If Iraqi architecture is known abroad today, it’s through Saddam Hussein’s grandiose palaces and monuments. But the master plan for Baghdad, developed during the Cold War by Polish state planners, was far from a centralized and authoritarian vision for the city.

Kraków, “Master-Plan of Bagdad,” 1967. (Private archive, Kraków, Poland)

Łukasz Stanek’s book Architecture in Global Socialism charted the exchanges between state socialist countries in Eastern Europe and the Global South during the Cold War, from Nigeria to Libya to the United Arab Emirates to Ghana — but with Iraq as one of its major case studies. We spoke to Stanek about these projects, especially the replanning of Baghdad according to a Polish master plan — and how it has and hasn’t survived the Iraq War and its aftermath.

Owen Hatherley

In the 1960s, the Iraqi government rejected the master plan for Baghdad by the British firm of Minoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane, in favor of a new plan prepared by the Polish agency Miastoprojekt. What were the differences between these plans?

Łukasz Stanek

Maybe it’s useful to start with the similarities. These plans came from the same urban planning culture, in the sense of a modern, functionalist urbanism, with zoning, the separation of traffic and pedestrians, and so on. The Miastoprojekt master plan kept several decisions of Minoprio, including the green belt, the ovoid shape of the city, and the principle of the neighborhood units.

By contrast, Miastoprojekt planners envisaged Baghdad on a regional scale. They distinguished the large-scale demolitions of the Ottoman-era urban fabric recommended by Minoprio from their own proposal of the extensive preservation of historical districts of Baghdad, including the district of Kadhimiya. Their plans were also much more detailed. The differences had to do with the Polish planning tradition, but also the scope of the exercise.

Miastoprojekt had more resources and a bigger presence on the ground, as it set up a field office. The agency was working much more closely with the Iraqi planners and was much more embedded in the institutions in Baghdad. That meant that it had a better understanding of the city, although it tended to overlook a number of social questions, notably the religious denominations.

Owen Hatherley

There’s also the difference in length: twenty-three pages from the British, and four volumes from the Poles.

Łukasz Stanek

The Poles were dealing with an Iraqi elite of professionals who were largely educated in Britain. While the country might have shifted gears politically, on a professional level they had their doubts about the Polish planners, as opposed to an established British office. I read this difference in length as a result of Miastoprojekt’s need to document each step of the planning process, to show empirical evidence for these steps, to propose variants, and to convince professionals in Baghdad and abroad, notably the UN.

Owen Hatherley

Was there also a political symbolism here, with the rejection of the British plan after Abd al-Karim Qasim’s 1958 coup that overthrew the monarchy?

Łukasz Stanek

In the early and mid-1950s Iraq was probably the most cosmopolitan place in terms of architecture and urban planning in the region. Very few of these projects continued during the next decade, among them the University of Baghdad by Gropius and the Architects Collaborative. Qasim’s decision to work with the socialist countries might have been symbolic, but it was also a consequence of accepting economic and technical assistance from Eastern Europe, as well as fears of a breakup of economic relationships with the West.

Owen Hatherley

Your book describes the economics of this as a “world socialist system,” where “assistance” was emphasized more than commercial exchange. To what extent was the Polish-Iraqi collaboration economically different from one with the West?

Łukasz Stanek

This is a crucial point, as it explains the resources available to Miastoprojekt planners and their positionality. The socialist countries were engaged with Iraq from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War, and the shifts of these exchanges can be mapped on a spectrum between “gifts” on the one hand and commodity exchange or commercial exchange on the other. This ambiguity is best exemplified by barter transactions, including petrobarter, where design and construction services were exchanged for crude oil. The discourse on the Polish side — not necessarily of the architects, but of the authorities in Warsaw — was that this was “technical assistance.” It was still paid, but below international prices. While in the 1960s the most dominant aspect was technical assistance based on political support, in the 1970s and ’80s, the most dominant aspect that was emphasized in Eastern Europe was economic. The aim was to gain convertible currency, which was badly needed to service the foreign debt of the socialist countries.

Rifat Chadirji, National Insurance Company, Mosul, Iraq, 1966–69. Postcard. Demolished.

Owen Hatherley

If the plan was part of what you describe as “global socialism,” to what degree was it socialist within Iraq itself?

Łukasz Stanek

One of the key arguments of the book is that socialism and exchanges with socialist countries and the architecture produced in the course of these exchanges was a much broader phenomenon than one restricted to Soviet or Chinese satellites or client states. I don’t think of socialism and capitalism at that time as a distinction between two bounded spaces.

In the case of the short-lived Qasim government there was a significant amount of socialist ambition in the development of Baghdad. In the Iraqi newspapers from the period, Qasim constantly presents himself as visiting social housing projects that were to alleviate a burning housing crisis in a city with a large number of sarifas, or unregulated settlements with little or no infrastructure. Qasim stressed that housing was a right, which was provided by the state, even if much of the new housing was distributed to secure loyalty among the military and other state forces.

And you are right that the master plan used class as an operative concept, following the categories of the Iraqi scholar Abdul Jabbar Araim. While the plan included ideas about an accelerated social transformation of Baghdad, it certainly did not imagine Iraq as a classless society.

Owen Hatherley

If recent Iraqi architecture is known abroad, it’s through Saddam Hussein’s vast palaces and grandiose monuments. But the Miastoprojekt plan was not at all a centralized, authoritarian vision of the city. Did Saddam’s closeness to the West during the Iran-Iraq War have a role in any of this?

Łukasz Stanek

By the 1970s, Iraq was one of the biggest trading partners for many Eastern European countries, but their architectural designs are less present in Baghdad. Yugoslavia might have been an exception, in line with Saddam’s rapprochement with the Non-Aligned Movement. Prominent designs were delivered by Energoprojekt and other Serbian companies, which also submitted designs for a few of Saddam’s palaces. At that time, new ideas were coming from Western architects such as Venturi, Scott Brown and Ricardo Bofill, who were invited to work in Iraq, but also from Iraqi architects, including Chadirji, Mohamed Makiya, Hisham Munir, and Qahtan Awni.

The shift beyond modernism was not coming from Eastern Europe, even if many Polish and Eastern European architects used their work in the region to reinterpret their own disenchantment with modernism and to experiment with postmodern idioms.

Aleksander Markiewicz, Jerzy Staniszkis, and Qahtan Awni, office building on Jumhuria Street, Baghdad, Iraq, 1960. Picture by Tadeusz Barucki, mid-1960s. (Courtesy of Tadeusz Barucki)

Owen Hatherley

When the book was published in 2020, the Miastoprojekt plan for Baghdad was still in place. How has this very functionalist master plan coped with the occupation, and the creation of the Green Zone as a closed-off international enclave in the heart of the city?

Łukasz Stanek

Together with my students we were trying to answer that question by producing digital models of the city. We studied how the city shaped by a rational master plan was torn apart by the occupation. Some of the buildings coproduced by Eastern Europeans have appeared in media reports about the war, like the slaughterhouse that was an East German–Iraqi–Romanian project. It was located in southeastern suburbs of Baghdad, an area that was heavily bombarded by the US military because of the Iraqi command center at Dora Farm.

But the biggest impact of the Eastern Europeans and particularly the Poles was less in spectacular buildings and more in the bureaucratic construction of the city, for example urban norms and standards that prescribe housing densities or minimal requirements of a parcel of land. I’m sometimes getting emails from Iraqi planners who ask very specific questions about, for example, thresholds of plot sizes. Then you realize that the real impact of these exchanges on Baghdad was less in these buildings that make an appearance in the news and more the machinery and the legal apparatuses behind the production of space. The 1973 master plan was supposed to expire by the year 2000, and in spite of many attempts to replace it, the last time I checked the master plan was still a reference point for Iraqi planners.

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