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Frank Lloyd Wright's plans for greater Baghdad

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

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(CNN) -- What would the late Frank Lloyd Wright say of today's Baghdad, after sanctions, and after war?

The beloved American architect, in his vigorous old age, drew plans for a new Baghdad.

Wright was invited to build an opera house in downtown Baghdad by King Faisal II. By 1952, Iraq had managed a 50-50 deal with British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company and Faisal presided over this wealth.

The king was soon calling in architectural star power: Walter Gropius (for Baghdad University); Le Corbusier (part of his plan became Saddam Hussein Gymnasium); and Frank Lloyd Wright.

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Wright's politics made him unpopular with the FBI, and never in his career did he win a contract for a federal building. So with a king's commission at age 89, Wright was thinking big.

His site was a small zone in downtown Baghdad. But as he flew over the city, Wright spied a low island in the Tigris, and soon asked if he could use that instead. Reportedly, the king replied, "The island, Mr. Wright, is yours!"

So Wright designed more than an opera house. He drew up plans for two art museums, one modern, one for ancient Sumerian statuary. He drew plans for spherical shopping kiosks, a citrus garden (in honor of Wright's interpretation of the forbidden fruit), and a monument to Haroun al-Rashid, who presided over Baghdad's zenith.

He drew a planetarium alongside the opera house. Likewise, a television broadcast antenna smack in the middle of this appeal to civilization.

Wright hoped to encourage democracy in the kingdom, by which he meant not only public works, but also automobile access. He imagined stylish bridges over the Tigris, tree-lined boulevards, a cultural destination for a city and a region.

The opera house itself is one of Wright's most elaborate buildings. He envisioned 1,700 cars parking there on three levels, along a huge hollowed ziggurat, a graded earth spiral recalling the structures of ancient Mesopotamia, and the circularity of old Baghdad.

The building is aligned with Mecca, and organized by a giant arch defining not only the proscenium, but also the entirety of the profile. Everywhere, the structure is decorated with images from the book, "The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights" and it's crowned with a depiction of Aladdin.

Those "Thousand and One Nights" were filled with the tales, often set in Baghdad, told by Shamrazad to King Sharayar. The king had been wronged, and swore to bed a different woman each night before killing her. Shamrazad volunteered to be his victim, then told stories that so charmed him he kept her alive each night to hear what would be told the next. At last, he fell in love. It was this tribute to the power of illusion that inspired Wright in his plans.

But Faisal II was assassinated in a coup July 14, 1958. Wright himself died the next year. The revolutionary government judged Wright's plans "rather grandiose," and they were never realized.

Some who study the region suggest the United States should fund at least one of Wright's buildings. They say, when it comes to building good will, sometimes concrete improvement means the most.

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