Baghdad, Prairie Style


Credit: Frank Lloyd Wright

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a column by Adam Cohen revealing that an ambitious scheme for renewing Baghdad had been gathering dust for nearly 50 years, a plan drawn up by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1957 the aged architect had been invited by the Iraqi government to design a city opera house. Typically, Wright wanted to site his proposed creation (above) on an island in the Tigris. "The island is yours," King Faisal II told him.

Wright also "designed an art gallery, botanical gardens, a 'grand bazaar,' and a university campus for the island," wrote Cohen, even though the project had been awarded to rival architect Walter Gropius.

As it happened, King Faisal's government was soon overthrown, and the island eventually became a Baathist resort. Yet Wright's unbuilt Baghdad retains a certain bizarre exuberance, its opera dome topped by a gilded Aladdin, complete, as Wright put it, "with his wonderful lamp, the symbol of human imagination." (Wright imagined himself as a kind of Aladdin.) There was even to be a parking garage in the shape of a Sumerian ziggurat.

The debatable eclecticism was intended to honor Iraq's past while saving its future from the West's boxy International Style. Wright wanted "to demonstrate that we [the West] are not destructive, but constructive" where Iraq is concerned.

A recurring Western wish, it seems. If the Iraqis like any of his old plans, perhaps Wright will yet have his granted.