Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Alte Iraki Stadt


I just finished reading Eric Bennet's extraordinary work of fiction, A Big Enough Lie, published last year. I highly recommend it. Bennet is a very gifted writer, with a unique voice and remarkable talents with language. In particular, I was struck by his passing descriptions of the Iraq of a decade ago, where much of the most consequential action in the book, scenes from the U.S. occupation, takes place.

Within about 24 hours of finishing the novel, I learned about the Twitter account Old Iraqi Pictures, which also launched about a year and half ago, featuring photography going back over a century of the country's cities, archaeological sites, architecture, street scenes and people. The site has also posted photos from the U.S. Invasion itself. Scrolling through the account's posts brought Bennet's aggressive and dismal descriptions of the assaulted, occupied, threatening urban ruin to an even more poignant horror.

Here are a few of the most vivid passages, juxtaposed with a sampling of Old Iraqi's archives. Read the book and check out the Twitter feed (most of the images below link to the original Tweet).

Camp Triumph...filled an island on the Tigris where, until last year, an amusement park had entertained Ba'ath Party members and their children. Three months ago Iraqi mortars knocked the Ferris wheel flat on its side, crushing an E2. I had been there. Concrete cartoon mice, twice as large as men, grinned at the dead soldier. 

We were part of a convoy, three up-armor Humvees, one ahead, one behind...We also should have had a third man between us to watch the overpasses while I scanned the traffic and the storefronts. Abandoned Toyotas, charred and skeletal, lined the streets, the blood of enemies and friends blackening patches of ground every seventy-five yards, the power lines dropping and hanging and crackling and buzzing above the heads of feral children.

We passed modern high-rise with massive concrete flutes dotted with satellite disks like fungi on industrial logs The shops surrounding lay in ruins. I studied heads in passing cars. Boom. That's what you were always thinking, Boom. At intersections during the past few months the kids had stopped waving and smiling; the men had never waved or smiled. Boom. 

Baghdad in the darkness was a different city, empty and cool with stink instead of teeming and hot with stink It was ancient and modern and dead. Dark palms stood motionless like crestfallen giants, rounds cracked in the distance, and I have to say that war is most frightening in stillness and darkness. I watched the shadows of alleys for portents of violent death.

We reached the four-meter high walls that divided chaos from order, poverty from wealth, heat from AC, anarchy from democracy, the dystopia of Iraq from the utopia of the States, the streets of Baghdad from the Green Zone. 

When I opened my eyes again it was not because the sun was up. Outside the window a skyline of palm trees and biblical-modernist architecture loomed in dark indigo against dark-blue sky.

We drove down safe broad streets empty with dawn. We passed the Republican Palace, from each corner of whose magnificent edifice a head of Saddam survey his lost empire. "Saddam wrote novels," I said.

"In blood" Greep said.

"About reclaiming the glory of Babylon."

Inside the palace a turquoise dome gave the rotund an incongruous feeling of peace. Marble, sandstone, gilt, and ornament ascended, spanned and spiraled around us. It was beautiful as long as you craned your neck. Cubicle divers, power cords, office furniture, and spastic screensaver on new PCs congested things at eye level. Red marker on a whiteboard announced the day's business.

We drove around until we found the Al-Rashid Hotel...The dark atrium of the convention center exuded 1970s affluence, but that was transformed by two decades of war and impoverishment...In those years blunt facades, perpendicular lines, gold railings, square chandeliers, and sepia windows had struck Iraqis as the best possible instantiations of vast wealth...

The atrium looked like a student union at a declining state university in midsummer. Printed sheets of PowerPoint slides cluttered the square column and directed visitors to various offices: 'The Iraq Mine Action Center," 'The Dutch Liaison Office to the CPA," " The Iraqi American Friendship Council," "The Royal Jordanian Airlines ticket Office," "Office of Infrastructure" and so on. 

Our two tanks were heading solo toward a man we had never seen in an apartment we had never seen in a building we had never seen on a street we had never seen. A huge department store, gutted and pathetic, loomed above a row of houses including the target house. We squared the tanks against the door. 

The streets stretched before us in sick green. The hellishness of the city at nigh tyrannized your nerves. I never hated a place as I hated Baghdad. Sometimes I tried to imagine living here in a time of peace, to picture what kind of happiness you could hope for. The rank smells, the high heat, the oppressive architecture...the beleaguered palms and rutted streets, the angular meretriciousness of the 1970s architecture tarnished by twenty years of war—it was unbearable every aspect. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Three Best Buildings in Ouagadougou

With all of the previous post's photographs, I'm splitting the post from Ouagadougou in two, this is the second part. In a city which overwhelms with astonishing architecture, here are what I thought were the three high points of the city's many intriguing buildings, in order of how I saw them.

I. Banque Commerciale du Burkina

Like many self-aggrandizing works of architecture, this astonishing office block is a chapel dedicated to the often-bizarre pseudo-colonial politics of the Trans-Sahara.

The Commercial Bank of Burkina Faso is one of the more prominent and permanent relics of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi's (however you like to spell it) various forms of intervention into Burkina, as part of a wider strategy to wield influence across Western and Central Africa at the height of his power in the 1980s and 1990s.

This resulted in this cartoonishly eloquent building, its body a pair of concave wings, tiled in two shades of greenish-blue, ribbed by an order of sharp-pointed fins which faces Ouagadougou's main commercial thoroughfare. The single most remarkable element is unquestionably the four robot-headed corner circulation wells, cubed where the rest of the building is curved, with protruding porthole windows where the rest of the façade is fronted in columns of tiny balconies, which are not not juliette-terraces off the offices but ornately-formed mechanical spaces to house external air conditioning units—this is not the only example such small external shelf-balconies without direct door access).

What's all the more incredible to contemplate is that this building was not designed or built in 1977 but was opened by Qaddafi personally in 2003, the chipped tiled exterior is barely ten years old(I find this still hard to believe and wonder if this building was built at the banks' founding in 1988 and that Qaddafi opened some other, newer building elsewhere in the city; such is the dearth of contemporary architectural history scholarship on the city that I haven't been able to work this out).

II. Grand Marche

One of the most important civic spaces in Ouagadougou is also one its most contrasting, and therefore all the more astounding. In a city which is characterized by pastel-painted pseudo-mud-brick post-modernism, one of the country's largest buildings is predominated by a magnificent brutalism: in its size, shape and material it appears straight off a state university engineering quad, from the fenestration orders shading tiny square windows, to the rest of the enclosed space articulated in the red brick of a community college library.

But most the space is not enclosed: the market's true triumph is the soaring girder spans, a section of highway overpass shading an upper-level trading floor, its ceiling height recalling the more inspiring atmospheres of brutal train stations or other civic architecture from other continents, yet with the benefit of the Sahelian climate; there are no walls.

I would have photographed more aspects of the structure but I was constantly mobbed by haggling craft dealers. I am not sure of the age of this building but while it also stylistically looks to be several decades old, it may be a replacement for the older market that suffered a devastating fire in 2003, and so may also be only about ten years old (but could also be the standing site of the fire; not clear). It also not the only brutal civic structure in the city: the main railway station also hoists aloft a soaring slab of concrete, but it was too difficult to try to photograph there.

III. Monument des Martyrs

Also known as the Monument to National Heroes, this is surely Burkina Faso's single most bizarre edifice, and for that reason the one that makes listicles like The Most Astonishing Space Age Buildings in Africa!, so it's conceivable that readers will have come across a straight-on shot of this mirrored-glass Eiffel Tower.

This was the grand-projet of Burkina Faso's president since 1987, not only glorifying the fratricide revolution that brought him to power, but the centerpiece of the brand-new planned quarter of the city that was designed for the turn of the century: Ouaga 2000 [French link], an elite diplomatic and residential area which sprawls in half-deserted, axial grandeur on the southwestern edge of Ouagadougou, like a French-inspired section of Tempe, Arizona. The Monument stands in the middle of a scrubby field, which makes its presence that much more strange and startling.

There is no more tired metaphor in architectural criticism as describing an ultra-modern building as looking like an alien spaceship has landed from another galaxy, and yet there is a certain effect of this bombastic quadruped that makes possible to imagine that a rocketship has descended from orbit as much as it looks ready for take-off.

For a third time, what adds to stupefaction is not just the form but the vintage: what is presumed to be a vintage 1983 structure was in fact ground broke in 2002.

Although still young in building-years, the Monument is hardly ready for take-off, as in typical fashion the elevators are defunct, and a visitor has to endure the stifling, twisting stare wells to reach the observation deck, and finally a regular ladder propped up against a ceiling hatch to reach the bellevue platform. There is an empty museum on the mezzanine level, but other than the old man who pockets $4 to escort you around, the place is deserted.

I was delighted by so many details: the plaid-legging effect of all that police-visor glazing, framed in smooth concrete, so akin to the stately slope of the Solow Building on 57th street; the under-side with its pizza-oven half-dome elevator lobby, ready to vacuum earthlings up to the mothership;  the engorged-to-bursting muscularity of the mezzanine level; the sharp flair of the fins on the tower's crown, a gesture like the tail 1958 Chevy Cobalt.

The building is both autocratically menacing and fancifully ridiculous: a cartoonish rendering of an world's fair tower built with the state resources of the world's third-poorest country to celebrate its own achievements. It is in this perspective that it becomes troubling to act merely as a tourist, and be amused or even aghast at the irony; it becomes necessary to reflect on the role of buildings and their architects in the furtherance and solidification of regimes. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Architecture of Ouagadougou


I am just returning from a long trip to West Africa, which partly-explains the three month silence on the blog. I was in one particular city for about six weeks, jumping back and forth to other places, working on multiple projects simultaneously. One of my last weeks there began with the unnerving anticipation of trying to finish everything, a long list of odds and ends and small details along with major, critical steps in the execution of the project. I got a call that Monday afternoon from a major partner, hoping to be informed that the paperwork was complete. Instead, as so often happens in that corner of the world especially, I was told that I would have to wait until Friday for anything to happen.

The grand mosque. 

So I had a week to burn, and rather than rage with frustration, I walked down the street to the ticket office of Air Burkina (one of the delights of that corner of the world is that travelers still buy paper tickets from ticket offices, in person), went back to my apartment, packed a duffle bag and took a taxi to the airport.
Another mosque under construction.

A few hours later, I was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, a place that I had always wanted to get to, and had for many years been only as far away as the 90-minute flight that I had just taken. I had imagined being there since childhood, laying prone on the floor the living room with the Rand McNally World Atlas, the tip of my index finger my transport across the degrees and meridians. There are few place names that rank so exotically for a kid from Ohio than Ouagadougou—how to even pronounce it—and now twenty-five years later here I was, a smiling immigration officer sending me out into the Sahelian heat with an enthusiastic “bon arrivee.”

I hired a taxi to drive me around the city before I even figured out a hotel room or changed money. For $14 a day, a lawn-green vintage Mercedes zipped me around the city, and I spent most of the next three days taking photos of buildings.

A commercial block on the main commercial boulevard, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah

A French Bank branch, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah

What I saw, and photographed, astonished me. Nothing in my most imaginative moments of childhood, or my years of working in neighboring countries, had composed my expectations properly for the city that I came upon.

Ministry for Civil Service & State Reform

Burkinabé headquarters for the West African Monetary Union, BCEAO. 

Amsterdam and New Orleans come to my mind as two cities predominated by their own architecture, and where architecture somehow develops into its own condition: where each new building that rises in the city actively attempts to contribute to a wider, existing milieu.

Two views of the same building: A Ministry

To this I would add Ouagadougou: it is overabundant with a very particular, contextual variety of modern architecture, from the older ministries and the more bombastic edifices of the semi-autocratic state, to the commercial and banking offices, to the hotels, cafés, cinemas, markets, and fuel stations. Perhaps this is why, like Amsterdam and New Orleans, a relaxed atmosphere predominates in Ouagadougou: quite a contrast to other capital cities, in the region, tense and chaotic.

Another Ministry.

There is hardly a block without remarkable, if not masterful manifestation of a desert design that is difficult to date: some of the more dilapidated examples are from the 1960s, a product of the post-independence development of the sovereign state, many others augment the 25-year president's rule through monuments, yet others are just now being completed as the country experiences a gold-mining boom, becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

A soon to be completed commercial tower, probably a north African bank.

Headquarters of the State Electricity Company, SONABEL.

Ouagadougou is basically a small city, although it is also a national capital of perhaps as many as two million people. Its commercial and governmental center is quite small, and most of the city spreads outwards in simple residential quarters of single-story, metal-sheet-roofed house compounds.

Rooftop view. 

I am going to post many of these to the Bauzeitgeist Tumblr, to give each its own proper platform for appreciation, but I thought that putting them all here, a single volume, would be slightly overwhelming just as the city of Ouagadougou itself is; I was only there for three days, and hardly had time to photograph a third of the buildings that rushed passed on the road, much less learn anything about the particular history and provenience of each.

A large commercial/banking complex.

For a bit more detail and to pace this post for length, I'll split into their own separate post three particularly fascinating examples of the city's architecture, but what I've noted here is what little I know at all about what I was able to see and capture on my iPhone (tragically, my Canon G12 broke before I got there). If I had the time, I would embark on a project to write an architectural guide to the city—it certainly deserves to be an architectural destination.