After an exhausting journey through Baghdad’s vast and grimy suburbs, the pastel-coloured blocks of Besmaya Dream City rise up above the rushes just beyond one of the modern gates marking the edge of the city.

The orderliness of these dozens of towers – some lived in, some unfinished – is a shock in the otherwise chaotic jumble of low-rise cityscape. The residential complex is being built by a South Korean company, Hanwha, and will house 100,000 people once its delayed construction is complete.


One of downtown Baghdad’s interminable and inevitable traffic jams.
One of downtown Baghdad’s interminable and inevitable traffic jams. © Sean Smith for the Guardian

Baghdad was not always like this. In the 1950s, in the pre-revolution era of King Faisal II, and then again during the oil boom of the 1980s, the city vied to regain its historical place as the centre of the Arab world. It attracted leading international architects and planners including Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gio Ponti and Le Corbusier. Some projects were built, such as Le Corbusier’s gymnasium and Ponti’s Ministry of Planning, but others remained incomplete or never left the drawing board.

A series of impressive masterplans to guide Baghdad’s development were also produced, most of which foundered on the exigencies of Iraq’s decades of crises, from revolution in the 1950s, through the Iran-Iraq conflict and the early 90s Gulf war, to international sanctions on the regime of Saddam Hussein and the renewed violence of the last decade and a half.

A first British masterplan in the 1950s was superseded in the 1960s by a Polish communist vision, drawn up by Miastoprojekt and Polservice and inspired by the Soviet-era experience of European reconstruction. Another new vision, drawn up by a Japanese consortium, followed in the 1980s.

They were all largely stillborn – a fate shared by the most recent ambitious masterplan, from Lebanese firm Khatib & Alami.

If state intervention – under both King Faisal and Saddam Hussein – once defined Baghdad’s rapid development, these days, argues Alwehab, it is notable in its absence. Instead, privatised interests encroach on all areas of the urban environment, not least in the city’s chronic housing crisis.

Alwehab wants to show us one of the last remaining houses from a groundbreaking project from the 1950s, when the architect and urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis was commissioned to reimagine the city. He started construction on a large new low-income housing project along with the Army canal, but only the first phase was completed.

We find the sole surviving little Doxiadis house, with its yellow Baghdad brick. All its neighbours have long since been knocked down, replaced with more modern dwellings. Its owner, Mohammad Kazaal, tells us he plans to demolish the house to replace it with something modern.