Rifat Chadirji, an Iraqi architect, author, and critic, passed away on April 10 at the age of 93 from COVID-19. Born in Baghdad in 1926, Chadirji has been hailed as the “father of Iraqi architecture,” and built over 100 buildings across the country during the second half of the 20th century.
Chadirji left Baghdad to study architecture at the Hammersmith School of Arts & Crafts in London. After graduating in 1952, he founded the Iraq Consult IQC, a professional architectural and engineering practice, and moved back to Iraq to design several modernist and postmodernist buildings throughout the country. “From the very outset of my practice,” he once said, “I thought it imperative that, sooner or later, Iraq create for itself an architecture regional in character yet simultaneously modern, part of the current international avant-garde style.”
One of the architect’s first and best-known works is the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad. Built in 1959, the arched monument was an abstracted homage to the arch of Ctesiphon in the ancient Iraqi capital of the Parthian Empire (though the monument was ultimately demolished in 1982 to be replaced by a statue of Saddam Hussein). Chadirji’s design signaled a new path for modern Iraqi architecture and was completed six years prior to Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Chadirji later came to define his aesthetic as “international regionalism” as he set out to design other, larger civic projects throughout Iraq.
Rifat Chadirji (b.1926), the pioneering Iraqi architect, passed away in London of Coronavirus infection. A thinker, author, critic, & rationalist architect with a refined aesthetic sensitivity, he combined traditional elements & constructivism in ultra-modernist compositions. RIP pic.twitter.com/sl1bZrVPBm
— Nasser Rabbat (@nasserrabbat) April 10, 2020
As forward-thinking as his architecture was, however, Chadirji was also deeply invested in Iraq’s past and ultimately produced over 10,000 photographs documenting the country’s modernization over his lifetime. “I felt that many things were disappearing, and I wanted to document them before they did,” he told arts magazine Ibraaz in 2016, according to The National. “This is what motivated me to create a sort of archive of these things.”
The year after the Monument to the Unknown Soldier was demolished, Chadirji no longer saw a place for himself in the country and moved to the United States to become a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He then went on to publish several books, including Portrait of a Father (1985), Dialogue on the Structure of Art and Architecture (1995), and The Characteristics of Beauty in Man’s Consciousness (2013).
A month after his 90th birthday in January 2017, the Tamayouz Excellence Award program established the Rifat Chadirji Prize to “introduce Iraq and its challenges to the world and invite them to submit their ideas and to establish an uncompromising open source of ideas tackling social issues in Iraq through design.” Chadirji’s legacy will live on in this prize, as well as in the memory of those who remember the modernist transformation of Iraq he championed.