Walter Gropius & The Architects Collaborative: The University of Baghdad, Baghdad Iraq Modern Ideals and Regionalism in a Tumultuous World




Overview and Context

Operating at the forefront of modernism in Europe and America in founding the Bauhaus and teaching at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, placed Walter Gropius and the The Architects Collaborative (TAC), formed by Gropius in 1945, in an excellent position to gain relevant projects with which to espouse modernist ideals throughout the world and at home.  Story Hall, Cambridge, MA was completed in 1948 and is the first modernist building on Harvard University’s storied campus. The Pan American World Airways Building, New York, NY, completed in 1963 with Emery Roth & Sons is a New York City icon.  Projects such as these and the connections provided by one of the most elite universities in the world allowed TAC to gain influence and become one of the most well respected firms practicing modern architecture in the US and abroad.

The University of Baghdad, Baghdad, Iraq is the largest project undertaken by TAC during Gropius lifetime.[1] The project was on the boards at TAC along side Story Hall, and the PAN AM buildings mentioned above. Aside from the opportunity for a holistic approach to answering questions of the day as to what constitutes a university. Brandeis University, designed by Eero Saarinen and Associates in 1947 is an example of another whole campus being designed by contemporaries and colleagues of TAC.  Gropius knew about Brandeis and likely discussed campus design philosophies with Saarinen in Cambridge. Also due to the proximity of the many universities in New England, it is fair to assume Gropius and Saarinen among their other colleagues shared opinionated positions.  There weren’t many opportunities to build an entire campus from a relatively blank site, nor a more sordid tale of political intrigue including regime change, murder and a coup d’etat than that of the University of Iraq. Ultimately only part of the campus was realized, but the vision for a modern university for Iraq intention remains.

White attending Harvard University, Nizar Ali Jawak, the son of the Prime Minister of Iraq under King Faisal II, convinced his father and his associates along with the assistance of his girlfriend, architect, partner and eventual wife Ellen Bovey, that as Iraq becomes a part of the modern world, that when they build, they should employ the greatest architects of the day. Architects proposed include Alvar Aalto, Jose Luis Sert, Gio Ponti, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius – TAC.  Faisal II’s kingdom with growing oil revenues enlisted architects for several monumental projects beginning in the 1930’s. Corbusier presented a totalizing plan for Algiers and Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned for a master plan for the city of Bagdad and a concert hall. Gropius was awarded the contract for the development of the University of Baghdad Master Plan in 1957 and would oversee the project until his death in 1969. [2]

King Faisal II was killed by firing squad in 1958 at the age of 23 with his family. One year after enlisting Gropius and TAC.  TAC continued to work on the project as they were still receiving monthly payments. General Abdul Karim Kassem, Faisal’s predecessor carried on with the project and invited Gropius to Baghdad at the completion of the master planning phase and requested one change. He wanted to be able to see a the university from his office at the Ministry of Defense. A local firm was selected to work with TAC, in order for them to learn more about local building practices, Mahdloom and Munir became the local architect in 1959. Construction began in 1963 and some time after laying the cornerstone of the first building, General Kassem was assassinated by Colonel Abdul Salam Arif, his chief of staff was next in line of succession and following an accidental death was succeeded by his brother General Abdul Rahman Arif. In 1968 General Arif was driven from office by the Baath, party. Political turmoil, later the Iran- Iraq war caused many delays and ultimately the project was not realized as designed.[3] One must pause at the perseverance of Gropius and TAC in pursuing their vision. The intention of the University of Iraq at its onset was to bring Iraq into the modern world and create a platform for citizens to build through self betterment to build a modern nation.


FIGURE 2: SITE PLAN OF CAMPUS OVERVIEW  (SOURCE:Harkness, John C. The Walter Gropius Archive…,P195) With Key Plan Overlay.

FIGURE 3: SITE PLAN OF CAMPUS CENTER  (SOURCE: Harkness, John C. The Walter Gropius Archive…,P196) with Key Plan Overlay.


Campus Form: Building and Site

The site of the university is flat and flanked on three sides by the Tigris River. A 10’-0” tall dike contributes to a change in elevation for the campus from that of the river level. Existing palm and fruit trees determined the location of the central building complex. Streets were observed to be narrow in Baghdad and thus buildings provided shade to the street. The practice of narrow streets can be seen throughout early city planning in other parts of the world and is not exclusive to arid climates. However the notion of using buildings to create shade was considered in TAC’s plans for the campus.

Campus Circulation

The internal campus circulation is pedestrian only. A ring road surrounds the campus with few exits to access maintenance and faculty parking.

Local Building Practices and Project Team

The local firm of Mahdloom and Munir was engaged as architect of record as they were familiar with building practices in the region. They remained on the project at all phases of design. In 1959 after the initial design phase was complete, TAC set up an office in Rome to complete drawings for the project with  engineering firm Panero, Weiddlinger, and Salvadori. Hishun Munir the local architect is pictured in figure 4, with Gropius and other team members.




Climate and Culture

Following the first World War, and the rule of the Ottoman empire, Iraq was a British Colony from approximately 1916 until 1932 when the United Kingdom granted the Kingdom of Iraq independence under King Faisal I. As a result of the British Colonization, architectural adaptations specific to regional climates should be scrutinized to determine their actual origins. What is an indigenous architecture and how have they evolved in purity or without influence, is one such question that requires further study.

Gropius and TAC were heavily focused on climate as a driving factor for their designs for the University of Baghdad. The orientation of buildings were considered and facades were highly articulated with brise soleil, deep louvers, and shading devices. Vegetation was also used to shade buildings. Campus housing was also organized around courtyards that contained water features to act aid in cooling. Many of the buildings were also air conditioned. [4]

The Mosque is rotated off the solar oriented grid and pulled slightly away from the central academic court. The mosque faces towards Mecca, as is the tradition in the mosque building type. Within the central court are buildings for the assembly of students around a central plaza where students may also gather.The theater, auditorium, administration, faculty club and library sit within one organizational grid. It is of interest that the Mosque is off axis and pulled out of the southwest corner of the campus plaza, as though there is a separation occurring between religious doctrine and academic betterment of Baghdad’s citizens.


FIGURE 5: MOSQUE PERSPECTIVE.   (SOURCE:Harkness, John C. The Walter Gropius Archive…,P233)



The University of Baghdad, while an ambitious plan for a modern Iraq, was not completed as Gropius and TAC intended, but continued to grow into a University. The tumultuous political climate and regime changes made building a unified architectural vision for the a university a challenge. While the faculty club building and the gateway to the university from the plan exist today and have been incorporated into the  campus.  It is the adjacency of buildings that represent the ideals of Gropius’ plan for a modern university for iraq, with a campus centered around the library, and the assembly of students in the auditorium, theater, and plaza that appear to define ideas for developing Iraqi citizens an in so they might a acheive a better place in the world.


Key Factors and Dates

Oil Discovered in Iraq 1927

Iraq becomes British Colony 1916-1932

Iraq becomes Kingdom of Iraq 1932

Project Awarded 1957

Gropius Dies 1969



Chang, Jiat-Hwee, and Anthony D. King. “Towards a Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Historical Fragments of Power-knowledge, Built Environment and Climate in the British Colonial Territories.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography32, no. 3 (2011): 283-300. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9493.2011.00434.x.


Dunn, Adam. Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry: Problematizing the Discourse of Tropical Architecture. Report no. ARC 495 001. College of Architecture, North Carolina State University.


Gropius, Walter. “Planning the University of Baghdad.” Architectural Record ( February 1965) 107 122


Harkness, John C. The Walter Gropius Archive. New York, NY: Garland, 1991. 189-327.


Marefet, Mina. “Bauhaus in Baghdad.” Docomomo 35 (September 2006): 78-86.


Pollier, Alexandra. “Architecture in Baghdad.” Dwell, February 29, 2012.

Accessed February 14, 2018


Wisniewski, Katherine. “Baghdad Could Have Been a Mega-City by Frank Lloyd Wright.” Curbed. March 05, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2018.


“Walter Gropius’s lost architectural dream for Iraq.” The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), August 30, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2018.



[1] John C. Harkness,. The Walter Gropius Archive. New York, NY: Garland, 1991. p189.

[2] Katherine Wisniewski . “Baghdad Could Have Been a Mega-City by Frank Lloyd Wright.” Curbed. March 05, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2018.

[3] John C. Harkness, p190.

[4]  John C. Harkness, p190.