Mohamed Makiya

Deeply Baghdadi

Guy de Cointet, The Tattooing on his Back…, 1982. Photo by Marc Domage. All images courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery New York, Air de Paris Gallery, Paris, and the estate of Guy de Cointet

Mohamed Makiya’s mother used to say that her son was born the year the British entered Baghdad, which puts his birthday sometime around 1916. By 1932, the British had left, leaving behind a Saudi-born king behind named Faisal to steer a country awkwardly cobbled together from three far-flung regions of the Ottoman Empire. By 1935, Makiya had gone to the UK to study architecture on a coveted state scholarship. Returning after eleven years away, he found Iraq at a crossroads, at odds with a weakling monarch imposed from without and fitfully struggling to find its place in a world on the brink of transition. That energy culminated in a revolution in 1958, ending the monarchy and placing Iraq at the center of a pan-Arab movement that spanned Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond.

Though Makiya’s training in architecture had been firmly modernist — his referents were Bauhausian above all — he developed into a passionate advocate of Mesopotamian and early Islamic heritage. In 1963, he would refurbish and artfully transform a ninth-century Abbasidera minaret, once part of the caliph’s palace in central Baghdad. It was this mosque project, called Khulafa, as well as the design of his family seat — sometimes called “the Mansour House,” after the neighborhood in which it was located — that would make him known as an architect of a distinctive vernacular modernism. Makiya would go on to carry out projects in Bahrain, Riyadh, Oman, and Kuwait, from opulent palaces to banks to major urban mosques. In 1959 he founded Iraq’s first school of architecture at Baghdad University.

By the late 1960s, the Arab world was stunned following defeat at the hands of the Israeli state. In its aftermath, Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath party, in power since 1968, would be known to carry out routine sweeps in the name of weeding out fifth columnists, mostly described as British spies, Jews, or conspirators at large.

While away on a job in Bahrain in 1972, Makiya’s name ended up on a blacklist — as a Freemason, of all things. Though they never learned quite what inspired it, the Makiyas — Mohamed, his British wife Margaret, and their two children — were forced into exile, settling in London, where Mohamed opened an architectural office called Makiya and Associates and carried on with projects from his new home.

And then in the 1980s came a curious invitation to return to Iraq. It seems that the Khulafa project, now two decades old, had caught the eye of a certain Saddam Hussein, the thickly mustached, former army general from the northern city of Tikrit who had been leading the country since 1979. Makiya consented, and the ensuing period, one in which reams of petrodollars were devoted to grandiose architectural projects, witnessed a host of ambitious schemes — from the Baghdad State Mosque, to a parade ground in Tikrit, to riverfront schemes for Baghdad, and more than one university campus. Though some of Saddam’s plans were sidetracked by his nine-year war with Iran, many did materialize during this odd time.

In 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Around that time, a series of books chronicling Saddam’s crimes appeared under the pen name Samir Al-Khalil. A year later, the exile who famously shrouded his face during television interviews finally revealed himself to be Kanan Makiya, the architect’s son. In addition to Cruelty and Silence and Republic of Fear, Kanan, who had himself studied architecture at MIT, had penned The Monument, an epic treatise on the nexus of kitsch and power in Saddam’s Iraq. The son would make his name deriding the regime that his father had worked for.

Some years later, Makiya the younger would become one of the main exiles advising the Bush administration as it prepared its case to invade Iraq. The elder Makiya remains in London, surrounded by his massive collection of Iraqi art and antiquities, as well as his memories of an Iraq long gone.

Guy de Cointet, Back in Jamaica, 1983

Guy Mannes-Abbott: Could you describe the world you were born into?

Mohamed Makiya: It was like the Middle Ages. I wouldn’t have to read about a medieval city because I lived it. There was no electricity, no water, no sanitation. I’m very much influenced by it. I’m deeply Baghdadi, and I’ve been thinking of Baghdad all my life. My father died when I was young, and as a child I worked for my uncle, who had a shop in the souk. Every day, I opened the shop for him. When I got out of school, I did my lessons in the shop. I had to hide my books under the counter so my uncle wouldn’t see me — he wanted me to pay attention to the customers.

We lived in a prominent Shia neighborhood called Suq Al Ghazl, very central, and close to something called the Weaver’s Mosque that went back to the Abbasid period and Baghdad’s founding. Our family was a prominent weaving family. My father would get the materials from the Silk Route and from China. He was one of the main dealers, and my cousin had one of the best shops in Baghdad for textiles. Later he started bringing them from Italy, but before that we brought everything from Aleppo, Syria, because the industry there was very good. Modernity first came to Iraq from Damascus, Syria, and the Mediterranean.

GMA: So if, as you say, you are Baghdad, if this upbringing is in all you do, how did the actual house in which you grew up influence you and your work?

MM: At the time, I didn’t think about the design of my father’s house. It was only later that I came to appreciate it. It was a masterful study of space. How could an area of less than 200 meters house five families? There was a central court and a diwan and a basement. There was a bent entrance and within it a place to sit so that somebody could read the Qur’an if they wanted to. Above, there were five rooms, but the roof was a sleeping space. I learned then that the sky is a roof itself. The whole idea of the house was very important to me.

GMA: You told me about the importance of environment, or Al Mamour — habitat, as you translated it — in your architecture and thinking. How much of that was rooted in old Baghdad?

MM: I was interested in the influence of the climate on architecture in the Mediterranean. I call it “zero architecture.” It relates to the natural order of things. When we went to the School of Architecture in Liverpool, we all came back trying to be modern. It was “to hell with the past.” Everyone was concerned with the best of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and everybody who worked in the international style. I did practice modernism as a student in Liverpool. And I did very well — I had to, because I wanted to be as good as everybody else. But I was also influenced very much by the English vernacular, the Cotswold stone architecture, and so on.

GMA: How did the time away from Iraq influence you?

MM: I came back to Baghdad in 1946 after spending eleven years away. I’d spent one year in the civic design department in Liverpool, the only one in the whole of England. After that, I was lucky enough to stay for my PhD at King’s College at Cambridge, where the only thing I did was go to the library. There was no professor who could tell me anything about Islamic architecture there, so they left me to be free.

The Cambridge years were very influential to me and later influenced my plans for the university at Kufa. Years later, when Walter Gropius came to my house in Baghdad, I criticized his design for the University of Baghdad campus, built in the ’50s, because… it didn’t have intimacy. It was just a very broad street with landscaping. It was good professionally, but to me, it had no character, intimacy, nor the closeness that even Cambridge had. Most of my colleagues don’t believe in tradition. To me the modern really has to have an identity and a philosophy. And the philosophy is the trinity of human values — man, space, and time. These are three. They become the human scale.

GMA: You told me that the 1950s were a glorious time, a golden period in Iraq. Did you feel you were at the center of something important happening in Baghdad?

MM: In the 1950s, we brought the giant architects of the world to Iraq. Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gropius, Sert — all these people came to my house, the Mansour House. I took Frank Lloyd Wright around in my car.

GMA: And what was he like?

MM:* Very bossy! Oh, very.

GMA: There’s a famous photograph of you greeting a young King Faisal II at a modern art exhibit along with the artists Jawad Salim and Khalid al-Rahal, two other key modernists of the time.

MM: I was the president of the Arts Society, which I founded in 1950 or so. I invited Frank Lloyd Wright! I showed him all around, and Jawad Salim was there, and he was keen to talk to him and have his signature. Rahal was there, you know the one who did that monument at Baghdad’s parade grounds. But you see, the artists didn’t care for aristocrats and things, and most were socialists. Even in Cambridge, socialism had been very much present. I once drove my car from Baghdad to Moscow, you know. When the first Russian went to the moon.

GMA: What were you looking for?

MM: I probably went to see Moscow. I drove my car into the Red Square! The car had a number plate in Arabic.

GMA: What was the monarchy’s relationship to the arts and the modern moment when the king was still alive?

MM: In the ’50s, Iraqi artists were bohemian. And I was a stranger to them because I am not a painter, and they thought that painting alone was art. I believed in applied art, and they looked down upon it. To me the carpenter and the blacksmith are artists… the other artists think art must involve a canvas. Canvas in a climate like ours! It’s odd! [Laughs] So I said, we paint on the wall! we use ceramics, we don’t use brushes. Jawad Salim always supported me because he’s very intelligent. the others were very obsessed by ideas about painting. I never painted in my life!

GMA: They must have thought you were being traditional?

MM: Yes. In fact, when I came back to lecture at the engineering college, there was no department of architecture. I went to see the head of the school, and I said we should have one. The civil engineering department refused. I said alright, I could give a lecture a week to the fourth-years on the appreciation of architecture. To me, the whole dilemma was that the civil engineers were not cultivated. They were not civic, they were civil, and that is the trouble! I asked the students to draw the houses they lived in, to draw the kitchen their mothers used, and so on. Once I took them to draw the whole coast of Baghdad, from the north to the south, from the suspension bridge to Kadamiyah. We went on a boat with Lorna Salim, who worked in the department…

GMA: Is that Jawad Salim’s wife?

MM: Yes, she’s an excellent painter, one of the best. She recorded Baghdad. She’s very well known now. Then, in 1960, when the new president of the university came, he immediately agreed to launch an architectural department. But later when the Ba’ath came, they finished it. I used to employ the best brains, and when they came, I had to dismiss anything American or English and keep only the people from the Eastern Bloc because of…

GMA: … the Cold War?

MM: Yes, and because of the Suez.

I wanted the creation of the School of Architecture to have a legacy, so one can speak of a Baghdad school of architecture, the way the Jawad Salim school today is a Baghdad school. But unfortunately, during Saddam’s regime, all the good architects left.

GMA: What made you return to Iraq after your long exile?

MM: When it was announced that Iraq would be the site of the conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, the mayor of Baghdad invited me to come back. He said, “We want to show Baghdad at its glory, and we have millions and millions you could, you know, spend.” We asked everyone — they said, “Well, Dr. Makiya is the only one who used to speak about tradition. Why don’t you bring him?” So the invitation arrived, and of course I had to refuse it, because Kanan and my wife wouldn’t allow it. Then it came again in a very nice way. The ambassador delivered a letter from the president with the confirmation that I was to come as a guest and leave any time without complication. That was before the Iranian war.

GMA: And the war with Iran began in September 1980?

MM: It happened at the very end of that stay. On my last day I was supposed to meet with Saddam to tell him about my plans to redesign Baghdad’s riverfront, the Nawaz Street project. And then he invaded Iran! I was staying on the eighth floor of the hotel, and I got up very early, and there was an airplane, an Iranian airplane coming back to bomb us. I got out shortly afterwards.

Guy de Cointet, Poor fellow, he took off his gloves … , 1978

GMA: So what exactly made you go back that time? And continue to work with the regime for some years after?

MM: I wanted to do something. I would have even accepted to do the Ba’ath Party headquarters in an international competition, because I knew this building ultimately would be ours! Kanan was against that, of course. Kanan wanted me to give up, I shouldn’t have stopped the office — Makiya and Associates.

Kanan said I can’t ever work with Saddam’s regime. You’ll be talked about like Hitler — he had, what’s his name? Albert Speer. You are that. But it’s not that. I hated the man, but to me Iraq is not him. I don’t want to see those swords again! It’s hideous! It’s ugly!

GMA: You mean the famous crossed-swords sculpture at Baghdad’s parade grounds, the ones that Kanan wrote about in The Monument

MM: You know Saddam gave me the parade ground in Tikrit to work on. It was huge! About 1 kilometer square. You saw it, it’s one of the very best designs I’ve done. He wanted it the way he had in Baghdad with the swords! So the army could promenade through it like they do in Red Square. I ignored this request. I designed a complex for it — for festivals, for the feast, not for the tanks. Of course, it was never built.

GMA: Do you feel compromised by having worked under Saddam? Do you have any regrets?

MM: Yes, but it doesn’t mean I am pro-Saddam. I hated him. The Ba’ath were very keen for me to speak on television when I was in Iraq. They said, “Say something nice, that the president loves tradition and you love tradition and he’s keen on it.” I kept on postponing the interview.

GMA: Saddam was not actually interested in tradition, in the sense of heritage was he? Wasn’t he more invested in crude political nationalism?

MM: He was clever. When I talked to him about design and things like that, he listened carefully. He liked to learn, and to use knowledge for his own glorification. For example, I told him about brick culture in Samarra, with the traditional mud and brick. When one goes to Salahaddin [University] near Arbil, the topography is more marked by stone, like Mosul or Jerusalem. All of a sudden, every building Saddam asked for was made of stone, though we are mostly a brick country. The Abbasid tradition is brick! But somehow this was his way of bringing the stone culture of the north [where he came from] to Baghdad. He wanted to show the culture of the north penetrating to the center.

Once I was giving a talk, and he came in late. He said, “Repeat the lecture from the beginning!” I didn’t care, and I continued it. At the end when I had finished, he stood! He never stood for anybody in the world. He said, “Don’t you wish to say hello to me? And to sit next to me?” He wanted to win me over back then.

GMA: Did he ask many questions?

MM: Only questions about cost, more or less, but with the Abu Nawaz street project to restore the riverfront in Baghdad, for example, I said there were more important subjects to discuss. Instead of having eucalyptus trees, as planned, I said, “Let’s have palm trees.” With palms, when you walk, you can see the sky, whereas with those stupid trees brought in from Australia, you couldn’t see anything. These are pillars from heaven. The palm tree is a blessing from God. And another time, I proposed a new design for the flag that was rejected. I said we must have green. I pushed for blue, too, like the sky; sky, water, and the green. And the stars should have been vertical, not horizontal! We are not horizontal, we have nothing to do with Egypt and the Arab world. But we are related to the north, the middle, and the south. We are Assyrian, Arcadian, and Sumerian — we are the three.

GMA: Do you remember Independence in 1932, what it meant? What memory do you have of first encounters with the British?

MM: The British occupation could no longer be tolerated or accepted at that point. But yet we also had the best doctors, the best people, we had the best college in the world, and we had the best architecture. Colonial architecture of that period, through the influence of people like Edwin Lutyens or Harold Mason and James Mollison Wilson, was very important. In that period, we had the Parliament Building, and many others done. Then Philip Hirst came from Liverpool, and he did the Rafidain Bank, which was completely modern.

GMA: Do you think the British understood the Iraqi context?

MM: Unfortunately, we had a British architect called Baxter. He was very good, but he was trying to make things Islamic. So he made a tomb as if it were Moroccan or “Islamic”! To me, Iraqi-ness is more important than being Islamic. So that is the trouble, that’s what they did with the grand mosque at Muscat. And the sultan’s palace, with all its red stone.

My designs there were interfered with. They menaced them with all kinds of decorations and things, copies, in the Andalusian style. It was careless.

GMA: Which are your favorite buildings or schemes, built or not, and why?

MM: All my jobs are incomplete. When I designed that mosque in Muscat, I wanted people to relate to it as a cultural center. The building went right up to the water, the sea, and the mountain. Because Oman is defined by the rock and the water. And they ruined it by having an 80-meter street passing right by the mosque! To me the mosque is not a place to worship only, it is a place of rendezvous, like a national park. Children could come and play and all that, have a parade, and people could picnic there and all that. Then they could pray if they want to, in the thousands. Kanan still says about that project, “They didn’t even invite you to the opening!”

GMA: Why was that, do you think? You said earlier that the sultan wanted to claim credit, regarding the architect as merely paid help?

MM: Jealousy. They spoiled the interior. And they raised the minaret more than necessary. They had four towers, and they said, “Make them higher!” It’s not right, because they were more balanced [before], but [they made] them higher so they [would be] more dignified, more ambitious. Another thing about the Muscat mosque was my lettering, my calligraphy. My lettering is like a Mondrian, abstracted.

There was the Kuwait State Mosque. They said, “We cannot read the calligraphy.” I say you’re not supposed to read them! My god, this is poetry, this is mood. Singular and vertical, you don’t read them. You don’t ask the birds, “Tell me what you’re singing”!

GMA: Tell me about your proposal for a university at Kufa, which was never realized.

MM: Saddam refused the University of Kufa.

GMA: Why? Because it was associated with the Shia and Shia particularism, whereas Saddam was a Sunni?

MM: Oh yes, they thought Kufa was the capital of Shiism. It was the first capital. [The historian] Albert Hourani called it Athens of the East. So we had a huge international response, from the Russians, the Americans — to help with scholarships, send professors. It was the first university that would not be governmental.

The Kufa proposal was for a city. For a complex, complete university with living and everything in it. It was a university town, not a university institute. And within it there would have been another city, which would be called Pilgrimage City, you know, Traveler’s City, and another city, Economic City. There were many universities being built at that time for the Ba’athists — Rashid University in Baghdad, and one in Arbil.

GMA: Can I ask about Saddam’s kitsch recreation of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar’s Palace, which began in 1982? What was your reaction to such a commission, the process, and how far did you get with it?

MM: I refused to work on it and gave a report against spending so many millions on a new Babylon. In the Department of Antiquities, nobody dared to say no. Even the consultants. Everyone said, “Dr. Makiya is emotional, and we can make money out of it.”

The same thing happened with Nineveh. I went with one of the top consultants from the Department of Antiquities and said ancient Nineveh is one of the most wonderful things in the world, and they want to bulldoze the thing so that they could build houses for the teachers. I wrote a letter, and they stopped the project. That way, I saved Nineveh.

GMA: I have to ask you this small thing, this rumor that Saddam was quite a good draftsman. Was Saddam able to draw quite well?

MM: No, no, it was a scribble, the scribble was very naive.