15 May 2011

A Riot of Color in Baghdad

A sports injury clinic in Baghdad, newly finished with bright colored tiles.         photo by Ayman Oghanna for the New York Times
"Baghdad has weathered invasion, occupation, sectarian warfare and suicide bombers. But now it faces a new scourge: tastelessness."
So reads this article in the New York Times lamenting the profusion of colorful new paint jobs that have occurred since the demise of Saddam Hussein. "Under Mr. Hussein's government, a committee of artists, architects and designers approved the color of buildings, but after the violence from the 2003 U.S. invasion declined, bright colors started appearing everywhere."  The article quotes several artists and ministers formerly employed by the Hussein regime as the arbiters of taste.
blast barricades in Baghdad covered in murals.        photo by Ayman Oghanna for the New York Times
I have to wonder... what is the problem? Is plain concrete and sand colored stucco really preferable to freedom and self-expression? In this case, I think the problem is the ugly row of blast barricades, not that someone painted them pink and green.   Beige monochromatic color schemes will not make Baghdad look more like Paris. Sorry, but no.

Here in Baghdad by the Bay, as San Francisco is sometimes called, we are known for our colorful houses, and I gleefully assist in choosing colors for the owners of these buildings. Of course I tell my clients to respect the architecture and sometimes advise restraint in color choices. But overall I find the tarted-up Victorian to be a thing of great beauty and fun.  Some purists think that  "Painted Ladies" are a blight on our historic architecture. But I believe that without them, much of our famous Victorian architecture may not have survived the 20th century.  Between efforts to modernize and the urban renewal in the 1960s which included the demolition of thousands of Victorian buildings, we were lucky any survived intact.
"Postcard Row" and some of San Francisco famous painted Victorians
Color is highly personal and also very public; it invites attention and interaction, scorn or celebration, but never apathy. The movement to brightly paint up the Victorian houses of San Francisco attracted a whole new generation to appreciate their lively architecture, and in turn fight for their survival.

The people of Baghdad are now free to add color to their buildings  no matter how garish or misguided,  and are reveling in this freedom. I think when people have come through a hard time they are hungry for color and for bright, visible change. Eventually they will learn what works and what doesn't but for now I applaud them for breaking out and expressing how they feel in the biggest way possible.



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