Architectural History

This initiative proposes a series focused on cities in the Muslim world.
Architecture is a universal prism through which to understand broader cultural phenomena. It gives material expression to cultural premises and historical experience. When culturally grounded, architecture has and can continue to be a guiding beacon to healing what has been a growing cultural divide.
Cities remain the nodal point of artistic and intellectual creativity throughout the world and throughout time.
The Cities Project will reveal the city as the space of cultural encounters.
Cities express the cultural variety, historical richness, aesthetic premises, and pragmatic solutions to daily needs of people throughout the world.
•How has Islam, pre-Islamic culture, geography, historical forces, globalization, and other influences interacted to shape each of the cities?
•What evidence and insight does the built environment bring to our understanding of each of these peoples, the cultural choices they have made, and the relationship to Islam?
•Is there sufficient similarities to warrant the use of the term Islamic city?
•What conclusions if any can be drawn about the encounters between traditional societies with Western and with other Islamic societies?
Image of Bam, Tehran and Frank Lloyd Wright's Baghdad

Image of Bam, Tehran and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Baghdad

Cities remain the nodal point of artistic and intellectual creativity throughout the world and throughout time. Cities express the cultural variety, historical richness, aesthetic premises, and pragmatic solutions to daily needs of people throughout the world.

Selected writings reveal the city as the space of cultural encounters.


1950s Baghdad — Modern and International

Baghdad is an international capital of ever increasingimportance and influence and headquarters of the Council of the Baghdad Pact. It is Iraq’s shop window to the world, and many will judge the country by what they see in its capital, both of the layout of the town and its amenities, and of the way in which its inhabitants live, and the provision that is made for their welfare in the form of good housing and social facilities.[1]

This 1956 observation by British architects and town planners Minoprio, Spencely, and P.W. Macfarlane was in harmony with the outlook Iraq’s Development Board brought to the capital city in the 1950s.[2] While an ambitious program to rebuild Baghdad was not among its officially stated missions, the Development Board collectively and through its individual members introduced new ideas to reshape the city’s architecture.[3]At the time the young Middle Eastern nation was captivated by progress and battling for the legitimacy of a “modern” identity and Baghdad was to become the symbol and showcase for progress and modernity. Starting in 1955, the Board quietly approached several world famous architects, inviting them to participate in selected building projects for the capital city.[4] Based on original research started many years ago, this paper examines some of the underpinnings of that building strategy as it took shape amid the ideas and visions, players and politics of 1950s Iraq in what was to be a unique moment of East-West exchange.[5]

[1] Minoprio, Spencely, and P.W. Macfarlane, Architects and Town Planning Consultants, The Master Plan for Baghdad, 1956 Report, London, p. 1.

[2] The reconstruction and modernization of Iraq during this period remains one of the most ambitious in the region at the time and is attracting scholarly attention in fields beyond political history. A MESA Conference panel sponsored by TAARII in November 2006, “Remembering 1950s Baghdad”, chaired by Magnus Bernhardsson and Mina Marefat, presented five papers addressing various aspects of Iraq’s cultural and political awakening during the 1950s.

[3] This paper is condensed from the first chapter text of an in-depth investigation of the 1957–58 Baghdad building projects. My research and forthcoming book on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in Baghdad has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities; my present TAARII grant permits deeper investigation of the role of Iraqis in Baghdad development.

[4] I was able to trace the first letter sent by the Development Board to Le Corbusier in late June 1955. Correspondence between Ellen Jawdat and Walter Gropius indicates that he was also considered for commissions in Iraq as early as 1955.

[5] Unfortunately due to the lack of access and destruction of archival resources in Iraq, obtaining precise information from Iraqi sources has not been easy. Contemporary publications and newspapers have been important sources as have been personal interviews. I am grateful to Ellen and Nizar Jawdat, Rifat Chadirji, Mohammad Makiya and Fahim Qubain for allowing me to interview them and the generosity of their time. I also would like to thank Paul Arthur and Kamal Amin. I am still seeking eyewitnesses and participant observers who were involved in the extraordinary experiment that was Iraq’s Development Board and would be interested in additional contact information from readers of this paper.


The city of Tehran was the topic of an international conference held at the Library of Congress in May 2004.

Participants came from around the world, including Tehran itself, to discuss the past, present, and future of one of the world’s largest cities—population over 12 million. For more information see

Two additional sessions related to the Tehran Conference were chaired by Mina Marefat of the Kluge Center as part of the fifth biennial meeting of the International Society of Iranian Studies (ISIS) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel


The devastating earthquake in Bam on December 26, 2003 resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of much of the city including its ancient citadel, the world’s oldest extant adobe brick building complex.  The Bam project is intended to do something substantial to address a historic loss and a major recurring dilemma in Iran—earthquakes.   There are two components to our focus on Bam.  The first is an educational exercise initiating a first time collaboration between the School of Architecture at Catholic University and the Library of Congress.  The Bam Studio is a graduate workshop to explore innovative ideas taking into consideration the specific situation of the disaster and the tradition of Bam.

The second component is an international conference, entitled Bam: Past and Future which coincides with the conclusion of our academic program and that brings together an international panel of scholars, architects and experts to discuss the architectural heritage of Bam and address the problems and solutions for the future of this historic city.

%d bloggers like this: