To get a flavor of Middle East architecture past and present and the forces that have shaped it, check out two new exhibitions that opened this weekend at New York’s Center for Architecture: Middle East City of Mirages; Baghdad, 1952-1982 and Change: Architecture and Engineering in the Middle East 2000-Present. Whether you’ve been to the Middle East or not, these exhibitions explore new territory and portray the diversity of Middle East architecture, the challenging conditions in which it was and still is produced, and the unique brand of modernism and preservation efforts that have taken a foothold there.
Middle East City of Mirages, Bagdad, 1952-1982, which makes its US debut in New York, puts on view built and unbuilt work of 11 prominent architects from around the globe including Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Peter and Alison Smithson, and Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown. What we see is an Iraq run by Saddam Hussein who tapped the best architects then practising to design buildings there, many through international competition, some of which were never built or only partially realized, and some that that are badly in need of repair or non-existent as a result of the war ravaged bombings that have occurred in Baghdad over the years. Nonetheless, we get a sense of Iraqi architectural development over the 30 year period dominated by a singular vision, that of Saddam Hussein.
While not a perfect catalog of the modernist movement in Iraq, it is for now the best one that exists given the difficulty in both archiving and accessing architectural production in the region. Curated by Pedro Azara, the exhibition puts on view sixteen models of various scales and many drawings of both built and unbuilt work by these architectural luminaries.
To get a sense of what’s going on in the region now, Change: Architecture and Engineering in the Middle East, 2000-Present surveys the contemporary architectural scene in the Middle East, putting on view more than 120 works drawn from 20 countries and territories. The exhibition shows how architects and engineers have participated in the rapid transformation of the region, translating the rich geographical, cultural, and economic resources of the Middle East into contemporary form. In this region considerable funds and design expertise has been expended to build supertall towers and smaller scale works including new public buildings, infrastructure projects and cultural and educational facilities.
Taken together the two shows demonstrate a diversity of approaches to design in the Middle East and examine the forces of modernization and colonialism shaping the region’s cities. The exhibitions are on view from February 22 until May 5 (City of Mirages) and June 23 (Change).