The Wright Stuff

The Colorado Center for Public Humanities at the University of Colorado Denver is hosting a lecture series called “Islam in American Culture.” The idea, partly inspired by President Barack Obama’s outreach to the Muslim community, will look at the connections between American culture and the Islamic world.

The second lecture in the series, titled “Transcultural Imagination: Frank Lloyd Wright in Baghdad,” is tonight from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Executive MBA Suite, 1250 14th Street, Room 150. The talk will be presented by Mina Marefat, an architect at Design Research and a historian at Georgetown University, who served as an advisor to the Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective that was held this past summer at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

Marefat will discuss Wright’s never-built and little-known proposals for Baghdad, as well as the architect’s predisposition to absorbing and incorporating ideas from that part of the world. “Frank Lloyd Wright embraced architectural, philosophical and literary traditions from what he called 'the East' to an unprecedented degree, particularly at the height of modernism,” says Marefat. Middle Eastern ideas about architecture “came to animate his thinking about space in ways that enabled his architectural idiom to cross cultural boundaries, even as he was identified as a genuinely American architect.” In 1957, Wright was hired by the Iraqi-government to develop plans for an opera house in Baghdad. Originally the opera house was to be built in the center of the city, but on a visit to Iraq later that same year, Wright identified a different potential site, an island in the middle of the Tigris River. The island gave Wright a lot more space to work with, and he expanded his plans to include not only the opera house, but an ambitious cultural center and, on the opposite banks of the river, a large university campus.

Wright’s design concepts incorporated references to the historic architecture of Iraq, so his proposed buildings were specifically conceived for Baghdad. In contrast, the other international modernists with commissions there at the same time, including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Gio Ponti, designed structures according to their own signatures that could therefore have been built in any city on earth.

In 1958, King Faisal II was killed, and the Hashemite monarchy, which had hired Wright and the other famous designers, fell. At first Wright was retained by the new regime, but ultimately his ambitious plans were abandoned. Wright died the following year.

Shelves of books have been written about the influence that Japanese and Meso-American forms had on Wright’s aesthetic, but as Marefat will point out — and as his plans for Baghdad reveal — he was inspired by shapes and structures from the Middle East, as well.

For information, visit or call 303-556-4648.
Thu., Sept. 10; Mon., Sept. 28; Thu., Oct. 15; Wed., Nov. 4, 2009

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia