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  • Apr 17, 2020

Pioneering Iraqi Modernist Architect Succumbs To Covid-19

RIFAT CHADIRJI, who designed more than 100 buildings across Iraq, has died due to Covid-19.

Rifat Chadirji, architect, activist, author, critic, and photographer, hailed as the “father of Iraqi architecture,” passed away on April 10 in London following complications from Covid-19, aged 93.

Chadirji designed more than 100 buildings across Iraq throughout the second half of the 20th century. Drawing inspirations from traditional Iraqi architecture and the needs of the contemporary Iraqi society, he referenced both ancient motifs and modernist structures, which he coined as “international regionalism.” This style is evident in his Monument to the Unknown Soldier (1959), erected centrally in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. The now demolished arch-shaped monument, which pays tribute to the Sasanian-era Tāq Kasrā near modern day Salman Pak, is one of his first and best known works. Other notable designs by him include the brutalist-like Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters (1965–67) and the Central Post Office (1975) in Baghdad.

Chadirji was born in Baghdad into an influential family—his father Kamil was the founder and president of the National Democratic Party. After graduating in architecture from London’s Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts in 1952, Chadirji returned to Iraq to found his professional practice Iraq Consult IQC, where he began his inventive “architectural experiments.” This was interrupted by a two-year prison sentence in 1974, when the architect refused to work on a government project during Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr’s presidency. During his confinement, Chadirji wrote the book Al Ukhaidir and the Crystal Palace, published in 1991, described as “seminal” on the matter of Iraqi architecture. 

Following the destruction of Monument to the Unknown Soldier in 1982, subsequently replaced by a statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Chadirji left his birthplace in 1983 for a Loeb Fellowship at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which led to a philosophy teaching post at Harvard University. He eventually relocated to London after becoming disheartened by the deterioration of Baghdad during the Iraq War upon his brief return in the early 2000s.

Chadirji also took immense pride in his anthropological photography of life in Iraq from the late 1950s to early 1980s, documenting traditional neighborhoods and the changes in regional architecture since the oil boom. In 2017, he donated his architectural archive to the Aga Khan Documentation Center, MIT Libraries in Cambridge. 

He has been recognized for his contributions with many awards, including the Chairman’s Award of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1986, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2008, and the Tamayouz Architectural Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. His legacy lives on in the Rifat Chadirji Prize created in 2017, part of the Tamayouz Excellence Award, to promote the development of Iraqi architecture and the rebuilding of the country.

Chadirji is survived by his wife, author Balkis Sharara.

Ashlyn Chak is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

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