Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Could Have Been: Frank Lloyd Wright's Plan for Greater Baghdad


The Plan for Greater Baghdad was a project done by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a cultural center, opera house, and university on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, in 1957-58. The most thoroughly developed aspects of the plan were the opera house, which would have been built on an island in the middle of the Tigris together with museums and a towering gilded statue of Harun al-Rashid, and the university. Due to the 1958 collapse of the Hashemite monarchy, development of the project stopped, and it was never built.

Wright was among the many elite Western architects invited to Iraq as part of a campaign to modernize the capital city. Wright distinguished himself from this group by developing a plan making specific reference to Iraqi history and culture. For Wright, the plan was one of a handful of grandiose, outsize designs produced in the later part of his career.

Wright's opera house was designed for his island site, which he intended to rename from Pig Island to Edena. The island was to be connected to the mainland by two bridges. One, the Low Bridge, crossed the narrower west channel of the Tigris and met up with the planned King Faisal Esplanade; the line of the bridge and esplanade passed through the opera house and pointed toward Mecca. The larger Great Bridge was to cross the east channel of the river and connect the island to the university campus there.

At the north end of the island, Wright envisioned a 300 foot statue of Harun al-Rashid built of gilded sheet metal and placed on a spiraling base resembling the Malwiya Tower at the Great Mosque of Samarra. The vertical faces would depict camels climbing the spiraling ramp.

An avenue runs the length of the island from the statue to the opera house; the middle of the island is occupied by art museums and shopping areas, forming a cultural center.

The opera house itself was intended to serve the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra. Wright's design was flexible enough to accommodate anywhere from 1600 to 7000 people. The building sits on a hill and is approached by a road spiraling up from the base of the hill to the opera house at the top. A pool surrounds the theater and is itself surrounded by gardens.

The building's most significant feature was a large proscenium arch, which was visible inside the theater but also continued outside the building and plunged into the surrounding pool. The arch, which Wright described as a "crescent rainbow," contained roundels depicting scenes from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. In additional allusions to the local culture, the building is topped with a statue of Aladdin holding his lamp and a spire which Wright intended to represent the "Sword of Mohammed."

The Iraqi government planned a new university campus for Baghdad University on a peninsula formed by a bend in the Tigris. Wright planned for a campus surrounded by a wide, circular earthen barrier, which Wright called the "curriculum." This barrier provides definition to the campus, and also contains roads and parking that served the campus's transportation needs. The space inside the barrier is reserved for pedestrian traffic only, and features fountains and gardens to create a parklike environment.

The school's various departments and academic faculties were in buildings attached to the circular "curriculum." The center of the campus is devoted to television and radio studios and towers, which were intended to demonstrate the modernity of Baghdad. Neil Levine observes that the circular plan for the University recalls the original plan for Baghdad developed by the caliph Al-Mansur.

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