Pioneer of modernist architecture in Iraq, Hisham Munir looks back on a lifetime of landmark projects
Born to an influential family in February of 1930 in Khudhar Al Yas, Baghdad, Iraqi architect and academic Hisham Munir has long been considered a leader of modernist architecture in Iraq. With more than 100 buildings developed during a 41-year career – cut short by the constantly changing political environment in Iraq that began to culminate in the late 1990s – Munir contributed to the development of his home country through both the built environment and academia.
“One day, when my brother and I were swimming next to our house, we found two bricks and on them, we noticed strange signs, or symbols. We took the bricks to my father, who told us that they were likely brought from Babylon some time ago, as people used to bring brick from there and apply it as a final touch to their houses,” said Munir, as he recalled his first spark of interest in architecture.
“The director of the archaeological museum at that time confirmed the story. But 30 years later, when I was asked to work on a monument, I contacted people in the archaeology department again. I mentioned the bricks, but someone from the department told me that I had the wrong story. He said the real story was that [authorities] had started to build a bridge, but they had to move it to the north to avoid destroying a Babylonian village that was located there.”
Inspired by his surroundings to become an architect, as well as Islamic architecture, in particular its inherent response to and consideration of climate control, Munir often looked to the past for inspiration and to the present for technological solutions.
Graduating from the University of Texas in 1953 and the University of South California in 1956, his early engagement with mid-century American architects and their methodology greatly influenced his architectural approach and his future collaborations, both of which reflected the period’s advantageous environment for Iraqi architects.
Iraq was going through a period of creative prosperity, despite the frequent changes in leadership. As the country moved from kingdom to regime, renowned international architects were commissioned for large projects. Le Corbusier built the Baghdad Gymnasium while Frank Lloyd Wright designed an opera house and a post office. And though he rejected the invitation due to his political beliefs, Oscar Niemeyer was asked to be part of a planning board in the 1950s, arranged by King Faisal II. Iraqi architects, too, were returning from their studies abroad and becoming power houses in their own right – this included Munir, as well as others like Rifat Chadirji and Qahtan Al-Madfa’i.
After returning to Iraq in 1957, Munir would go on to establish Iraq’s first architecture department at the University of Baghdad with fellow Iraqi architects Mohamed Makiya and Abdullah Ihsan Kamel in 1959.
“At the time, I thought Abdullah was the best. The quality and design of his work… He studied in the UK like Makiya, but he continued at Harvard where he studied city planning,” said Munir. “When we formed the department, he was already teaching in the civic engineering department. And when I was doing my post-graduate degree, I was invited to be an assistant teacher, so I had some experience. I was the more academic one, I think, of the three of us.”
Before he was assigned to develop the architecture department, Munir had established his company in Baghdad in 1957. Called Hisham Munir and Associates, it grew rapidly and won many of the design competitions it entered. Munir’s early projects include the Mosul General Hospital, the Iraqi Engineers’ Union Headquarters and the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce. His other notable projects are the Agricultural Complex, the Iraqi Reinsurance Company in Baghdad, the Sheraton Hotels in Baghdad and Basra, and the Al-Sabah Complex in Kuwait.
Having collaborated with North American greats including Walter Gropius and his initiative The Architects Collaborative (TAC), Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, and a slew of British, Brazilian and other international firms, Munir often worked as a local associate, contributing to the design and overseeing projects by large, often renowned firms. Such work included the second stage of Baghdad Medical City and Complex Development Master Plan with Whiting Rogers, Butler and Burgun, and the Baghdad and Mosul Universities with TAC.
Munir first met Gropius during his studies at the University of Texas, and following his move back to Iraq, the two would soon become frequent collaborators. Perhaps, they were even friends – with Gropius an apparent admirer of Middle Eastern rugs, Munir and his wife once gifted the American architect with a kilim, which Gropius later hung in his bedroom.
“TAC was doing the greatest work at that time,” said Munir. “I even sent staff to oversee its projects in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, because Gropius was always very worried about the quality of work done there. He considered the quality of the local prevailing practice to be almost primitive compared to the new, high technology that was used elsewhere.”
Munir’s firm was recognised as a leading consultancy office in its own right – his seamless blend of Islamic architecture and modern technology was largely revered. He applied architectural and design solutions that made sense for Iraq and for the time. And inside each of his buildings were one-of-a-kind art pieces, created by Iraqi artists like Dia Azzawi and Ismail Fatah Al Turk.
“I always say that architecture is the tempo of time and place,” Munir said. “You cannot separate any proper work from the time that it was made in. New material is not created as an extra, it is created out of need. Each time and period brings with it new thoughts and new approaches.
“This is the unfortunate part of dictators or governments, though – they erase things of the previous era. These buildings are landmarks of time, and they should be kept so people know the history of their cities. I greatly disagreed when they destroyed the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.”
By the 1990s, the political environment in Iraq caused great public distress, and there was an exodus of students, artists and academics. TAC was no longer getting work due to the economic sanctions, and Munir found it harder to continue running his office. By 1998, Munir closed his company – a difficult decision no doubt – and he and his family left to Abu Dhabi for a short while before relocating to Arlington, Virginia in the US, where they have been ever since.
A frequent guest lecturer at Columbia, MIT and Harvard, Munir has spent the last few decades writing and speaking. Currently working on his memoir, he hopes to share his stories with a wider public one day. Most recently, too, he was the recipient of Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“The 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to the architect and academic Hisham Munir in appreciation of his contributions to the development of Iraqi architecture,” said Wendy Pullan upon presenting Munir with the award. “[He is] one of the pioneering practitioners and mentors of generations of Iraqi architects who contributed to building their country and to establishing the Department of Architecture at Baghdad University, the first architectural department in Iraq.”
Looking back, Munir said he would likely change quite a lot. “There’s new technology now,” he said. “I would make different forms.” Regardless, many of his buildings remain, despite the lack of maintenance over the years. “Even the Reinsurance building,” he mentioned. “It was burned, but it’s still standing.”