“Lost” Le Corbusier Building Sparks Preservation Movement in Iraq

Gymnasium in Baghdad, Sketch by Le Corbusier. ©SketchPlanet

In Upstate New York, residents are clamoring to raze down their Government Center, Paul Rudolph’s classic 1970 example of brutalist design. Ostensibly, this is due to flood-damage. But it can’t hurt that, as one resident was quoted in The New York Times as saying, it’s “a big ugly building.”

In Minnesota, city officials would rather tear down M. Paul Fiedberg’s Peavey Plaza, a “Modernist gem” completed in ’73, than spend the time, money, and effort to revitalize it.

In Baghdad, on the other hand, a gymnasium completed in 1982, suffering the signs of decades of violence, poverty, and ill-executed renovation, has sparked a small movement, reawakening a country to its neglected cultural heritage.

The architect behind this Iraqi endeavor? None other than Le Corbusier himself.

Read More on the “forgotten” Le corbusier in Baghdad, after the break…

Baghdad Gymnasium, designed by Le Corbusier in 1957, built in 1982. © AFP

As the AFP reported yesterday, the forgotten Le Corbusier building was “rediscovered” in 2005, when Caecilia Pieri, researching  her thesis on modern architecture in Baghdad for the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient, came across the gymnasium and contacted the Le Corbusier Foundation in France.

“This is a posthumous work, and researchers did not have access to . They did not even know if it was properly built, as they had never seen it,” Pieri said.

After bringing the President of the Foundation,  Jacques Sbriglio, to the site, a French-Iraqi alliance was formed:  the Foundation, Baghdad University, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and the French embassy have made plans to publish a book and hold a colloquium to raise public awareness of the building.

Beyond Le Corbusier’s stature, which in itself would merit the Gymnasium’s preservation, the building is a fascinating example of Iraq’s changing, historical relationship with modernist architecture and the West.

The design was first commissioned in 1957, as part of Baghdad’s (unsuccessful) bid for the  1960 Olympics, by King Faisal II, who was heavily invested in attracting modernist architecture greats to Baghdad – from Walter Gropius to Gio Ponti. However, this modernist revival, and Le Corbusier’s involvement, was short-lived. Just one year later, the monarchy was overthrown, and the King killed, in the 1958 Revolution.

Le Corbusier’s design for the Baghdad Gymnasium. © Iraq Art & Architecture’s Facebook Page

Despite the failed bid, Faisal’s overthrow, mounting financial difficulties, and Le Corbusier’s death in 1965, the plans remained pending. They were finally taken up again during the reign of Sadamm Hussein and finished in 1982, under the guidance of one of Le Corbusier’s associates, Georges-Marc Presente.

According to its current director, Wasfi al-Kinani, the Gymnasium hosted numerous international competitions and ”generations of Iraqi athletes” throughout the ’80s and ’90s. “For Iraqi sports, this is a historic inheritance, a symbol.”

But in 2003-4, the Iraqi people saw another overthrow, this time of Hussein, and the Gymnasium went from housing athletes to American soldiers. The years of violence and shoddy reconstruction have affected the Gymnasium’s design: the roof, originally designed to allow natural light, has been blocked by a false ceiling; the seats are brightly colored; and the Gymnasium’s perspective has become crowded with newer constructions.

However, the building’s preservation may be the first step towards a greater movement. As Pieri noted to the AFP: ”After all this upheaval, we are witnessing the renaissance of new awareness about [Iraq's] modern heritage, and it can lead to similar movements, sparking positive momentum for other major modern buildings.”

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "“Lost” Le Corbusier Building Sparks Preservation Movement in Iraq" 24 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=228601>
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  • http://tclf.org/ Nord Wennerstrom

    Thanks for including M. Paul Friedberg’s Peavey Plaza in your article, along with Charles Birnbaum’s Huffington Post piece about the threat to Peavey. The City of Minneapolis is aggressively pushing for the plaza’s demolition and plans to appeal a recent vote by the City’s Historic Preservation Commission that delays a demolition permit for 180 days. The City is promoting a false choice, either build a new plaza or restore the current one — all or nothing. Peavey supporters say the site can be updated yet retain the character defining features that make it a modernist icon it is and the finest surviving example of Friedberg’s work. Friedberg agrees!