The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Iraq, 1957-1973

As part of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum’s programmed cycle, the exhibition Art and Architecture between Lisbon and and Baghdad uses the Cultural Week of 1966 and the Iraqi art collection gathered at that time as the central axis for a reflection on the importance of the Foundation’s development aid strategy of the time, not only for a country that was seeking to modernise itself but also for the nascent institution in its quest for international affirmation, in particular in the Middle East. A selection of art works – many never before shown in Portugal – and original documents from the Gulbenkian Archives will illustrate the organisation and realisation of the Cultural Week, the formation of the Iraqi art section of the Foundation’s Modern Collection and the planning, design and construction of the Gulbenkian Modern Art Centre and the Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad,1 all of which became key elements of the Foundation’s ‘soft power’ strategic diplomacy and testimony to a period of intense cultural, artistic, architectural and technological exchange between Portugal and Iraq.

The project is promoted by the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the Gulbenkian Archives and Art Library, with the support of the Grants Department.

  • 1. After the Iraqi Republican Revolution of 1958, the resultant government commissioned two parallel projects for two great Stadiums in Baghdad, with similar complementary features: one to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier – who had developed a previous project (1955-1958) for the monarch Faisal II –, continuously designed in his Paris studio until his death in 1965; another to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in Lisbon, entirely funded and supervised by this institution, and designed by two prominent Portuguese architects at the time: F. Keil do Amaral and Carlos M. Ramos. Facing a progressive administrative and financial chaos in the country, the Iraqi authorities opted for the Gulbenkian Foundation’s solution – built between 1962-1965 and inaugurated in 1966, after an intriguing diplomatic process -, postponing Le Corbusier’s proposals yet without breaking their contract with him. This essay presents an explanation for this mysterious “affair” based on a recent research conducted at the Presidency Archive of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, but also at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) where different documents reveal the continuous mismatch between Le Corbusier’s will and the Iraqi authorities procedures.