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Remembering Iraqi architect, photographer, author and activist Rifat Chadirji (1926-2020)

Rifat Chadirji standing by a chair
© Rifat Chadirji, from the Rifat Chadirji photographic archive

“Rifat Chadirji was a Loeb Fellow in my class of 1983. He and his wife, Balkis Sharara, became good friends and we saw each other socially both during the Loeb year and afterward, although we have not been in touch for many years.

Rifat had already had a long and distinguished career in Iraq by the time he was a Fellow. I seem to recall that he arrived in Cambridge in good part due to the help of The Architects Collaborative (TAC). Along with the Bauhaus, TAC was a major influence on his work to rebuild and modernize Baghdad.

The whims of the Baath regime had landed Rifat at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison in 1978, and the whims of Saddam Hussein got him out two years later. For much of that time, Balkis didn’t hear from him or know where he was. Finally, Hussein made him his architectural adviser and tasked him with rebuilding Baghdad as a utopian metropolis in time for a major conference in 1982. Rifat had two choices: accept the commission or stay in prison.

After several years of working for Hussein, TAC helped Rifat to get a Loeb Fellowship. He subsequently left Iraq and lived first in Cambridge and later in London and Lebanon, Balkis’s home country. He continued to work, teach, and figure prominently in his field until his death from COVID-19 on April 10, 2020 at the age of 94.

I remember having dinner at Rifat and Balkis’s home with many distinguished architects, professors, and international experts. Our discussions about Iraq led me to learn about that country, going back to the aftermath of World War I when Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, TE Lawrence, and others were remapping the Middle East. In the 1980s, the US was not yet involved in Iraq, and it was still a functioning country. There was hope that it would become a more democratic society.

Rifat Chadirji photograph
© Rifat Chadirji, from the Rifat Chadirji photographic archive

Rifat’s family had been prominent in Iraq for generations. His father had headed up the Iraq Democratic Party and his family remained there, active in many aspects of the country, well into the 21st century. I remember being impressed that every morning for breakfast, Rifat would eat dates from his garden in Baghdad. At that time he was still able to go back to Iraq safely.

In 1983, the Loeb Fellowship was less than a dozen years old and it was still being shaped and guided by Bill Doebele and each class of Fellows. Rifat participated in the Loeb activities, but he was obviously not a typical Loeb Fellow and I believe he was the first international Fellow. I don’t think many of the other Loebs got to know him well as he was more in the company of the faculty and leading architects in Boston and beyond.

At the time, one of my clients was the International Design Conference in Aspen. The IDCA put on an annual 5-day event in Aspen, Colorado, about ideas in the context of design. Rifat and Balkis came to Aspen at my suggestion. They loved the town and thoroughly enjoyed the conference, where they were treated as special guests. Thinking back, however, I don’t believe that Rifat was asked to make a presentation—a great loss for the IDCA.

I saw them again in Boston and in New York, but gradually we lost touch when they moved to London. After reading “When Saddam’s the Client”—an article about Rifat in The New York Times—I contacted them one more time and learned that Balkis had died. When Rifat’s death was announced, John Peterson, the curator of the Loeb Fellowship, reached out to see if any of the Loeb Fellows had known him and would write something about him. This is a personal recollection and does not cover his life and work, which many in the media have covered beautifully—especially this obituary.”

After a distinguished career in New York City as a consultant in design, transportation and historic preservation, Alexia (Lex) Lalli is retired and divides her time between Hillsdale, NY and New York City. She remains active in historic preservation, parks, and politics on the Trustees Council of the Preservation League of New York State, Friends of Taconic State Park, and the Hillsdale Democratic Committee, and is active in the Loeb Association at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.