The Spaniards rebuilding the Iraqi capital

A Barcelona architects' studio has won a bid to revitalize a key neighborhood

The team of architects from the AV62 studio.
The team of architects from the AV62 studio.TEJEDERAS (EL PAÍS)

The Barcelona architects' studio AV62 has won a bid to come up with ideas on how to revitalize the Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad. The area is an emblematic Sunni enclave of around 400,000 inhabitants and makes up part of the vast metropolis that snakes along the River Tigris.

Next month, AV62 architects Victoria Garriga, Toño Foraster, Pedro García del Barrio and Pedro Azara will travel to the Iraqi capital to be awarded the prize by Prime Minister Al Maliki and the mayor of Baghdad. They are hoping, with good reason, to be awarded the job of executing the project.

If the plan comes off, their studio would become a privileged platform for the reconstruction of Baghdad, which has been left devastated by years of wars, and is still fragile in both social and political terms. But the combination of a fledgling democratic system, combined with the ready availability of funding, has opened the door to a whole host of possibilities.

The Iraqi authorities are faced with two models for reconstructing the country's big cities. On the one hand, "there's the model that comes from the other side of the Gulf, from Dubai, or Doha," explains García del Barrio. "Basically, you say to the politician, 'Give me a space and I'll build this for you in three years - i.e., hand over the money and then come back to cut the ribbon.' The other way is the European model, which takes into account the fact that cities are multi-layered, and teeming with people. This approach aims to create a contemporary city that is based on the site's historical past."

For the AV62 studio, however, the "Dubai model" was unfeasible, because within a democracy it is impossible to displace the population and demolish an entire neighborhood without upsetting voters. "We would rather work on the current infrastructure, and get the inhabitants of the neighborhood involved," they explain.

The streets of Baghdad are inhospitable places, of which no one wants to take control, given the lingering danger of suicide bombings. In order to recover the streets, and return them to the people, the AV62 studio is planning to apply the model from the Barcelona posat guapa campaign, which managed to recover the modernist façades of the Ensanche neighborhood in the Catalan capital. "Our proposal," they explain, "will foment collaboration between the financial and social agents involved in the process."

They have also included a symbolic element in their plans. "We have proposed the construction of a bridge that will join the two Mosques, of the Shi'ites and the Sunnis. We were afraid the idea would be rejected, but the opposite has happened, because the Baghdad council, which has recently been working in Shi'ite neighborhoods, thinks that this project marks the time for them to start working in Sunni neighborhoods too." The tragic episode in September 2005, when a human stampede took place on the al-Aaimmah bridge, which joins Adhamiya with the Shi'ite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, has also been taken into account in the project. As well as refurbishing the old bridge and covering it, to give passersby shade, they have proposed building a new bridge between Adhamiya and Kadhimiya, to reinforce the physical and symbolic relationship between the two neighborhoods.

The architects want the project to "convey an image of an exciting future, of urban wellbeing and peaceful coexistence." One of its most innovative elements is the creation of shaded areas for community activities, given that Baghdad summer temperatures can reach 50ºC. "These areas provide a cool breeze and protection from the sun," the architects explain. "It's an urban element that's easy to construct, and gives the community a place in which they can participate in the refurbishment process."

One of the AV623 studio's plans for the project.
One of the AV623 studio's plans for the project.

Foraster says his team has "fallen in love with this country, which has given us an injection of energy that has made this project possible." They have done so in spite of the tremendous difficulties at the beginning, not least of which was the fact they were unable to even get near the neighborhood in question.

"But the political and social structure is finally taking shape, despite the fact that not long ago a lot of people thought we were completely mad," says Victoria Garriga. The situation is getting better quickly, she says. Her studio - the international office, which will be used for local planning and will guarantee the execution of the project in the timeframe set by the local council, as well as the budget - will be set up in a dock on the river bank, as will other future public headquarters.

The obvious question is, though, how did a Spanish studio manage to find itself a niche in Iraq? Well, partly because it is already running projects in Mosul and Kabul, among other places. "We are an architects' studio that uses the whole world as a stage," they explain. We could be talking about Caracas, Singapore, where we are already working, [as well as] Brazil. Between all of us we have 15 years' experience of work in Cuba and Argentina, and in Morocco too. Now it is time to work in Iraq. We are already working in Mosul and Erbil; and we are due to bid for the project at the Afghanistan Archaeology Museum in Kabul."


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