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The building of Baghdad

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Barry Joyce

As the West struggles with the War on Terror and tensions play out in the Middle East, Barry Joyce looks Scottish architect JM Wilson’s prolific work in Iraq

The West’s ‘War on Terror’ has led to a renewal of interest in fall-out from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Last summer’s documentary film ‘Letters from Baghdad’ has brought into focus the resulting carve-up, leading to expansion of the British Empire, including the setting up in 1920 of the British Mandate for Mesopotamia.

The testimony of the letter writer in the film – the indomitable Oriental secretary in Iraq, Gertrude Bell – provides a first-hand account of life in Baghdad during the Mandate and of the characters she encountered – one of whom was a young architect, James Mollison Wilson, who had just been appointed director of public works there. She included Wilson in a number of her archaeological excursions and wrote, in a letter to her parents, ‘Major Wilson is a delightful creature – a pupil of Lutyens.’

I didn’t actually meet J M Wilson – or JM as he was known to all professionally – but getting work experience during school holidays in the 1960s, as the nephew of one of the partners of his London practice, Wilson Mason and Partners, I witnessed the extent to which, as the founding partner, he was liked and even revered by his staff, one of whom was the redoubtable Miss Webb, his practice secretary. She had been Lutyens’ secretary up to that great man’s death in 1944. I was witness to Miss Webb’s strict control of office resources whereby even partners had to present the stub of a pencil before a new one would be issued.

JM’s connection with Lutyens began in 1912, when the young Scot secured employment as a junior assistant in his Bloomsbury Square office. JM had been articled in 1903 at the age of seventeen to the Dundee City Architect and in 1910 had moved to the practice of a fellow Dundonian in London who allowed him to study at the RA Schools, but his move to Lutyens’ office provided the opportunity for an architectural education second to none.

JM’s arrival coincided with Lutyens’ stellar commission – the creation of a new capital for India, the Empire’s most prized possession. More or less immediately, JM went there to become part of the team that would create New Delhi. He remained with Lutyens until he enlisted in the Indian army in 1916, where he served initially in the Punjab Light Horse Regiment. He was posted to Mesopotamia and transferred to the Indian Engineers, ‘because there were so few officers with building experience in the Expeditionary Force’.

At the end of the war he was appointed deputy director of civil works in Iraq and in 1920, at the age of 33, promoted to director of public works, when Harold Mason was appointed assistant government architect under him.

His experiences in Delhi and in the army during the war equipped him to embark on a remarkable career creating, for those who were developing the newly discovered oilfields of the Middle East, buildings which represented the confidence and cultivated presence of an occupying power: a power which was to some extent respectful of the culture of the occupied peoples but was clearly determined to demonstrate its superiority.

He was based in Baghdad, the seat of government. Initially his role was that of a conventional pioneer colonial servant, designing and getting built essential facilities such as roads, bridges, government posts, schools and hospitals.

The hospital he designed for Basra in 1921 was designated a memorial to Lt General Sir Frederick Stanley Maud, who had captured Baghdad in 1917. JM’s stripped down classical composition was yet to show the distinctive flair he would demonstrate later, which took inspiration from the remains of the ancient Islamic buildings he was to study on archaeological excursions with Gertrude Bell.

Presentation drawing for the Maud Memorial Hospital Basra, Iraq.
Presentation drawing for the Maud Memorial Hospital Basra, Iraq. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners

Bell was influential in the choice of Faisal bin Hussein for the role of king of the newly created state of Iraq and she may well have had a role in persuading the powers that be that a suitable state palace should be designed for him by her friend JM. Sadly she was never to see JM’s beautiful coloured presentation perspective of his palace design, as she died in Baghdad in July 1926. JM was commissioned to design a gateway in her memory for the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, which she had founded; the opening of which by King Faisal she had attended just a few weeks before her untimely death.

Design for a Palace on the Tigris for King Faisal of Iraq. Perspective drawing rendered in watercolour by JMW. Dated 1926. Exhibited Royal Academy 1928.
Design for a Palace on the Tigris for King Faisal of Iraq. Perspective drawing rendered in watercolour by JMW. Dated 1926. Exhibited Royal Academy 1928. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners

On his accession the King had been provided with quarters on the first floor of the former Turkish government offices. JM had his office on the ground floor. Faisal insisted that if he were to govern the country he must be provided with an appropriate residence.

JM designed a small but dignified palace to be built beside the River Tigris. His perspective reveals a developing individual architectural language, giving the European classical style a modernist twist while also paying some regard to the location and indigenous culture in which he was working. The work reveals JM’s considerable skill as a draughtsman. Key characteristics of many of his subsequent designs are evident: symmetry, advanced central entrance pavilion, doorway of three arches, central flat dome, deeply set windows behind shade-giving balconies, secondary wings set back from the principal block, and tower elements stepping back towards the top in abstract geometric stages.

Back in London the government was getting twitchy about the growing costs of imperial ambitions in Iraq and severely cut the Department of Public Works’ budget, making implementation of the design impossible. JM saw few prospects for his talents in these circumstances and resigned, relocating to London where, in 1926, he set up his own practice.

Nevertheless his abilities must by then have been well recognised as his association with Iraq was to continue in the role of consultant architect.

His first major commission in this capacity was for a new University at Baghdad. JM planned the Al Il Beit campus around a central formal garden, which led down to residencies by the cooling waters of the River Tigris, but of the theology, science, medicine, engineering and law faculties only the theology faculty was to be built.

Iain Jackson in his 2016 Journal of Architecture article ‘The Architecture of the British Mandate in Iraq: Nation Building and State Creation’ credits the inspiration for the elaborate brickwork employed here by JM to be drawn from Abbasid decoration and the repetition of recessed openings, one above the other separated by brick piers, to be drawn from the architecture of Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University, which was founded in 1227.

JM was certainly developing a scholarly knowledge of Islamic architecture and he was demonstrating he was able to use this knowledge creatively, rather than with the dead hand of an antiquarian. K Sultani in his 1982 article ‘Architecture in Iraq between the Two World Wars’ approvingly quotes J M’s statement ‘Present circumstances need a new style of building which, it is hoped, will integrate the best of the traditional decorative features. It is also intended to use natural building materials available in the country so that what is built may truly evolve an Arabic Renaissance in the Arts.’

In addition to references to traditional Islamic design, some of the motifs in the theology faculty building speak of 1920s Art Deco, but with a light touch and a sure mastery of proportion. The latter was the critical quality that sets JM apart as a master of his art.

As JM’s quote above reveals, he was interested not only in what might be called the art history side of the ancient building traditions but also in their functionality. Brick was the building material used here since ancient times and it remained the obvious choice. A cadre of master builders – called ustas -was still available, competent to translate complex decorative brickwork designs into reality with a minimum of detailed instruction. They were also able to build challenging structures – intersecting barrel vaults in brickwork and domes in quick-setting gypsum mortar, with a minimum – or sometimes complete absence – of formwork or centering. This skill was to be employed in his next commission – a  port administration building for Basra on the Persian Gulf.

Oil had been discovered in commercial quantities in Iran in 1908. An extraction concession had been given to a British subject, William Darcy, and in 1909 the Anglo Persian Oil Company was  created. Churchill, as first lord of The Admiralty, ensured the British government became a majority shareholder, so securing a guaranteed supply of oil and enabling British naval ships to convert from coal to oil as fuel.

The new oil industry required the creation of its own infrastructure. A refinery was created on the Persian Gulf at Abadan and an administrative bureau was developed at nearby Basra. JM was commissioned to design a port administration building here, conceived as a hub around which the port’s activities would be grouped. The building was clearly intended to be prestigious.

The central block is crowned by a flat dome faced in glazed ceramic tiles in the traditional manner. Under it is a central hall with grand staircase leading up to a balcony that provides access to the side wings. The hall is 66ft to the apex of the dome, while traditional brick squinches resolve the junction of the dome to the rectangular hall; the galleries are supported by six marble columns. The dome was constructed with no centering, using  ‘juss’, a fast setting mortar made from burnt gypsum, which enabled diminishing sized bricks to be laid, brick on brick.

Port Offices Basra, Iraq. Designed and drawn by J M Wilson, 1929.
Port Offices Basra, Iraq. Designed and drawn by J M Wilson, 1929. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners
Interior of Port Offices Basra, Iraq. Drawn by J M Wilson. Signed and dated '30.
Interior of Port Offices Basra, Iraq. Drawn by J M Wilson. Signed and dated '30. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners

As befitted such a prestigious building it was opened by King Faisal, in 1929.

This was followed in 1931 by an airport for Basra, which JM produced with HC Mason, his former deputy at the Ministry of Public Works. JM took Mason into partnership in his London practice in 1935.

The airport was located on the Shatt al Arab River so it could cater for sea-planes as well as conventional ones. Imperial Airways had been incorporated earlier, in 1924. Many short hops were needed for long distances and Basra provided a refuelling stopover for flights to India and Singapore.

Airport Terminal Basra, Iraq. Designed by J M Wilson with H C Mason. Drawn by Cyril Farey, 1937.
Airport Terminal Basra, Iraq. Designed by J M Wilson with H C Mason. Drawn by Cyril Farey, 1937. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners

Farey’s coloured perspective shows it as the glamorous movie age building it must have seemed. Its facilities included observation platforms, a cocktail bar and, under the central vaulted ceiling, a lounge kitted out with the latest in Art Deco chrome-finished tubular metal furnishings. One can imagine the young Agatha Christie eying up her fellow travellers there while making one of her regular visits to Iraq with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan.

Arnold Wilson (no relation), played an influential role in the next part of JM’s career. He had been civil commissioner in Baghdad between 1918 and 1920. Featuring as an unsympathetic, puritanical, xenophobic and Spartan character in Bell’s letters, he was deeply disappointed by the government’s rejection of his advice for how the Mandate should be run. He accepted a knighthood and left public service to join the Anglo Persian Oil Company as manager of its Middle Eastern operations. He held JM in high regard and as early as 1924 had spoken at a conference in Cairo praising JM’s qualities, characterising him as a man of common sense and experience. It was largely through Wilson’s patronage that JM became the company architect in everything but name.

JM’s first commission for the Anglo Persian Oil Company was in 1927, for a general hospital in the ‘company town’ of Abadan. The design was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1928. It didn’t get built as conceived, although an outpatient dispensary was built in 1931. A year later however he received his first major commission for Anglo Persian Oil – to design its office headquarters in central Tehran. This is unusual if not unique in JM’s oeuvre as the composition is asymmetrical. Was it perhaps two separate commissions? JM pays full homage to Persian design motifs in the two storey block, but in the multi-storey some regard is possibly paid to the influence of Dudok’s 1924-30 Hilversum Town Hall.

Anglo Persian Oil Company Offices, Tehran, Iran. Drawing by Frank A Evans produced for C H Lindsey Smith monograph 'JM The Story of an Architect.'
Anglo Persian Oil Company Offices, Tehran, Iran. Drawing by Frank A Evans produced for C H Lindsey Smith monograph 'JM The Story of an Architect.'

However, the scope of his work for the company was much greater than individual buildings. He was required to produce a town plan for a complete new district at Abadan. For this he drew on his experience in the laying out of New Delhi, employing radiating principal roads with landmark buildings at the intersections and low density housing served by secondary roads between the fan-shaped main road layout. Most of the house plots had gardens. In fact it was described as a garden city. He produced a number of house types, in accordance with the company’s staff hierarchy; at the top is a remarkable Tower House type.

Tower House, Bawada, Abadan, Iran.
Tower House, Bawada, Abadan, Iran. Credit: Pauline Lavagne d'Ortigue

Pauline Lavagne d’Ortigue in her doctoral thesis ‘Un empire dans l’Empire’ suggests JM may have been influenced in this design by Joseph Hoffman’s 1911 Palais Stoclet in Brussels. It is certainly a striking composition, incorporating a virtually windowless tower in geometrical brickwork rising in diminishing stages to an octagonal top inset with horizontal bands of turquoise ceramic tiles. Balancing this strong vertical element is a dramatic horizontal brise-soleil projection above the first floor windows. A parapet presumably encloses a roof terrace.

Lower in the hierarchy was the Stepped Gable house type, comprising four dwellings in one block, the blocks being laid out in parallel rows.

Stepped Gable houses, Bawada, Abadan, Iran. Photograph.
Stepped Gable houses, Bawada, Abadan, Iran. Photograph. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners

In 1937 JM designed the Razi School, a two storey range with geometric modelling in brickwork and in 1939 designed the Technical Institute with Mason, another two storey block but this time with an imposing central clock tower.

Technical Institute, Abadan, Iran. Photograph.
Technical Institute, Abadan, Iran. Photograph. Credit: JMW Archive. Wilson Mason and Partners

Lavagne suggests the influence of Dudok which is quite possible, though only up to a point, as JM was clearly not willing to abandon his commitment to symmetry.

In the same year the practice produced a fully Art Deco design for the Taj Cinema.

Taj Cinema, Abadan, Iran.
Taj Cinema, Abadan, Iran. Credit: Pauline Lavagne d'Ortigue

The cinema was not finally commissioned until 1947 because of the Second World War. It used bricks imported from Britain, brought in as ballast.

By 1939 the oil refinery at Abadan had become the largest in the world employing many Europeans as well as Iranians and some Indian nationals. No provision was made for a Christian place of worship, although in 1936 plans had been afoot in Baghdad for the commissioning of a design for an Anglican church there, as a memorial to soldiers of the Empire who had lost their lives in the First World War. Although by then the practice had become The Wilson & Mason Partnership, its design for St George’s Church seems to be by the hand of JM alone. It is another very interesting composition. Its fortress like bulk seems to anticipate the embattled circumstance the church has suffered since the start of the Gulf Wars in the 1990s – during the later parts of which the incumbent clergyman was Canon Andrew White, who famously became known as the Vicar of Baghdad.

St George's Church, Baghdad.
St George's Church, Baghdad. Credit: Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

The stark simplicity and bulk of St George’s unadorned brickwork is reminiscent of St Martin’s Garrison Church of 1931 in New Delhi, designed by JM’s contemporary Arthur Shoosmith.

St Martins Garrison Church, New Delhi, India. Designed by Arthur Shoosmith.
St Martins Garrison Church, New Delhi, India. Designed by Arthur Shoosmith. Credit: Google Images

Shoosmith had run Lutyens’ Delhi office from 1920 to1931. Although the two architects did not overlap, one wonders if JM may have seen illustrations of Shoosmith’s bold design. Architectural historian Gavin Stamp considers it one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.

This account of JM’s work in the Middle East began with reference to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and concludes with another. The Ottoman government had entered into partnership with the Kaiser’s Germany in a massively ambitious project to link Berlin to Baghdad by rail – largely to counter British influence in India and the East. The defeat of Germany in 1918 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire saw an end to their ambitions, but post war railway development continued and in 1947 the Iraqi State Railway decided to create a new headquarters together with a new terminal station at Baghdad.

This gave JM the opportunity to produce his masterwork.

Presentation drawing in ink, wash and pencil of JM's original design for Railway Station Terminus  Baghdad, Iraq, by unknown artist.
Presentation drawing in ink, wash and pencil of JM's original design for Railway Station Terminus Baghdad, Iraq, by unknown artist. Credit: Barry Joyce
Aerial perspective presentation drawing. The design drawings were exhibited in the Royal Academy.
Aerial perspective presentation drawing. The design drawings were exhibited in the Royal Academy. Credit: Barry Joyce

This is the work of a very self-assured architect who has absorbed several design influences and found his own particular language.

The central block contained a large booking hall and concourse under a dome of 70ft diameter. Providing access to eight platforms, the complex included a saloon, a VIP private suite, restaurant, shops, post office, bank, telegraph office and an office with a printing press for the production of tickets.

Revised design for Baghdad Railway Station drawn by Frank A Evans.
Revised design for Baghdad Railway Station drawn by Frank A Evans. Credit: Barry Joyce

In the final design revision the side wings are severely truncated and the spiky decorative roofs of the flanking towers are replaced by sculpted pylons, one of which acts as a clock tower. An elaborate brise-soleil screen lies behind the colonnade.

Baghdad Railway Station as built.
Baghdad Railway Station as built. Credit: Google Images

It is extraordinary that the station building has survived the Iran-Iraq war plus the two Gulf Wars, although it was sacked after the 2003 USA-led invasion and a $5.9 million renovation needed to be carried out between 2004 and 2006.

JM’s buildings in this wretchedly war torn region seem to have charmed lives. It seems quite amazing that of those illustrated here, only Basra airport and the multistorey part of the Anglo Persian Company HQ in Tehran seem to have been lost.

Understandably, some have had their names changed. The Maud Memorial Hospital is now called the Basra General Al Jumhory Hospital. The Anglo Persian Oil Company office is now part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Despite destruction Basra Port’s quaysides and port equipment in the recent wars, the Port Office miraculously survived and remains in its original use. Abadan suffered particularly badly in the wars but again, all the buildings illustrated have survived, including at least one or two of the house types. The Taj Cinema was refurbished following a very damaging fire in 1979 and the Institute of Technology remains a place of higher education.

St George’s Church Baghdad is perhaps the most unlikely building to have retained its original use, although tragically many Iraqi members of its congregation have been killed and the Archbishop of Canterbury has removed the incumbent Canon White because of the untenable level of danger. 

Apparently picture postcards featuring The Baghdad Railway Station can be had in the city today, revealing the extent to which it has become an ‘iconic’ and admired building.

Following nationalisation of the oil reserves and infrastructure in 1952, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company changed its name to The British Petroleum Company (BP) and relocated to London.

In its new manifestation the company continued to use what by then had become Wilson, Mason and Partners, which did much work for BP during the rest of the century.

This review of JM’s work has deliberately not touched on political or social issues which are of course of great significance in a colonial context. These have been dealt with by others most competently but from my research it would seem JM was more open to indigenous peoples and their culture than most of his fellow colonialists. He urged the Anglo Persian Oil Company to provide good quality housing for all employees, not just the Europeans, and was criticised for doing so. 

Wilson Mason and Partners maintained links with its contacts in Iran after the nationalisation of the oil industry and in 1957, with Iranian associate Aziz Farman, opened an office in Tehran. JM’s son Hamish became a good friend of Farman. In 1958 the practice morphed into a new architectural practice called Wilmafar which continued until 1973.

In his 1984 article in ‘Middle East Construction’ Neil Parkyn pays tribute to Wilson and Mason: ‘Talk to the experts about the development of architecture in Iraq after the First World War and the first names to surface will, almost inevitably, be those of Wilson & Mason. During his talk to the RIBA in London the distinguished contemporary designer Rifat Chadirji paid especial tribute to the pair; the architect and scholar Dr Mohammad Makiya, a fellow Baghdadi, recalls the deep understanding of tradition, climate and materials found in their extensive output. As the Iraqi scholar Dr Khalid Sultani insists “It is now absolutely urgent to document the remaining buildings of that era and to preserve some of them as architectural landmarks of a recent past”.’

JM Wilson.
JM Wilson. Credit: Wilson Mason archive

Barry Joyce is an architect, conservationist and historian based in Wirksworth, Derbyshire