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Man With A Plan

Hisham AshkouriIraqi-born Tufts graduate Hisham Ashkouri, principal architect of the Baghdad Renaissance Plan, views design as a way to positively impact people's lives.

From a physical and aesthetic standpoint, Cinema Sindbad is undeniably impressive: when it's completed, the sleek, 31-story structure will house a state-of-the-art multiplex, 20 floors of hotel rooms and two eateries—one on the main floor and one on the rooftop.

"Iraq is known for its nights. The temperature drops about 20 degrees Celsius from the daytime," says the project's principal architect, Iraqi-born Tufts graduate Hisham Ashkouri (G'83). "The idea [of the restaurant] is, you travel up to the roof and look out and you can see all of Baghdad, and the sky—when you look out, you don't see just one star. You see literally thousands and thousands. It's like a carpet."

But what the project represents may be even more breathtaking than its aesthetic impact.

"It's a philosophical approach to solving problems in Iraq," says Ashkouri of Cinema Sindbad, which will be the biggest private development in Baghdad's history. "It's not government-funded; it is just plain people like myself, yourself, doing work every day, to build."

It's clear from his tone that for the soft-spoken, bowtie-clad architectural expert, helping to 'build' in Iraq is synonymous with helping to 'heal' Iraq—the country Ashkouri left in 1972 and did not return to until January 2004.

Ashkouri's return to Iraq was a professional journey as well as a personal one. While there, he met with coalition provisional authorities in Baghdad's Green Zone, making presentations about his Cinema Sindbad proposal—as well as an even bigger project, the Baghdad Renaissance Plan.

With the Renaissance Plan, Ashkouri and his design team are taking a unique approach to restoring Baghdad's functionality without sacrificing its cultural integrity. The idea centers on the accumulation of soil deposits from the Tigris River. After studying aerial photos of Baghdad, Ashkouri and his design team found that those deposits have added an additional 900 hectares of land to the city—that's 96,875,194 square feet, or more than 1,680 football fields.

"So with the 900 hectares, the concept was, you can build all the new facilities; you can connect them with a roadway; you can put parks; you can open up the city to the water; brand-new buildings," Ashkouri says. "But you do not need to add the load of the infrastructure—the water, the sewers, the electricity—to the existing overwhelmed and destroyed infrastructure in the city."

Rather, the goal is for the new construction to be self-sufficient, supporting its own growth as well as that of Baghdad.

"So that then can become the catalyst for development in the old city, along both sides," continues Ashkouri, his voice rising in excitement. "The idea is that you can build independently, and the cash coming from it will begin to restore the city."

To that end, Ashkouri has committed to set aside 10 percent of the profits to fund private development around the city. "It's a 25-year plan; it's about $13 billion dollars' worth of development," says Ashkouri, who plans to hold public hearings and presentations on the project so that the Iraqi people are part of the development process. "It's a huge number, but it's doable if you do it in baby steps."

'A New Concept'

After graduating first in his class at Baghdad University in 1970, Ashkouri worked in Iraq for three years, winning four national competitions to design the country's Ministry of Oil and Minerals, Ministry of Justice, College of Agriculture, and Baghdad's City Hall. (Only the city hall has been completed.)

While recognizing his talent, Saddam Hussein's regime made it difficult for Ashkouri to develop it.

"I could not get a single scholarship from the government. I was not part of the 'elite,'" says Ashkouri, who instead planned on using money he had made through his design work in Iraq to fund his graduate studies in the United States.

"I did not plan on staying [in the States]," he says. "I really thought of going back. But," he continues, "I wanted to complete my education." And so he did, attaining degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT before earning his doctorate at Tufts.

Ashkouri entered Tufts in 1980 on a personal mission that took root in 1976, when he entered and won a national competition to design a playground for the handicapped in New York City.

"After I sat down and designed all the play equipment for the kids, and really learned about the difficulties and the excitement of coming up with a design for them that really works, I found that the laws, the practices, the perception of bringing the handicapped into the picture was absolutely…," he trails off. "There was no evidence of that in the field. [The handicapped] did not have adequate support from the legal standpoint."

So Ashkouri wrote a letter to Tufts asking if the University would consider a program that addressed these issues. The school, highly receptive to Ashkouri's concept, worked with him to design a cross-disciplinary course of study incorporating government and public policy work, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' Psychology Department, and the School of Engineering.

"The idea here is really, when you design a building, you want to incorporate the handicapped, and that was a new concept," Ashkouri says. "But then I realized as I got into it, it's not only the handicapped: believe it or not, every building has to be designed for people, and not the other way around."

He smiles. "You don't design people for buildings."

Hisham Ashkouri

"[Cinema Sindbad] is a philosophical approach to solving problems in Iraq," says Ashkouri. "It's not government-funded; it is just plain people like myself, yourself, doing work every day, to build."

Creating a City of Light

For Ashkouri—an avid watercolorist who incorporates everything from jewelry designs to rug patterns into his architectural plans—one of the difficult elements of transitioning to life in the States was being so far removed from the art that's unique to his culture.

"I loved translating some of the Islamic architectural themes and decorative themes into sketches, and I did a lot of those [while a young man in Iraq]," he says. "When I came to this country, actually, I realized how much I missed those environments, and then I ended up working a lot harder to try and bring some of these environments and documenting them."

Ashkouri's commitment to imbuing his designs with cultural significance is evident in his $9 billion dollar, 20-year project in Kabul, Afghanistan, titled "City of Light." Ashkouri began work on the endeavor after the Afghan government, having seen his work on the Baghdad Renaissance Plan, approached him about restoring and renovating a section of Kabul.

"What we're doing is literally restoring the Old City, and also putting a brand-new part in called Necklace Park," Ashkouri says, adding that the park's design is based on actual Afghan jewelry. "A lot of very feminine themes are here, because if you look at the Afghan jewelry, it's one of the most beautiful jewelries in the world. And Afghan rug-making is also. So you can see some of the rug-making designs on the buildings."

In addition to the park, which stretches between two of the city's most famous mosques, Ashkouri's plan involves building a Museum of Afghan National Heritage and a complex of buildings between five and 35 stories tall.

"They're very clustered together because of the tough nature of the environment—you have very cold and very warm settings, primarily cold, and so you bring the buildings closer, and this way you can really save on energy," Ashkouri says.

The completed City of Light will also include housing for about 200,000 people, with each building oriented "towards a small courtyard that families can share together, instead of [the homes there now] built by Russians in the seventies—they look like typical army camps," says Ashkouri, who hopes his design will "bring back social integration for these families. A lot of them have left the city, and now we need to bring them back."

"Again, it is not a government project—it is to encourage the private sector," Ashkouri says of the City of Light. "And again, from this, because [the Old City] is all so demolished, we will do our own infrastructure, and then use the profit to generate money for renovation of the rest of the city."

An Enduring Philosophy

Not all of Ashkouri's work is based overseas. In fact, ARCADD, Inc.—the architectural firm Ashkouri founded in 1986—initially focused on hospital work within U.S. borders. The group's first job was a $190 million overhaul of facilities at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Ashkouri's team has also worked on 22 medical facility projects for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Currently, ARCADD is constructing a new $67 million facility location for Falmouth (Mass.) High School, as well as renovating a school in Brookline, Mass.

A larger U.S. project is on Ashkouri's horizon. Early in the summer of 2005, he received word that ARCADD has been shortlisted to perform a complete restoration of the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan. The prospect of restoring the headquarters complex—which was designed more than 50 years ago—is something Ashkouri's clearly relishing.

He picks up a cord that's about one centimeter in diameter. "You see this thickness?" he asks. "That's the thickness of the little angle that holds every window. And this has corroded, in some spots, to this thickness." He picks up a manila folder, pinching its edge between his fingers to demonstrate.

"That," he says, "is still holding all that glass. Ten more years, and the whole thing would collapse."

Whether he's designing an area of Kabul, a local high school, or the U.N. Headquarters, Ashkouri approaches all of his projects with the same philosophy.

"You can reach out with your ideas, but at the same time you have to be practical and down-to-earth," he says. "Then hopefully the concepts and the ideas can translate again into down-to-earth projects so that people can participate."

But there's another essential element of Ashkouri's approach to design. It's apparent in how, from an aerial view of Ashkouri's City of Light model, the elements of Necklace Park come together to resemble an intricately patterned piece of jewelry, or how the design of a vibrant blue and teal Islamic tile on Ashkouri's shelf has been worked into the plan for a building in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

It is key, Ashkouri says, "not to forget the art of the whole work."

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Design illustrations courtesy of Hisham Ashkouri and ARCADD.

This story originally ran on Oct. 10, 2005