Iraqis Enlist the French to Help Restore Le Corbusier's Forgotten Saddam-Era Gymnasium

Iraqis Enlist the French to Help Restore Le Corbusier's Forgotten Saddam-Era Gymnasium
The main entrance to Baghdad's "lost" Le Corbusier building
(Photo by Rifat Chadirji; Courtesy ArchNet)

Preserving modernist architecture has been an uphill battle, to say the least. The threat of demolition now hangs over Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center, and the grim fate of Peter and Alison Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens complex has already been sealed. Even the messianic Rem Koolhaas found little resonance in his plea to save the 1969 Preston Bus Station from the impending death stare of developers. It comes as a surprise then that we find the beginnings of a preservation success story in war-torn Baghdad. For years, the Baghdad Gymnasium, commissioned to Le Corbusier in 1957 and completed posthumously in 1982, stood as an aging mega-structural relic of the Iraqi oil boom. Now, Iraq is reaching out to France to help restore the little known modernist landmark to its former glory.

Designed at the height of the architect's fame, the Baghdad Gymnasium had but a brief halcyon period. No later than 1958, political agitations spurred an uprising against the Iraqi monarchy, and the assassination of the king forced the project to come to a premature halt, leaving the architect "extremely disappointed," Washington-based architectural historian Mina Marefat told AFP. Le Corbusier, more formally known as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, passed away in 1965, leaving the project in its early stages in the form of approximately 500 signed drawings.

Ironically, with yet another nationalist revolution came renewed life for the Gymnasium. Construction for the project began under the rule of Saddam Hussein and with the guidance of one of Le Corbusier's associates, Georges-Marc Presente. Completed in 1982, the Gymnasium became an illustrious new home to the country's athletes, hosting a number of international competitions under its swooping roof and filling its brightly colored seats with sports fans. But its glory days were cut short yet again in the early 2000s, as American soldiers began to occupy the stadium, and sectarian violence left any notion of recreational sport as an afterthought.

The neglected Gymnasium was rediscovered in 2005 by Caecilia Pieri, a researcher for the French Institute for the Near East who had been working on her thesis on modern architecture in Baghdad. She was surprised to hear that the Le Corbusier Foundation in France had never visited the Gymnasium, working only with scant and inconclusive information about this later work. After paying a visit to the site and attesting to the building's proper completion, the Foundation began drumming up conservation efforts, gaining the support of Baghdad University, the French embassy, and even the UNESCO.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier is one of the few modernist architects who can inspire such an urgent and imperative call for preservation. But what is most striking about this effort is the site and context from which it stems. For most of the world, Baghdad, and all of Iraq, projects a fragmented image of an ancient culture thrashed by modern warfare. Little attention, if any, is paid to the more recent strides of a nation steeped in violence. Perhaps the newfound appreciation for a long lost modernist building will, in turn, raise new awareness of a nation’s long lost modern heritage.