Iraqi architect, author and artist Maath Alousi reflects on today’s ‘uneducated architect’

Distinguished Iraqi architect, author and artist Maath Alousi didn’t mince his words during a recent trip to Amman, where he received Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Following the award programme’s annual ceremony in the Jordanian capital, Alousi visited the headquarters of the Iraqi Business Council, where he was presented with a large room named after him, and which features more than a dozen artworks hanging from its walls. Alousi, a notable painter himself who has exhibited artwork all over the world, from Lebanon to Russia and Cyprus, took time during the visit to reflect on the state of architecture today, and the rise of what he termed the ‘uneducated architect’.

Haifa Street – Al Kharkh Development. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

“A student once approached me and asked if I thought he would become a good architect,” Alousi started. “I said, ‘How can I know? Only you can determine that. But, I will ask you one thing: do you read?’ And he responded by telling me he did not, and in fact, he had never been to a library. Imagine. He isn’t the only one – today, nobody writes and nobody reads, and the end result is an uneducated architect who visually pollutes due to complete ignorance.

“And how has this happened? I believe it’s the Internet, and the misuse of it. It’s so easy to get information now, and people use the Internet as much as they need to for that moment – but they don’t use it to nourish their knowledge, or to deepen it.”

Alousi is the founder and principal partner of Alousi Associates Technical Studies Bureau, an international architecture practice with offices in Limassol (his place of residence), Baghdad and, most recently, Jakarta, where his son recently launched a branch. His long list of projects include Al-Waziriya Hospital in Baghdad, Al-Qabas Print Shop in Kuwait (1978), the Cultural and Heritage Centre of Salala (1979), the UAE Embassy in Muscat (1986), and the Alousi Cube House in Baghdad (1991).

Alousi’s Haifa Street project on a stamp

Perhaps his most notable project is the winning competition entry for the design of the major thoroughfare in Baghdad’s Central Business District, Haifa Street – Al Kharkh Development, for which Alousi Associates created a comprehensive conservation and urban redevelopment plan.

A contemporary of other esteemed modernist Iraqi architects including Rifat Chadirji, Mohamed Makiya and Hisham Munir, Alousi, who has worked with practices including Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, had long experimented with the contemporary application of traditional elements of regional architecture.

In his book, ‘Contemporary Architecture in the Arab States: Renaissance of a Region’, German art historian Udo Kultermann noted Alousi’s harmonious merging of tradition with contemporary requirements and referenced the architect’s Cube House, a project based no doubt on the principle of the cube while surrounding a central internal courtyard, as an example.

Alousi’s Cube House in Baghdad. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

“In his Al-Basma Hospital (1990) this courtyard principle was expanded to a larger public building type,” wrote Kultermann. “Within the context of the urban renewal of Baghdad, his Haifa Street Development, 1980 [to] 1984, faced the challenge of mass housing and found a convincing solution within the requirements of the program [sic].”

Other writers have further addressed Alousi’s critical approach to architectural projects, and his contribution to the advancement of contemporary regional expression. Iraqi writer Jabra I. Jabra clarified the use of the arch in Alousi’s work in the forward to Alousi’s book, ‘Visual Diary of an Arab Architect’ (1983), stating, “One must be cautious here lest one should assume, as many people seem to do, that simply by employing the arch in however an outward form, the architect is re-activating Arab tradition.

The UAE Embassy in Oman. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

“Alousi is too sophisticated a thinker and designer to accept such a facile attitude – an attitude which has indeed given us a lot of bad architecture in recent years,” Jabra continued. “He is fully aware of all that should go organically into a plan to make the arch not merely a seeming continuation of the past, but a crucial structural factor in the embodiment of a vision of the present, evocative of the past but not overpowered by it.”

Alousi’s book, ‘Visual Diary of an Arab Architect’, is one of his many publications. Others include, ‘Nostos, a Tale of a Street in Baghdad’ (2012) and ‘Topos, a Tale of Time and Place’ (2017). Having worked as an architect during a time when it was common for architects to conduct research and author architectural theory and even literary works – Chadirji wrote ‘Concepts and Influences’, while Makiya penned several Arabic-language books – Alousi and his peers produced work that was not only seen, but that was also read and studied.

Banking Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

And perhaps it’s this impact on the field of architecture that Alousi finds lacking now. Have architects largely succumbed to being glorified designers or is there still room to influence? For Alousi, particularly in Iraq, golden eras will come and go. “Iraq is like a phoenix,” he said. “It will resurrect again and again.”

Today, Alousi, who’s working on a number of art commissions, no longer designs buildings, but he remains passionate about the built environment of Iraq and the greater region. Continuing his sentiments about the ‘uneducated architect’, he added that their resulting work contributes to an increasingly aggressive society, and a context that lacks or discourages connection and productivity.

Alousi stands outside the room named after him at the Iraqi Business Council’s headquarters in Amman, Jordan. Image courtesy of IBC

“The consequence is the transmission of wrong images,” Alousi said. “Imagine a house designed for a young couple with obnoxious colours. The couple will not be productive. They will become nervous.

“You are designing for human beings, so the space should be inspiring. If the architect cannot give them this, he is giving them the opposite.”

This article was originally published on Middle East Architect in March 2019.

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