Monuments for the free spirit

The Arab world and Modernity

The Bauhaus and the Middle East: that sounds like a wealth of contrasts and an exciting mingling of different cultures. There is indeed exhilarating architecture to discover in the Arab world from Casablanca to Beirut.

Nicolas Flessa (2013)
Tripoli, Messegelände, Theater (errichtet 1963-1975 nach den Plänen von Oscar Niemeyer)

Absatz 1

When the Bauhaus opened in Weimar, its homeland had just lost a war. And while the old feudalism and imperialism experienced a resurgence in many parts of the victorious nations, artists and cultural activists in the losing country ensured the emergence of a revolution that had been on the horizon for some time, even before the abolition of the monarchy.

The movement, known as “Modernity”, which also carries a hint of the present day in its name, was neither limited to Germany nor to German artists. The Bauhaus alone had students and teachers from almost 30 different countries, including the now famous Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and Wassily Kandinsky, but also Irena Blühová, Isaak Butkow and Iwao and Michiko Yamawaki.

The traces of Modernity in the Middle East are less well known than the international style’s influence on Europe and the USA. In the former realm of the Ottoman Empire, which had lost World War I fighting alongside Germany, the new emergence of Modernity was more than just a cultural new beginning. The existence of entire countries such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon stem from that period, as the British and French rule over the Turks, which lasted centuries, was replaced by new borders that ensured national power claims.

Pure Modernity

The modernisation process introduced under the Sultans, which was also known as the Tanzimât, had already begun in the mid-19th century, as many “western” innovations and technologies were established in the Middle East. That transfer of ideas experienced an initial climax with the immigration of European Jews to the British-ruled region – but the influence of Modernity on the region was by no means limited to the impressive buildings by immigrant architects, such as the White City.

While Europeans such as Arieh Sharon (born in 1900) and Dov Karmi (born in 1905) transformed the deserts around Jaffa into a Bauhaus dream, Egyptian colleagues such as Ali Labib Gabr (born in 1898) and Charles Ayrout (born in 1876) also developed completely new villas and apartment buildings with an autonomous formal language that still provides important evidence of Modernity’s pluricentric premises today. In both examples, the use of contemporary technologies, as well as the design of characteristic elements played an important role, such as rounded balconies, white façades and the rejection of any historical ornamentation.

Abbildung nach Karim, Sayyid (Hrsg). „Villa madam Valadji bi-Misr al-Jadida”, in: Majallat al-Imarah 2 (1940), S.82.
Kairo, Heliopolis, Villa für Madame Valadji (errichtet 1938/9 nach einem Entwurf von Charles Ayrout), Abbildung nach Karim, Sayyid (Hrsg). „Villa madam Valadji bi-Misr al-Jadida”, in: Majallat al-Imarah 2 (1940), S.82.

[Translate to English:] Absatz 5

A new element of Modernity’s transfer to the Middle East was the question to what extent the principles of New Building, which had been developed for Europe, could be adapted to suit local traditions and materials. “The starting point for this search was an intensive discussion between architects, painters, sculptors and thinkers,” Rifat Chadirji (born in 1926) explains. He is one of the most important representatives of post-war Modernity in Iraq. The process, not the style, made European-trained architects like Chadirji thoroughly Modern designers: “It was important to me to understand analytically how traditional features condition the surroundings, such as interior courtyards, screening walls, natural ventilation and reflected light.” Like many non-European architects, their Arab colleagues regarded Modernity not as an import from the West, but as a contemporary form of expression one could use to combine the architectural heritage of their homelands with the technical performance of the times.

Architecture and politics

Understanding Modernity as a form of architecture that has freed itself from the ballast of history (leading to excessive stucco-destruction in many German cities after the war), also led to the demise of a number of impressive “bell époque” façades in Egypt; one striking example is the stringent and substantial renovation of the National Bank of Egypt in 1948. The violent removal of “colonial architecture” reached a sorry climax ahead of the Egyptian revolution: in early 1956, hundreds of buildings regarded as “western decadence”, for symbolic or architectural reasons, were set alight in the capital’s centre. “By the end of that Black Saturday, Cairo’s city centre lay in rubble and resembled a bombarded city,” as Mohamed Elshahed recalls (Facades of Modernity, p. 41).

[Translate to English:] Absatz 7 + 8

Inversely, looking at the westernmost region of the Middle East, one can see that a smooth Modern style is not always an expression of liberation from colonial structures. The “White City” of Morocco, Casablanca, which Aaron Betsky once described as “the best model of Modernity”, since, instead of being a coherent work from that period, “combining order with excitement”, it is actually like its Israeli counterpart, a genuinely European city. The plan was not only designed by the Frenchman Michel Écochard. Moroccan architects such as Jean-François Zévaco (born in 1916) and Elie Azagury (born in 1918) were also initially part of a colonial building tradition, which continued to erect separate Muslim, Jewish and European quarters until the 1950s – all in a “Modern style”.

Lebanon chose a path somewhere between colonial and emancipatory Modernity. Like its neighbour Palestine, the country founded as late as 1920 was faced with a large number of foreign immigrants who had been forced to leave their homelands shortly earlier due to political violence or discrimination. Settlements developed according to Modern principles, including buildings that were erected by the immigrants themselves, led to a colourful mixture of Modern and eclectic quarters. The heritage of this structural development has not been fully examined to this day. Exceptional architects such as Farid Trad (born in 1901), Antoine Tabet (born in 1907) and later Joseph Philippe Karam (born in 1923) ensured that from the 1940s onwards, Beirut was called the “Paris of the Middle East” following the country’s independence.

Nicolas Flessa (2015)
Casablanca, Kathedrale (errichtet 1930 nach den Plänen von Paul Tournon), heute: Kulturzentrum

Unfinished Modernity

One impressive example of the deliberately imported work of non-Arab artists is the trade fair centre designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The project, which was never completed due to the outbreak of civil war in 1975, comprises around 10,000 hectares, including a monumental circular arch, the shell construction of an international and a Lebanese pavilion, an experimental theatre and a museum for communal living. In early July 2019, Imad Aoun and Nadim Younes from Beirut were announced as the winners of a competition to revive the unfinished trade fair centre, integrating the existing structures, which may by then enjoy UNESCO protection, to produce a “Centre de connaissances et d’innovation”.


Nicolas Flessa (2013)
Tripoli International Fair (built 1963-1975 according to the plans of Oscar Niemeyer)

[Translate to English:] Letzten Absätze

Thus, anyone seeking the architectural traces of Modernity in Arabic-speaking countries will discover a diversity of different “Modernities”. The motivation for such examples ranges from an “ordered modernisation” to the confident adaptation of an architectural language regarded as timeless, and also from a colonial instrument of foreign power to passionate, cosmopolitan building. In many places, the political dependency of most Arab states until long after World War II led to a double modernisation: adaptation to the European ideal – and emancipation from it in a changing political climate.

Although none of the international students at the Bauhaus came from an Arab country, of all countries it is perhaps surprising that Iraq has the most impressive architectural connection to the legendary design school. Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919 and designed his first campus in Dessau for the school in 1925, conceived a second extensive university campus right at the end of his life: the University of Baghdad. The complex, which was jointly developed with his office TAC and located in a bend of the River Tigris, was completed in a more eclectic way after the death of Gropius. At its centre, a giant arch entitled “Monument to the liberated sprit” (named by Gropius himself) recalls the mission of Modernity, which goes far beyond the notion of “Form Follows Function”.

Rifat Chadirji
Bagdad, Firdaus-Platz, Grabmal des unbekannten Soldaten (errichtet 1959 nach einem Entwurf von Rifat Chadirji, abgerissen für eine Statue Saddam Husseins zu Beginn der 1980er Jahre

    [NF 2019, Translation: TBR]

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