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An Interview with Dr. Hisham N. Ashkouri, AIA

Comments at the Iraq Reconstruction Summit by architect Hisham Ashkouri, head of the Boston architectural firm, ARCADD. Interviewed February 10, 2004, by John Simmons, producer of the forthcoming television special, SUMMIT. The program will include a look at Dr. Ashkouri's master plan for Baghdad's Central Business District, which combines new complexes on the Tigris River with careful preservation of neighboring historical buildings.

SIMMONS: Is this a new beginning for both you and Iraq?

ASHKOURI: I'm an architect. I'm also an Iraqi-born American citizen and have been in this country for 32 years. I've gone back to Baghdad and I have been starting my life back again in Baghdad.

As an Iraqi citizen and an American citizen at the same time, I find that a lot of the events in Iraq are very positive and things are being evolved or developed and by people on the street, in homes, in cafes, in restaurants. And it's happening. It's happening outside the walls and it's happening with people who are just like you and me.

And so having that, I believe, is the ground. It is the groundwork for the reconstruction of Iraq.

SIMMONS: What is your special role at the Iraq Reconstruction Summit?

ASHKOURI: I'm very, very interested in making sure that people in these conferences are aware of the significance of the historic elements of Iraq.

The main concern with Iraq is that you want to preserve those issues that are unique to the country. You want to protect them. You want to bring them forward to show them to the world and have people enjoy their existence.

SIMMONS: How will the reconstruction process affect the cultural landscape of Iraq? And, vice-versa, how will the cultural landscape affect the building of the new Iraq?

ASHKOURI: I have had quite a bit of experience now with conferences since July of 2003. Most of the work initially was focused on U.S. government contracts and the initiation of construction in Iraq based on federal money. It's shifting. More and more people are focused on the ministries and their contracts.

I personally have interest in supporting the private sector. And that's where I think most of the construction will come from. Iraqis are interested in developing and building their own projects.

As far as foreign investments and foreign countries being involved in Iraq, I worry quite a bit, personally, about how the Iraqi culture is going to be exposed to developments. Sometimes developments are driven by finance and by profit, and those developments have to be sensitive to the local history, the culture and the nature of these cities and towns that they are building in.

There are two ways to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq. And in the area where I work now in Baghdad, if you have a construction contract, there are legal parts of that document that state you must stop the work and focus on any artifacts that are found and bring specialists from either the museum or other agencies who are able to identify the artifacts and to catalog them and to make sure that the site is clean, ready for construction.

The other issue that we really have to focus on is the fact that not just the artifacts that are found, but the buildings near where you are building are historically significant. To build a brand new building next to historically significant buildings has to be based on not just understanding but respecting those other buildings and making sure that they do not fall apart, they do not sink, they do not crack. They need to be improved, repaired and brought in as part of the complex that you are building.

SIMMONS: Tell me how you're moving this concept into practice.

ASHKOURI: I personally have taken on my own task to design a project where people will respect the old Iraqi historical districts and support the buildings, the houses, that were built back in the Ottoman period, the British period, and make sure that those buildings will not be destroyed.

And if anything, it's to support these buildings and to enhance them, and make sure that they will remain, and that they become a productive part of the entire fabric of the city.

Baghdad evolved like the city of Paris, with a castle, and right near the castle is the old Ministry of Defense. It has incredible value. It's a beautiful, historic structure. There are many historic structures nearby that belong to the Ottoman Empire and the British Occupation. Those buildings really need to be protected and need to be supported.

When we did the design for the center part of the city of Baghdad these last three months in our office, we made sure that the historic zone within the city of Baghdad was going to remain historic. It will have parks, it will have plazas and places for people to walk to, and exhibits to see from the eras before, and they will be next to the Tigris River where the Tigris is going to be in direct contact with these historic zones.

SIMMONS: How do you use technology in this project?

ASHKOURI: There are two levels of technology that we have employed in our design. One level is the construction of the entire city on the computer and being able to disseminate the information by having computer programs sent out to different places around the world.

And the second part is to create the entire architectural and cultural environment of Baghdad within the historic area so that when you visit, you can actually see the buildings and see how people lived in these periods and how they essentially developed their own lifestyles.

It's very important to keep that in mind regardless of what design you develop. The design is a style of your own, but these families and homes and environments are very important to be shown to the world and to the Iraqis.

SIMMONS: Do you find the reconstruction community receptive to these ideas?

ASHKOURI: I'm very encouraged by the response that people had in the conference today, especially when it came to the development of downtown Baghdad in the clip that we showed. The beauty of it is that people came and they saw for the first time the results of everything that has been said in the prior reconstruction meetings.

And there is hope. There is a potential for things to be built, and not just to be built but it will be built in the most beautiful 21st Century Baghdad. And to put it together in a video that can be shown to the world is important to us.

And so the response today at the Iraq Reconstruction Summit was incredibly encouraging.

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