architecture as media archaeology as retrofuturism

This is certainly not among the usual family of topics I blog about – dead media, media archaeology, archives, media poetics, etc. – and I know very little indeed about architecture. But I found out about these unrealized plans for a “modernized” Bagdad from my colleague Janice Ho and I couldn’t resist scanning the plans as I found them in Architectural Forum in 1955 and posting them here as a pdf. And in fact, there’s more resemblance between these architectural plans and the work I usually do than you would think – media archaeology as extended to architecture, for here we have a kind of conceptual dead-end for what Bagdad could have been…perhaps more retrofuturism than media archaeology. (And then, in an alternate future-as-past, try to imagine the U.S. invading Iraq in 2003 and destroying buildings designed by its most revered, most canonized architects.)

Wright Baghdad Plans 5 Wright Baghdad Plans 6

As far as I can tell from “Frank Lloyd Wright Designs for Bagdad,” Wright was invited by the Development Board of Iraq to Bagdad in 1955 to first design a Grand Opera and a Civic Auditorium. After all, these were the days of tremendous wealth in Iraq as a result of its profits from a deal made in the early 1950s with the Iraq Petroleum Company, headquartered in the U.K. The history of U.S./Iraq relations is too complex for me to attempt to understand here – but I do note that while a bomb exploded in the American Cultural Center and Library in 1951 (targeted at Jewish intellectuals using the library resources), at the same time Iraq was also already understood as a country of vast wealth and resources, for the Development Board had “at its disposal 70 per cent of the country’s enormous oil revenues [equal to $1.4 billion in a six-year program]. Already, the Board’s completed projects of irrigation and flood control are causing the flat desert plain to bloom again, as it did in the days of the hanging gardens and ziggurat towers of legendary Babylon”).

But, as easy as it is to be critical of the article writer’s clear desire to exoticize Iraq, it’s hard to fault Wright for his ambitious desires to design not just a Grand Opera and Civic Auditoriam but also plans for the University (a “circular campus free of cars” yet still with radio and TV studios at the center of campus) as well as the preliminary plans for a new Baghdad Post and Telegraph Building. Yet, even he gives in to exoticizing…but a strange kind of exoticizing that seems to want to acknowledge Iraq on its own terms as a more fruitful, more hopeful alternative to the west. Lloyd Wright writes,

“These designs demonstrate that if we are able to understand and interpret our ancestors, there is no need to copy them. Nor need Baghdad adopt the materialistic structures called ‘modern’ now barging in from the West upon the East. The designs shown here revive the natural beauty of form, the ancient crafts of ceramics and metal, and the use of the ground that produced the architecture of the Middle East.”