Yesterday the Evelyn Grace Academy, a school in Brixton, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects was awarded the Stirling Prize, which, (according to the BBC at least) is the most prestigious UK award in architecture. It was the second year running that Zaha’s firm had won the prize, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the previous year for a museum in Rome. The Award ceremony was broadcast today on The Culture Show on BBC 2, and I would recommend viewing if you have not already seen it (it should be available on iPlayer to those in the UK tomorrow or soon therafter). Another of Zaha’s designs, the Guangzhou Opera House in China was short-listed for another prize in the same ceremony, the Lubetkin Prize for international projects outside the EU.
Architecture is not something I know much about (or even a little about), but I have a fair idea how competitive and difficult it must be to “make it”; it’s not every day that someone can throw tens of millions of pounds at a project, and it’s not every day that a huge building becomes part of the identity and make up of a city for decades to come. But made it Zaha has. In doing so, she has broken three paths: one as an Iraqi, one as a woman (she was the first to win the most prestigious prize in architecture), and one as an Iraqi woman. Kudos to her for doing so, and I look forward to seeing her London Aquatics Centre , especially after the Olympic games when it goes into “legacy mode” and they remove the bits on the side.
So that’s Zaha, now what about the next Zaha? Yes, what about her? Who? Maybe there won’t be one. You see, Zaha, though she made her name in architecture at a young age, is no spring dijajeh. She is of a generation for whom modernisation and an Iraqi renaissance (in contrast to “renaissance”) must have seemed not only possible, but tantalisingly close. In the 70s and early 80s, Iraq graduated some fairly respectable scientists and engineers. For a developing country, Iraq was developing indeed. There were projects like defence electronics, satellites and aeronautics and rocket research, and there did exist the educational infrastructure (schools and universities) to supply new workers. The idea of Iraq today designing an AWACS is laughable. The country is unfathomably backward. Not to labour upon a much laboured-upon question, there are at least three reasons why this regression has occurred: 1) Mismanagement, 2) The eight-year war, 3) the UN sanctions.
Briefly, as far as mismanagement goes, Iraq was under a dictatorship, and that’s never conducive to success. For all the genius (and they had plenty of genius), the Soviet scientists could not keep their country on its feet, not in the system they were living under. When they got their chance for freedom, it was the US and Israel (many of these scientists were Jewish) that hugely benefited by getting a rapid influx of extraordinarily smart people, straight into their universities and high-tech industries.
As far as the war with Iran is concerned, that war had astronomical costs associated with it. The economic costs were not just the dollar ones (which were in of themselves devastating), they also include the costs of the lives and time of millions of people. More subtly, as noted by Professor Nadje al-Ali, whom I heard speak at the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation in July, there was a cultural shift. Al-Ali made the argument that whilst in the 70s the state propaganda was that the good Iraqi woman was the educated woman, in the 1980s, the good Iraqi woman was the one that raised the soldiers of tomorrow.
Thirdly, the sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1991 following the Gulf War, and which lasted 13 years, were some of the most brutal and comprehensive in history. When banned “dual use” items included pencils (perhaps because graphite has a “dual use” in nuclear reactors? As a lubricant?) then you know there was only one direction the Iraqi education, culture and mindset is going to go. This topic deserves more discussion in another blog post. For now, this book [link] with some personal accounts is enlightening and harrowing, and the associated website is a useful resource for the interested reader.
Now, this all said, there is something troubling for which the above are not sufficient for an explanation. This is that, despite all the opportunities offered to them in the West, Western-based Iraqis of my generation (or slightly older) have not “held the fort”, so-to-speak, where the fort in question is the technical and intellectual capital of the Iraqi nation as a whole. We have not seen the same “breed” of enthusiastic engineers and scientists, or leaders in other fields that were being produced in Iraq 30-40 years ago. Whilst some parents set bad examples by coming here, not bothering to learn the language preferring to sit at home on benefits all day, it is not those that are the concern (after all, if their children achieve anything – and they often do – it’s an improvement). It’s more the ones that should be expected to do better. Because, whilst it is hardly surprising that Iraq won’t be on the cutting edge of science and technology any time soon, frankly neither will many Western-based Iraqis. And if they are not able to inject skills and knowledge into the country – which is struggling enough as it is with this lot of barely-literate cretins in charge of it –then who will?
If I am wrong, and they are around, they need more visibility and a higher profile, but my main worry for Iraq is that I am not wrong about this, that there won’t be anyone to drive an Iraqi resurgence. In that case, perhaps the best we can hope for is to become a rentier state subservient to some foreign (preferably Western) power, like the Gulf Arabs, adding nothing to humanity.