then. Indeed, all our designs were meant for households with modest income. I was subsequently inspired by Doxiadis’s office to start my own architecture office in Baghdad, which I called Architecture House, here in a wing of my house. But I sold it a while ago when my financial resources became strained. It is now a shop selling electric appliances and household items. As to Doxiadis’s project and its fate, following the July 14 Revolution, Abd Al Karim Qasim ordered the appropriation of Doxiadis’s offices in Baghdad on the pretext that it was pro-colonial and had ties to the Ford Foundation of America. In fact, a dedicated army commission was created for this purpose.

“A string of valleys in Iraq can be linked together, rendering it a low region to collect water, a potential third river in Iraq that could be lined with hybrid solar-hydropower plants. We can thus achieve growth without overexploiting nature.”

SA: In a generation that saw a prominent and influential fine artist like Jawad Salim, a great poet like Al Sayyab, a prominent sociologist like Ali Al Wardi, and an architect like Kahtan Al Madfai and others, did these notable figures interact with one another? If so, then how, and what emerged from these interactions? What was the fate of this elite?

KM: It was an elite born out of the people. It managed to learn the basic things that modernism started out with. The elite was hovering around the same point, namely modernism. The first time I went to England, I asked them whether they had an active poetry movement. I was enamored with poetry. In high school, I used to memorize poems by sixty-five poets. In London, I discovered philosophers, poets, and many schools of thought, and I was particularly fascinated by T.S. Eliot. All major events revolved around the same point, as I mentioned earlier. Nazism, Fascism, Communism are all offshoots of modernism. The image of Nazi youths was fascinating, with their parades, discipline, and unison. Modernism was an important issue to us, and we interpreted it as youths would. Iraqi modernist poets were all my friends, from Buland Al Haidari to Bader Shaker Al Sayyab, and I have many memories with them. Badr would visit me with others like the painter Nuri Al Rawi, and I would take them back to their homes in my small car. Badr would sit in Nuri Al Rawi’s lap as he was of a very small stature. I remember when I was a student in England, I took back with me to Baghdad, on a visit in 1954 or 1955, recordings of English poems by Edith Sitwell. “Still Falls the Rain” was among the poems on these recordings. It was written by Sitwell in 1940 during the wartime bombardment of London. The word “rain” was used by the poet as a metaphor for the bombs that were falling on London like rain. Badr was a fan of Sitwell’s, and he took the poet’s recordings from me. At that time, Sayyab was writing his famous poem “Rain Song.” I believe he translated Sitwell’s poem or wrote his poem as a follow-up inspired by hers. Thus we read in his poem “Rain … rain / Falls the rain.”

Jawad Salim and Faik Hassan were also old and dear friends, and we have had many professional links as well. I designed Faik Hassan’s home, which is still around. Jawad Salim worked with me on several projects, and I have fond memories of both men. But soon thereafter, my family moved from the neighborhood of Al Fadl to the high-end neighborhood of Karrada; this meant a great cultural shift from living in the hawsh (traditional Iraqi house with courtyard) to living in a home surrounded by large gardens. This was reflected in our social relationships, since we now lived a different kind of life – the so-called villa life. As for your question about the ultimate fate of this modernist elite, I believe that breakup, disintegration, and collapse are all hallmarks of modernism, not only in Iraq but in all countries. Even the Bauhaus School soon withered and disbanded when circumstances changed and the wheels of evolution turned. Civilization is always so.

SA: In previous interviews, you’ve expressed nostalgia for the traditional Iraqi homes that were ubiquitous in Baghdad and all Iraqi cities. Today, the traditional courtyard concept has disappeared from Iraqi homes. Now, they are no different from any other house in the world. Does this have to do with globalization and the dominance of Western taste on all aspects of life?

KM: Civilization is like the air we breathe. We don’t know where it comes from, where it will emerge, and through which door it passes. You can’t know if it comes from the North, the South, the East, or the West. Villas are a part of modernism, which we attempted to implement and engage with. Some of us have accepted it, but others did not. The idea of the villa, which replaced the oriental courtyard, came from the Western bourgeoisie: a house situated in the middle, surrounded by gardens. This has replaced the courtyard concept, which is unfortunate. The courtyard should be the heart of the Iraqi home, where an individual connects with nature, day and night.

SA: Can’t the concepts of the villa and the courtyard be married together to create a new design that is more in line with local Iraqi tastes and preferences?

KM: Academically speaking, one must study geography and climate. There is a belt of desert regions going around almost the entire planet. All spots along this belt have similar conditions, and architectural designs often take their specific natural circumstances into account. We usually divide spaces into sections – a closed section, a semi-closed section, and a semi-open section. It has to do with windows, the sun, the shade, and the climate, which are the elements that gave rise to the courtyard concept. However, we must pay heed here and know which courtyard we are speaking of. You have the Japanese courtyard, and the Greek, Iraqi, Roman, and so on. By contrast, the villa is a closed space and is best suited to cold countries. We are talking therefore about two different types of domiciles, and for this reason the idea of creating villas and grafting them into our countries is a historical error because of its unsuitability to its surrounding conditions.

“Civilization is like the air we breathe. We don’t know where it comes from, where it will emerge, and through which door it passes. You can’t know if it comes from the North, the South, the East, or the West.”

SA: Has a place or a building you designed in Iraq ever been damaged during war or as a result of the bombings? How does an architect deal with seeing his building destroyed? How does he walk through its ruins? And what thoughts does it raise?

KM: The Ministry of Finance building that I designed was damaged when a car bomb went off at its entrance. My feeling and pain as an Iraqi was indescribable. The pain was more than language could express. I consider myself as a creative father, and that building is part of my soul. When I went to see the site, a policeman did not let me through. I told him that it was my building, but he was incredulous. I told him to go to the director in charge there and to tell him that Kahtan Al Madfai wants to examine the building. The director then came, and he was respectful and invited me to enter and told the policeman to give me everything I needed.

SA: The design of the Ministry of Finance building makes me feel as though you wanted to strike at the centrality of such structures. The building consists of two blocks connected by walkways – what was your idea behind that?

KM: Five years separate the design of the building and the government’s decision to go ahead with the construction, during which time I had almost emigrated from the country. The fourteen story structure consists of twin towers, connected by concrete bridges suspended at different heights. What I envisioned by this design was to split the Sumerian ziggurat into two halves, as though with a sharp knife.

SA: In one of your interviews, you said that “tension, and not compression” is the most influential force in the universe, and this perhaps has to do with the Big Bang theory. What are the implications of this for architecture?

KM: This is what I realized with Baghdad’s Natural History Museum and the Telecom Institute building. I have been fascinated for a long time by the theory of relativity, which rejects the idea of a static surface. Indeed, the entire universe is in motion, at any one moment or place all the time. Motion is the foundation of the universe, and motion is tension. A distance between two objects generates tension and compression. Relativity has influenced the entire world and marked the beginning of modern architecture. Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus School are among the greatest influences in the history of architecture. Indeed, the church at Ronchamp was the main source of inspiration for postmodern architecture.

According to Einstein’s theory, the world consists of a saddle-shaped curved space-time continuum. Therefore, the sum of the angles of a triangle drawn on the surface of this curve are not 180 degrees as they would be if added together in accordance with Euclidean geometry. This alternative view of the universe, which Einstein discovered, was the most important challenge to the prevailing notion of the universe. In fact, it marked a rejection of all that came before. This had an impact on architectural applications as reflected in the movement away from right angles and orthogonal surfaces. The roof of the church at Ronchamp heralded a more inclusive phase. It was modernism as ushered in by Einstein.

Translated by Sabine Taoukjian

Shaker Al Anbari is an Iraqi novelist who lives and works in Baghdad, and his latest novel is Najmet Al Bataween (The Star of Bataween) (Dar Al Mada).
Critical Writing

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Kahtan Al Madfai (right) with Shaker Al Anbari. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
Al Madfai’s residence in Baghdad. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
Al Madfai’s personal library in Baghdad. Photograph by Tamara Abdul Hadi.
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