Preservation Push for Obscure Le Corbusier Sports Complex in Iraq
April 25, 2012
Photo: Rifat Chadirji, via Artinfo
“Baghdad is at end of the world,” wrote Le Corbusier, “My responsibility as an architect is to be careful and not to be embark the client on adventures or misadventures.” But that’s exactly the fate that met the architect’s design for the Baghdad Gymnasium. A series of (mostly) misadventures would delay the realization of Le Corbusier’s sports complex nearly 25 years, from 1957 when the first plans were submitted to the Iraqi authorities to 1982 after Saddam Hussein had assumed power and completed the concrete structure as a monument to his rule. In that time, the original project underwent several iterations precipitated by the 1958 revolution and Le Corbusier’s death in 1965, among a series of other factors. Now, the building will enter into a new phase of life, as Iraq seeks aid from France to restore the obscure modernist work. Continue.
Le Corbusier was the first of the several Western architects who were commissioned several projects in Baghdad by the Iraq Development Board under the guidance of King Faisal II, foremost champion of the capital’s modernization. Throughout the 1950s, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Gio Ponti, and much later, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown were involved in the design of several large-scale schemes that promised to change the face of Baghdad. Le Corbusier’s stadium was itself part of the capital’s unsuccessful bid for the 1960 Olympics, for which the architect had created a “City of Sport”. The large campus would include a stadium for 50,000 spectators, the stadium for 3,500, an open air amphitheater, several sport courts, an Olympic size swimming and wave pools for 5,000, and extensive ‘sculptural’ landscaping. The site would change three times in the turmoil that followed at the close of the decade and beyond, and the scope of the masterplan would be serially reduced until all that remained was the gymnasium.
The gym’s sloping profile was envisioned by Le Corbusier as a tent in Eden; Photo: AFP
The gymn was rediscovered by researcher Caecilia Pieri in 2005, whilst preparing her thesis on modern architecture in Baghdad for the French Institute for the Near East. She contacted the Fondation Le Corbusier, whose vice president would eventually travel to the site to accompany Pieri on an inspection visit. Upon surveying the work and initiating its incorporation into Le Corbusier’s oeuvre–the architect had prepared nearly 500 drawings for the design prior to his death, yet it was excluded in volume 8 of Ouevre Complete–the foundation began petitioning local cultural institutions for its preservation and succeeded to secure the support of both Baghdad University, the French embassy, and UNESCO.
‘Modulor’ sgrafitto on the walls of Le Corbusier’s posthumous work, the Baghdad Gymnasium; Photo: AFP/ Sabah Arar
Though still in use, the site has seen its share of traumas. There were, of course, the pangs which accompanied its long overdue birth, not to mention the disorienting identity shift from a sort of “people’s palace”–Le Corbusier had maintained that the grounds be open to the city’s citizens–to functioning as a vanity project of a despot. More recently, the U.S. military’s occupation of the space in the last decade cast a dark cloud over the structure and contributed to its neglect. Yet, the gymnasium has well served its community, hosting several international events and competitions since its completion. It’s director, Wasfi al-Kinani, states that it must be preserved as a “historic inheritance, a symbol” to the Iraqi people. Pieri hopes that the current preservation efforts now underway will spark a movement that opens up Iraq’s modern heritage to the general public and gives the country’s modernist buildings their proper due.
[via Yahoo News]