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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.80 Santiago abr. 2012 

ARQ, n. 80 Representations, Santiago, April 2012, p. 16-21.


The Multiplicity of Al Mansur's Baghdad

Martino Tattara *

* Professor, Berlage Institute, Rotterdam, Netherlands.


Just like Sol Lewitt's precise instructions, architecture reports and specifications can be a mighty representation resource: a design matrix described in rigorous words can warrantee vitality and long-life to a project and its guiding principles.

Key words: Urbanism – Irak, Persian cities, history of urbanism, planning, survey.

The project of founding new cities is again at the center of architectural discourse. In the last decades we have witnessed the rise of numerous cities in many East Asian countries, and the announcement of newly founded cities continues unabated today. In 2001, China's Minister of Civil Affairs acknowledged his ambition to build 400 new cities by 2020 in order to accommodate rural migrants and foster the ongoing process of the country's industrialization.

In the Middle East, the recent urban boom has been twinned by ambitious projects for new cities that have attracted widespread media attention thanks primarily to the involvement of various starchitects. Moreover, the recently celebrated fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of Brasilia swung attention back towards those often-neglected experiences in the history of modern architecture and planning that for many years historiography has considered as nothing more than utopian failures.

Although it would be necessary to make a distinction between those projects that have been or are able to further a new "idea of the city" and those that are simply replicas of pre-existing urban paradigms by looking at few relevant cases in the history of architecture, analyzing these projects makes it immediately clear that designing a city from scratch is actually not a rare task that few architects might have to confront during their careers, but perhaps the most challenging design exercise, one in which the scope, possibilities and limits of our discipline are pushed to their extremes and where the operative capacity of the instruments of our work is fundamentally put to the test.

The project of the city is an oxymoron –an impossibility in its own terms– in which the role of the architect is necessarily limited to the action of delineating those essential formal, typological or even normative principles that would prove capable of controlling the development of the city over time. First and foremost, the project of the city is, in contrast with the dimension and scope of the endeavor itself, a matter of reduction, restraint and limitation. In The Lettered City, an essay on the power of the written discourse in the formation of Latin American societies, author Angel Rama explores the fundamental role of the "lettered man" in order to understand what he considers to be a crucial aspect of the Latin American colonial city. The main characteristic of the colonial city is not, according to Rama, the application of the square grid as the fundamental settlement principle of the city, but rather the rigor of describing in writing those principles that are capable of guiding the composition of urban space, so that the technical order can therefore reproduce and confirm the social order as established by the project.

The attempt to distil the essential and dispose of the superflu
ous is confirmed by another important project for a city, the plano piloto of Brasilia. In the case of the newly built Brazilian capital (1956–60), its architect did not win the competition thanks to the clarity of his drawings but essentially thanks to the text of the competition report –the famous relatorio (1957)– in which the few formal and organizational principles of the city (i.e. the use of the superquadra as the city's main residential solution) were clearly described and as such made available to future builders.

This reductionist attitude is also what characterizes the great city project of Al-Mansur's Baghdad, the mysterious and famous "round city" begun in 762 ad and of which no archaeological trace remains. The plan of the city has been the object of historical reconstructions based upon the few available literary sources –the History of Baghdad written by Khatib Al-Badhdadi (d. 1071) and Ya'qubi's Geography– carried out primarily by K.A.C. Creswell, who in his A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture (1958) provided a first possible interpretation of the plan of the city, and later by Jacob Lassner in The Topography of Baghdad in the Early Middle Ages (1970).

Although Al-Mansur's Baghdad is not the first circular city to have ever been built, it should be considered one of the most remarkable examples of Muslim town planning. The city can generally be described as a ring with a circumference of 16,000 cubits (circa 8.3 km), which gives a diameter of 5,093 cubits, or circa 2.6 km (the cubit is an ancient measurement of length that is approximately equal to the length of a forearm and that Creswell suggests measures 51.8 centimeters). Yet, differently from the circular plans typical of Renaissance thinking, where the circle was used to convey the "social hierarchy desired by the planner, with governing body located at the center and living spaces assigned to respective social strata radiating from the center in concentric circles" (Rama, 1996). Al-Mansur's Baghdad is nothing more than a thick inhabitable structure delimiting a large circular emptiness –the great Rahaba– at the center of which the palace of the Khalif was located adjacent to the mosque. The radicalism of the city does not lie in the deployment of an abstract geometrical figure that, as Creswell suggests, can in fact be found in several other cities in the Muslim world beginning with Assyrian military camps, but rather in the attempt to conceive the possibility of the city through the project of its edge, a thick, multilayered inhabitable fortress that simultaneously contains and organizes residential, defensive and communication functions.

The two main reconstructions of the plan put forward by Creswell and Lassner propose the same organization of the linear circular element. The typical section of the ring is characterized by a series of five concentric walls forming three circular inner roads (indicated as the first, second and third fasil) that run uninterruptedly from one city gate to the other. Four equidistant doors, each named after the city or province towards which it opened, allow entrance to the city and cut through the three fasil, thereby interrupting the continuity of traffic. Besides providing overall accessibility to the city, the four doors organize distribution among the several residential sectors, facilitate interchange among the three fasil and allow penetration of the circular inner courtyard. Each gate is, starting from the outer wall, organized as a linear spatial sequence consisting of the bridge that crosses the ditch running around the city's outer wall, a first courtyard, the two city gateways separated by a narrow corridor, a major long arcade designed for some 1,000 guards, a small courtyard cutting through the third fasil and, finally, an inner wall. The definition of a city through the description of a single component, as witnessed in Creswell's and Lassner's reconstructions, confirms the reductionist attitude necessary for designing a city.

While Creswell believes that at the end of the linear sequence of the gate, after the last vaults, one would have passed out into a court 20 cubits square that led directly to the central square, Lassner suggests that "surrounding the central court were the residences of Al-Mansur's younger children, his servants in attendance, the slaves, the treasury, the arsenal, the diwan of the palace personnel, the public kitchen, and various other government agencies", so that there was a ring of building between the third fasil and the central courtyard (Allan, 1991). The possible addition of a residential ring located towards the inner courtyard confirms the essence of the entire urban project as a simple skeleton of walls that supported the process of the city's formation. The three fasil and the gates represent the major infrastructural elements of the city, supporting and serving the areas dedicated to residential functions and eventual urban growth. The existence of the inner ring is an irrelevant issue, as it could easily be read as the natural outcome of the idea of the city itself – a skeleton around which the urban body develops. The project of Al-Mansur's Baghdad and the possible reconstruction of its plan has therefore never been and will never be fully achieved, for the nature of the city itself is based on the control and design of only a few aspects –the gates, the rituals of entering and moving through the city, the linear walls– while the rest seems to be open to a multiplicity of interpretations.

The drawings that accompany the present text offer few possible developments of this radical city's plan in the attempt to envision the outcomes that these formal principles and this attitude toward design could produce.


ALLAN, James W. "New Additions to the New Edition". En Muqarnas 8. The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Harvard University y Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1991, p. 17.         [ Links ]

CRESWELL, K.A.C. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1958.         [ Links ]

LASSNER, Jacob. The Topography of Baghdad in the Early Middle Ages. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1970.         [ Links ]

RAMA, Angel. The Lettered City. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 1996.         [ Links ]

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