Baghdad was once the scene of an ambitious modernist plan with Le Corbusier’s unbuilt sports complex at its heart. At last its details can be savoured, reports Ellis Woodman

For all its merits, the Le Corbusier retrospective now showing in Liverpool doesn’t present much that will be new to aficionados of the great man’s work. So anyone looking for revelations would be well advised to head to a much smaller show that opened at the V&A in London last week. It is devoted to just one unbuilt project, the Baghdad Sports Complex, the reputation of which has always suffered from the paucity of publicly available documentation.

Although the scheme was in development for a whole eight years between 1957 and 1964, it found no place in the Complete Works. There were in fact two versions of the project as it was switched to a less congested site on the far side of the Tigris in 1961. The first version featured in Le Corbusier’s book, Creation is a Patient Search, but the V&A show is the first time the definitive scheme has been properly available for scrutiny.

The RIBA, which has organised the exhibition, has shrewdly grasped the opportunity to bring together a set of drawings from a private collection in London and extensive materials held in the archives of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal. Before 1990, all this was with Jullian de la Fuente, who in the early 1960s was the architect in Le Corbusier’s studio with principal responsibility for the project. The detective work in piecing the story together has been a joint effort by Irena Murray of the British Architectural Library and Peter Carl, a Le Corbusier authority based at the Cambridge school of architecture.

The project belongs to a brief period when Iraq’s King Faisal II was endeavouring to reinvent Baghdad with buildings by the pantheon of modern movement greats. Walter Gropius designed the university in a preposterously bombastic quasi-Islamic manner. More happily, Josep Lluís Sert built the US Embassy and Gio Ponti contributed the Ministry of Industrial Development — although both have been badly damaged in the recent conflicts. This period of adventurous patronage proved as short-lived as Faisal himself, who was assassinated in 1958. The monarchy overthrown, the regime that replaced it shelved a host of projects, among them schemes by Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Le Corbusier’s scheme was originally commissioned in support of Baghdad’s bid to host the 1960 Olympics. It survived the failure of that initiative and Faisal’s overthrow. In fact a full set of construction drawings was prepared, but the scheme ran into financial difficulties. It was postponed pending modification but Le Corbusier’s death in 1965 effectively finished it off, save for the gymnasium, which was realised in 1981 in a somewhat bastardised form. It was named after Saddam Hussein, and remains so today.

King Faisal II was endeavouring to reinvent Baghdad with buildings by the modern greats

 

Le Corbusier’s design has a forum-like layout, of which the largest element is a stadium scaled for 50,000 spectators. In addition there is the gymnasium, a suite of outdoor pools and sports pitches, a restaurant and an administration block. These all share a north-south orientation, freely disposed within a curvaceously modelled landscape, overlaid with fields of palm trees.

Like Le Corbusier’s large-scale projects in Firminy-Vert and Chandigarh, the buildings are disposed around a series of strategic views which compress foreground and background into a unified composition. These relationships are strengthened by the fact that the buildings are constructed of a single material — in-situ concrete — and share a distinctive structural system of load-bearing cross walls, a device Le Corbusier dubbed “les voiles” (veils).

Peter Carl suggests these arrays of closely spaced concrete planes can be seen as a development of the language of the portico to the Palace of the Assembly in Chandigarh, which was completed in 1955. Where they depart from that model is in the way their powerfully rhythmic distribution is interposed with more episodic elements. This can be seen particularly vividly in the design for the main stadium. Its seating is supported on a series of massive voiles which are configured radially and vary in height, the tallest standing equivalent to a 12-storey building — with the effect that the stadium’s profile slumps to the north and south. The planes are freely perforated to admit light and views, while bridge-like administration rooms span between them.

A highlight of the exhibition is the series of 21 working drawings with which the siting of these interventions has been judged. Each opening has been cut out by scalpel, enabling the drawings to be overlaid and read in relation to one another. Primitive as this method may be, the drawings suggest a striking relationship to current parametric design procedures. Perhaps this is a project, that has at last found its moment?