Tomgram: The Mother Ship Lands in Iraq
The Colossus of Baghdad
Wonders of the Imperial World
By Tom Engelhardt
Of the seven wonders of the ancient Mediterranean world, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes, four were destroyed by earthquakes, two by fire. Only the Great Pyramid of Giza today remains.
We no longer know who built those fabled monuments to the grandiosity of kings, pharaohs, and gods; nowadays, at least, it’s easier to identify the various wonders of our world with their architects. Maya Lin, for instance, spun the moving black marble Vietnam Memorial from her remarkable brain for the veterans of that war; Frank Gehry dreamt up his visionary titanium-covered museum in Bilbao, Spain, for the Guggenheim; and the architectural firm of BDY (Berger Devine Yaeger), previously responsible for the Sprint Corporation’s world headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas; the Visitation Church in Kansas City, Missouri; and Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in North Kansas City, Missouri, turns out to have designed the biggest wonder of all — an embassy large enough to embody the Bush administration’s vision of an American-reordered Middle East. We’re talking, of course, about the still-uncompleted American embassy, the largest on the planet, being constructed on a 104-acre stretch of land in the heart of Baghdad’s embattled Green Zone, now regularly under mortar fire. As Patrick Lenahan, Senior Architect and Project Manager at BDY, has put it (according to the firm’s website): “We understand how to involve the client most effectively as we direct our resources to make our client’s vision a reality.”
And what a vision it was! What a reality it’s turned out to be!
Who can forget the grandiose architecture of pre-Bush-administration Baghdad: Saddam Hussein’s mighty vision of kitsch Orientalism melting into terror, based on which, in those last years of his rule, he reconstructed parts of the Iraqi capital? He ensured that what was soon to become the Green Zone would be dotted with overheated, Disneyesque, Arabian-Nights palaces by the score, filled with every luxury imaginable in a country whose population was growing increasingly desperate under the weight of UN sanctions. Who can forget those vast, sculpted hands, “The Hands of Victory,” supposedly modeled on Saddam’s own, holding 12-story-high giant crossed swords (over piles of Iranian helmets) on a vast Baghdad parade ground? Meant to commemorate a triumph over Iran that the despot never actually achieved, they still sit there, partially dismantled and a monument to folly; while, as Jane Arraf has written, Saddam’s actual hands,”the hands that wrote the orders for the war against Iran and the destruction of Iraqi villages, the hands handcuffed behind his back as he went to trial and then was led to his execution are moldering under ground.”
It is worth remembering that, when the American commanders whose troops had just taken Baghdad, wanted their victory photo snapped, they memorably seated themselves, grinning happily, behind a marble table in one of those captured palaces; that American soldiers and newly arrived officials marveled at the former tyrant’s exotic symbols of power; that they swam in Saddam’s pools, fed rare antelopes from his son Uday’s private zoo to its lions (and elsewhere shot his herd of gazelles and ate them themselves); and, when in need of someplace to set up an American embassy, the newly arrived occupation officials chose — are you surprised? — one of his former dream palaces. They found nothing strange in the symbolism of this (though it was carefully noted by Baghdadis), even as they swore they were bringing liberation and democracy to Saddam’s benighted land.
And then, as the Iraqi capital’s landscape became ever more dangerous, as an insurgency gained traction while the administration’s dreams of a redesigned American Middle East remained as strong as ever, its officials evidently concluded that even one of Saddam’s palaces, roomy enough for a dictator interested in the control of a single country (or the odd neighboring state), wasn’t faintly big enough, or safe enough, or modern enough for the representatives of the planet’s New Rome.
Hence, Missouri’s BDY. That midwestern firm’s designers can now be classified as architects to the wildest imperial dreamers and schemers of our time. And the company seems proud of it. You can go to its website and take a little tour in sketch form, a blast-resistant spin, through its Bush-inspired wonder, its particular colossus of the modern world. Imagine this: At $592 million, its proudest boast is that, unlike almost any other American construction project in that country, it is coming in on budget and on time. Of course, with a 30% increase in staffing size since Congress approved the project two years ago, it is now estimated that being “represented” in Baghdad will cost a staggering $1.2 billion per year. No wonder, with a crew of perhaps 1,000 officials assigned to it and a supporting staff (from food service workers to Marine guards and private security contractors) of several thousand more.
When the BDY-designed embassy opens in September (undoubtedly to the sound of mortar fire), its facilities will lack the gold-plated faucets installed in some of Saddam’s palaces and villas (and those of his sons), but they won’t lack for the amenities that Americans consider part and parcel of the good life, even in a “hardship” post. Take a look, for instance, at the embassy’s “pool house,” as imagined by BDY. (There’s a lovely sketch of it at their site.) Note the palm trees dotted around it, the expansive lawns, and those tennis courts discretely in the background. For an American official not likely to leave the constricted, heavily fortified, four-mile square Green Zone during a year’s tour of duty, practicing his or her serve (on the taxpayer’s dollar) is undoubtedly no small thing.
Admittedly, it may be hard to take that refreshing dip or catch a few sets of tennis in Baghdad’s heat if the present order for all U.S. personnel in the Green Zone to wear flak jackets and helmets at all times remains in effect — or if, as in the present palace/embassy, the pool (and ping-pong tables) are declared, thanks to increasing mortar and missile attacks, temporarily “off limits.” In that case, more time will probably be spent in the massive, largely windowless-looking Recreation Center, one of over 20 blast-resistant buildings BDY has planned. Perhaps this will house the promised embassy cinema. (Pirates of the Middle East, anyone?) Perhaps hours will be wiled away in the no less massive-looking, low-slung Post Exchange/Community Center, or in the promised commissary, the “retail and shopping areas,” the restaurants, or even, so the BDY website assures us, the “schools” (though it’s a difficult to imagine the State Department allowing children at this particular post).
And don’t forget the “fire station” (mentioned but not shown by BDY), surely so handy once the first rockets hit. Small warning: If you are among the officials about to staff this post, keep in mind that the PX and commissary might be slightly understocked. The Washington Post recently reported that “virtually every bite and sip consumed [in the embassy] is imported from the United States, entering Iraq via Kuwait in huge truck convoys that bring fresh and processed food, including a full range of Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors, every seven to 10 days.” Recently, there has been a “Theater-Wide Delay in Food Deliveries,” due to unexplained convoy problems. Even the yogurt supplies have been running low.
But those of you visiting our new embassy via BDY’s website have no such worries. So get that container of Baskin-Robbins from the freezer and take another moment to consider this new wonder of our world with its own self-contained electricity-generation, water-purification, and sewage systems in a city lacking most of the above. When you look at the plans for it, you have to wonder: Can it, in any meaningful sense, be considered an embassy? And if so, an embassy to whom?
Read the rest here.