Baghdad buildings, Iraq architecture, Modernism in the Middle East, Olympic Club Baghdad

Iraqi architects ask country’s Ministry of Youth and Sports to save modernist landmark

With news of Iraq’s first modernist building, the Olympic Club in Baghdad, being partly demolished, or ‘severely altered’, spreading across social media, influential individuals in the Iraqi architecture community have appealed to the country’s Ministry of Youth and Sports to repeal the decision.

The news, which was broken by Iraqi architect Shatha Al Amiri on Facebook, has so far been largely unwelcomed by international architecture initiative Tamayouz Excellence Award and scholars, such as Caecilia Pieri, who has written extensively about Iraq’s architecture, urbanism and cultural heritage.

All images courtesy of Caecilia Pieri, taken in 2011

“This building is important because it was one of the first buildings designed by Iraq’s first academically-qualified architect, Ahmad Mukhtar Ibrahim,” said Ahmed Al-Mallak, founder of Tamayouz Excellence Award, who published an open letter to Abdul-Hussein Abtaan, the current leader of the ministry, earlier this week in response to the news.

“Ibrahim was the first Iraqi architect to study at Liverpool University, and he returned to Iraq and became the government’s architect, or the city architect – a job that had always been filled by a British architect in the past. The position is significant because that person approves all of the designs moving forward.”

According to Al-Mallak, the Olympic Club is the last remaining building by Ibrahim, and it stands as a symbol of Iraq’s modernism, as established by an Iraqi architect.

A “unique landmark”, the Olympic Club was built in the early 1940s, and according to Pieri, its architecture mixes Bauhaus functionalism with Art Deco.

“It [reflects] the typical Liverpool design as taught by Charles Reilly,” she said, “a mixture between the ‘less is more’ from Mies [van der Rohe] and the spirit, style and monumental proportions of Art Deco, but without the useless décor. Built with brick, it has the Iraqi style, and its curved shape matched the urban design of the circular Sahat Antar (a main square in Baghdad).”

A sports centre with various facilities, the Olympic Club has long been home to Iraq’s athletes. Inside the building, too, is a fresco by modern Iraqi painter Faiq Hassan. Pieri explored the piece in an article she wrote in 2012.

The fresco by Faiq Hassan

“The fresco, if not remarkable for its quality,” she wrote, “is remarkable for its subject matter: popular unity is represented by a multitude of young men and women, engaging in all types of sports, but also society games (chess), arts, music, painting…in a sort of playful version of the theme of the ‘Mechanical Arts’, something which would be quite inconceivable today.”

“[The Olympic Club] is a vital landmark from the point of view of modern Iraqi heritage,” Pieri said. “And even if Faiq’s piece is not among his best, it says a lot.”

Al-Mallak’s open letter, published across various social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook, appeals to Abtaan and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and asks to reverse its decision to change the architectural makeup of the building and demolish large parts of it.

Iraq’s Minister of Youth and Sports Abdul-Hussein Abtaan (L) speaks during a press conference / AFP photo courtesy Haidar Mohammed Ali

“We call upon you to return the Olympic Club to its former body… Regional modernist architecture and its remaining buildings in Iraq represent the intellectual and cultural dimension of Iraq,” Al-Mallak wrote.

“I can’t explain the decision,” said Pieri. “Especially when there is a huge piece of land behind the building, that’s at least two hectares. They could keep the building and integrate it into a modern design.”