Why Frank Lloyd Wright’s Baghdad Opera House Never Came To Be

Frank Lloyd Wright said he didn’t give ‘a hoot’ about designing an opera house in London or New York. Baghdad was a different story. But the best-laid plans...

This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.

The oil was flowing, and so was the cash. Much like the megacities of the developing world today, 1950s Baghdad and its newfound wealth wanted to make a statement and architecture was its stage.

Under a plan developed from 1954 to 1958 by Minoprio & Spencely and P.W. MacFarlane, the city snagged the world’s top architects to draft major buildings.

In 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Willem Dudok, Gio Ponti, and Walter Gropius signed on. Oscar Neimeyer declined, as he refused to work for an anticommunist government.

The buildings the city assigned to the architects included a stadium, a modern art museum, Baghdad University’s campus, a national library, and an opera house. The opera house went to Wright.

“I would not give a hoot to build an opera house in New York or London,” Wright reportedly said about the commission. “But Baghdad is a different story.”

In fact he was so exuberant, he even told an audience that the commission “makes me feel quite chesty.” It would be his final urban design before he died in 1959.

Out of the foreign “starchitects,” Wright was the first to visit Baghdad, doing so from May 20-25, 1957. He was also the first to turn in his proposal, in June and July of that year.

“The project that Wright developed out of his original commission for the Baghdad Opera House was entirely different from anything the other five ‘star architects’ proposed,” writes Neil Levine, the Harvard University Professor of History of Art and Architecture and author of The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Whereas the others included largely superficial references to the culture in which they were building, he argues, Wright fully engaged with the history and culture he was about to fundamentally change, and “embraced” full “historical references and allusions…as he had never before.”

Not merely content with a different vision, Wright also threw shade at the other famed architects. He told the Iraqis he “had come too late to save [the country ‘ … from the invasions of the Proffesional [sic] Architects of the West.’”

In a speech given to the Society of Engineers during his visit, Wright declared that an architect “must come in and see the beauty that was, understand the character of nature that made it beautiful and try by every means in his power to keep it alive.”

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Wright, however, was not satisfied by designing an opera house.

True to his reputation as one of the 20th century’s more difficult artistic personalities, he also submitted a wholesale design for the city itself, called a Plan for Greater Baghdad.

This may have had something to do with what he told reporters was the agreement to be given “a completely free hand and no cost limitations.”

“It was … he probably realized, his last chance to do something big, and on the world stage,” Levine tells me over email.

America’s greatest architect decided the land given him near the British Embassy was unsuitable for his opera house and cultural center.

Instead, he wanted the Umm al-Khanazir Island (also known as Pig Island). After a meeting with the country's young king and his puppet-master uncle, Wright was given his island.

“When I was a youngster The Arabian Nights were my favorite stories and Baghdad was the center of them,” Wright said, when explaining why Baghdad was so important to him.

Wright’s lifelong love of The Arabian Nights was not the only major influence for his designs. The original Round City 8th century design of Baghdad under Abu Jafar al-Mansur was a direct inspiration, as was the Garden of Eden. His designs were intended to “glorify Iraq” by echoing al-Mansur's city.

In his designs, on one end of the island, Wright placed two overlapping circles. The smaller was for his opera house, the larger semi-surrounding circle was a park named the Garden of Eden.

At the other end of the island, Wright placed a ziggurat topped by a statue of Haroun al Rashid which reached a combined height of 300 feet.

As for the opera house itself, it “is one of the most elaborate, symbolically charged buildings Wright designed,” writes Levine.

To the casual eye, it looked like the Jetsons meets the Sugar Plum Fairy—more what one imagines when opening to illustrations in a science fiction novel than a design by Wright.

Wright’s opera house was ringed by a series of rings that could park 2,000 vehicles. The building was circular in form, featuring a delicate metal crown with a statue of Aladdin and sided by a colonnade.

It hovered in a circular pool, and was pierced by a giant external arch in the shape of a crescent arch covered in scenes from “Thousand and One Nights.”

Wright once commented that he thought his plan would never be built. He had once said that Iraq’s monarchy “has proved worthy” and dedicated his project to the king.

Unfortunately for his project, the 1958 revolution tossed that royal family from its perch. The fantastical drawings of his vision remained just that—a fantasy. It would find new life in diminished form as Gammage Memorial Auditorium at Arizona State University.

The fate of a Baghdad opera house has in recent history faced another poetically cruel twist.

Zaha Hadid, the controversial architect born in Baghdad in 1950, had been selected to design a new opera house for the city, but it was later refused funding.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article did not include the Gammage Memorial Auditorium, for which Wright used his Baghdad designs.