Legacy of kitsch, oppression


Baghdad: Iraq's former leader envisioned a great architectural capital, but wars and his meddling left only eyesores.

December 28, 2003|By Nicolai Ouroussoff | Nicolai Ouroussoff,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Few modern dictators were more enamored of architecture or used it to greater harm than Saddam Hussein.

During nearly a quarter-century of absolute rule, he launched a series of building programs whose ambition and scale fundamentally altered the city's landscape. Along with his famous palaces, Hussein's architectural legacy ranges from mosques and museums to more conventional structures, such as government ministries, hotels and a convention center. And whatever fate befalls Hussein now that he has been captured, the mark he left on Baghdad will remain long after he is forgotten.

Like other dictators of the past, Hussein saw himself as a great arbiter of taste, an architectural patron cast in the mold of a Cosimo de Medici. He was a familiar figure in architectural circles and on construction sites, where he would often sketch out his ideas on scraps of paper. The competitions Hussein sponsored attracted some of the world's most celebrated architects. His aim, he often claimed, was to re-establish Baghdad as one of the world's great architectural capitals.

"In his speeches, he always said he wanted to push architects to find their heritage," says Shirin Sherzat, a local architect who participated in various competitions during Hussein's reign.

He did not succeed in every respect. One could argue that significant works of Soviet Neo-classicism were built during the reign of Josef Stalin; Werner March's 1936 Olympics stadium in Berlin, commissioned by Adolf Hitler, is a powerful expression of Fascist values. By comparison, most of the work created during Hussein's rule is kitsch, often blown up to a grotesque scale.

But as someone who understood design's potential as a tool of oppression, Hussein was certainly their match. The monuments built during his reign are potent expressions of authoritarian rule, from its coercive power to its desire for historical legitimacy. And they were coupled with a systematic assault against the city's public realm - one that symbolized his ability to extend that control into every corner of Iraqi society. The tightening of that noose is still palpable today.

In central Baghdad, the immense grounds of the presidential palace spread out along the Tigris River, marked by the hulking stone form of the Baath Party headquarters. To the west of the palace grounds in Zawra Park are the crossed swords of one of two Victory Arches, completed in 1985 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. Beyond them, the four gigantic busts of Hussein that crown the Peace Palace can be glimpsed through a thick stand of trees.

Hussein called these structures his gifts to the city. But to see them, one needs a military escort. A dusty road leads to the Peace Palace. The gate is guarded by a small detachment of soldiers. From here, the palace looks less menacing. It is a kitsch interpretation of classical and Islamic themes. What gives away its scale, finally, is the hugeness of the helmeted bronze busts resting on its roof. More than one story tall, the heads point in four directions, as if keeping an eye on the citizens of Baghdad.

All of the rooms inside were looted, down to the door frames and marble floors. In one corner of the palace, light spills down through a hole where an American missile struck. Beneath it, an enormous pile of shattered concrete and marble reaches down to the basement level 20 feet below. Climbing over the rubble, one reaches an upstairs dining room decorated with pink pastel walls and traditional moldings. A small window opens onto a screening room where, it is said, Hussein liked to watch videos of the Godfather trilogy.

The palace is as much a testament to the violence of war as of dictatorial power. But the biggest tragedy here is invisible to the eye. The Peace Palace stands near the site of the former Zuhur Palace - a rare example of colonial-era architecture that was bombed by the United States in 1991. Soon after, Hussein ordered it demolished. The Peace Palace rises over the bones of the city's history.

The Sijood Palace, a few miles away, was completed in 1990 for Hussein's first wife. From the exterior, it is surprisingly bland: an enormous concrete shell with a ceremonial entry canopy supported on enormous arches. Yet the detailed pattern of its exterior is a relatively accurate reproduction of traditional Abbassid precedents.

U.S. soldiers were able to fend off looters more quickly here. Many of the architectural elements are still intact. The palace's most imposing feature is a three-story rotunda, decorated with rows of slender columns and the arches that were a central feature of ancient Abbassid design. A grand stair is set off to one side. An imposing portrait of Hussein and his family hangs at the top of the landing. The figures are crudely composed; Hussein's grinning face stares out blankly from the middle of the canvas.

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