The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1848] Mesopotamian Peace Park

United Kingdom

Iraq has dominated scores of international headlines in recent years. Amid the frequent stories of bombings and gunfights, it is easy to lose sight of the human conditions. In the course of one generation, the country has undergone numerous transformations. Stories of my grandfather’s magnificent house in Baghdad delighted me as a child. My mother would describe in detail the beauty of the cool marble floors in the summer, awe-inspiring rooms and extensive gardens. The house was sold when my family moved to Basra. Not long after the new owners moved in, the government seized the house and it became an infamous torture facility. Bedrooms became torture chambers, the garden destroyed to form extra jails. Numerous places hold the ghosts of Iraq’s past. Children witness their parents gunned down in the street whilst onlookers are too immobilised to help. No one ever dares approach the victims; it is safer to carry on with daily life. Fear dictates every action. Many families have lost loved ones. In the absence of husbands, fathers and sons, women struggle to provide necessities such as adequate shelter, clean water and food. Houses have fallen into disrepair. Sections of ceilings have fallen, gaping holes in the walls remain as evidence of where the mortars have hit. Sewage flows outside many houses through open channels where it finally collects in the streets. Children play barefoot in this water. Cultural customs have been abandoned, social interaction is avoided.

Alongside a human and political plight, the country has suffered a serious ecological crisis – namely, the rapid disappearance of the Mesopotamian marshlands of Southern Iraq. The marshlands are one of the world’s most important centres of biodiversity. A product of the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the wetlands are reliant on floodwater pulses and extremely vulnerable to upstream activities. It is important to note that water sources for the marshlands are solely located in the highlands of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Between 88-98% of the catchments of the Euphrates River is from southern Turkey. Turkey contributes between an estimated 32-50% of its headwater to the Tigris River. Various sources and trajectories of the rivers are framed within a complicated geopolitical relationship.

The demise of the marshlands is the product of extensive upstream dam construction over the last fifty years coupled with engineering work designed to drain the marshlands. Large dam construction has dramatically changed the way in which the rivers are managed; now focusing on water storage and hydroelectric projects. The combined storage capacity of the dams on both rivers is more than their annual discharge of water virtually eliminating the floodwaters the marshlands is dependent on. Alongside negligible water volume, the quality of water reaching the wetlands has significantly declined. Newly commissioned irrigation schemes alongside agricultural chemicals and urban effluents have degraded water quality. Salinity levels have risen significantly due to poorly implemented irrigation schemes and no floodwaters to wash away accumulated salt. The multiple dams leading to seawater encroachment of the Shatt al-Arab now trap a crucial amount of large sediment load carried by both rivers, resulting in reduced fish populations and soil fertility.

The consequences are not only environmental but also human, there are approximately 500, 000 displaced Marsh Arabs, an indigenous and unique people. Following the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the marshlands became a frontline in the combat zone. The Iraqi government aggressively revived a program to divert the flow of water from both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers after a Shia uprising during the First Gulf War. The Wetlands became a desert, forcing the residents out of their settlements. Many were displaced either to nearby towns or refugee camps in Iraq and Iran. The enormous cumulative impact of the various dam and canal constructions coupled with inefficient irrigation schemes led to the publishing of a United Nations Environment Programme report in 2001 on the rapid disappearance of the marshlands and their people. A viable conclusion of the report is to designate the Marshlands as a World Heritage Site or UNESCO Man and Biosphere. In a time where headlines are dominated by not only climate concerns but also worries of disappearing archaeological and social treasures, we need to protect the subtleties that enrich our societies rather than forget them. In the case of the wetlands, the existence of an ancient culture relies on a transboundary responsibility to manage the area. Using the UNESCO classification as a proposed starting point, we can hypothesize the trajectories that the reconstruction of Southern Iraq can take and how to resolve the integration of the Marsh Arabs within Iraqi society. The designation of World Heritage Site can not only serve as a stimulus for refugee re-housing but the sustainable reconstruction of southern cities within the park boundaries. In addition, a global classification can strengthen UN mediation between riparian countries concerning water allocation quotas and transboundary management of the Peace Park. There can be no state solution for the ecological crisis; it is crucial for former Mesopotamian countries to work together. It is of utmost importance to maintain if not improve the conditions of the wetlands as they have a crucial role in moderating the regional microclimate in addition to housing a unique culture. There are plans to dismantle any unnecessary dams, existing upstream dams can mimic the floodwater pulses they have eliminated by periodically releasing water in the Spring to maintain the wetland condition. Yet, the architectural implications of this situation remain unconsidered.

Until the First World War, the marsh dwellers were isolated from the outside world. Many then migrated to shantytowns around nearby cities. Educational and health services only began to reach the marshlands in the 1970s but even to this day, there is limited accessibility. Currently there is no incentive for the Marsh Arabs to return to their former lifestyle, which although providing a degree of independence is characterised by extreme hardship and poverty. Like the majority of the country, the area is without clean drinking water and sanitation, coupled with the marsh environment there is an endemic prevalence of malaria. If the refugees are to return, well resolved educational, residential and health provisions are crucial to their future. A hybrid between the traditional Mesopotamian wisdom and modern practices can meet the requirements of the Marsh Arabs and reintegrate this unique community into the wetlands and wider network of surrounding cities.

Traditionally, Marsh Arabs, also known as Mi’dan in Arabic, maintain a subsistent lifestyle entrenched in their aquatic environment. The majority of the Mi’dan are semi-nomadic whilst the rest remain in villages located on the edges of the marshes or artificial floating islands. Each island hosts an individual household and these islands collectively form a typical village. Hierarchically, the most significant village space is the mudhif, a reed tribal guesthouse whose origins are of ancient Sumer. The mudhifs are elaborately decorated, high arched halls that act as political, social, judicial and religious centres. Houses are considerably smaller than the mudhif yet echo the architectural language of the tribal guesthouse. Entrances are located at both ends of the house with a screen separating the building into two spaces; one side used as a dwelling and the other a workshop or to shelter animals in bad weather. This architectural style remarkably can be dated back 5,000 years B.C. to the Sumerian civilisation. Ironically, despite current problems, ancient Mesopotamia famed for its ability to manipulate land through irrigation turned desert into oasis. Early agricultural modes were adopted by the ancient Sumerians to effectively urbanise Mesopotamia through a complex series of canals and reservoirs sprawled across the city. Grand ziggurats and palaces made of mud brick dominated the skylines. Current Mi’dan techniques are simplifications of the same skills and material usages that governed Sumerian architecture.

It is essential to equip the community with the tools, knowledge and resources to make sustainable villages a prevailing reality in their future. Re-introducing reed and adobe construction into mainstream projects outside of the marshlands may be met with initial scepticism. Whilst the Mi’dan have maintained the traditional wisdom of Mesopotamia, the rest of the country has gravitated to more internationally accepted techniques and materials. The success of initial projects will aid in catalysing collective opinions to the sophisticated, functional and beautiful possibilities of this forgotten wisdom. Adobe, or mud based, dwellings are exceptionally durable and offer notable advantages due to their greater thermal mass. As a material, it can encompass nearly any shape or size whilst the abundance of reed within the marshes will provide a renewable and cost effective material. Adobe walls can serve as heat reservoirs - during the day, houses, schools and clinics remain cool whilst in the evening the walls radiate the collected heat into the internal spaces, reducing the community’s reliance on erratic electricity supplies or worn out generators. Strategic orientation can optimise either natural day lighting or shading depending on what is required. Including these traditional concerns in modern design can dramatically improve the quality of spaces the community encounters. Instead of lessons conducted under the harsh glare of artificial light, children can bask in the glow of sunlight streaming into their classrooms. Patients can wait in the cool shade of the clinic’s open reception.

Realistically, the availability of architects, engineers and other design and construction professionals in these circumstances is limited - people who need innovative design the most do not have ready access to it. An organization such as Architecture for Humanity or the United Nations refugee agency can facilitate connections with voluntary design professionals, local chapters and fellows who either donate their time to design community projects or help construct and share design knowledge in addition to funding projects. The organisation is experiencing an exponential growth, a sign that sustainable humanitarian design is gaining prevalence within the architectural community. Working with such an organisation can provide a forum of exchange between design professionals and community members leading to community-led visions for the future. Collaborative projects between communities and architectural organisations can gradually reintroduce traditional wisdom to the local built environment. Reed construction and adobe knowledge will be passed on to the wider community through the preserved techniques of the Mi’dan and local artisans. At present, the time-honoured activity of reed mat weaving is the main income generator for the Mi’dan, with the mats exported to markets across the country. Possible future demand to share traditional techniques can lead to knowledgeable members within the Mi’dan and Arab communities teaching or producing necessary components for other communities, thereby generating income for their communities. The community gradually achieves larger, long-term goals independently parallel to the spread of architectural knowledge.

Preliminary projects should focus on providing transitional dwellings, schools and clinics. As previously stated, many of the Mi’dan are semi-nomadic; although aspects of their community are beginning to change it would be prudent to design with a degree of flexibility regarding future habitation habits. The overlap between the needs of the Mi’dan and the Iraqis can result in plug in centres located in Iraqi towns that are conveniently accessible to the Mi’dan. For both communities, the plug in centres are seen as healing nodes for the region, acting as spaces that encourage a social dialogue between the indigenous culture and the wider community. At the macro level, the park aims to reconnect people to their country and rehabilitate a society by embodying them with the same philosophies of their ancestors, namely working with their land to restore the balance they have been lacking for so many years.

Domestic dwellings will be centred around communal gardens. Each house, made of thick brick walls, will appropriate the vernacular language of the area – rooms arranged around an internal courtyard. The exposed courtyard is protected from the external environments and offers a degree of privacy for its occupants. Each house is built to accommodate an average Iraqi family of eight, comprising of three bedrooms, a reception area, kitchen, bathroom and toilet connected to a septic tank. Woven reed screens act as partitions in shared bedrooms. The roof doubles as a traditional external bedroom in the summer months as well as an area to naturally dry homegrown fruits and vegetables. White lime plaster lines each bedroom, bricks are left exposed in the communal areas, and windows to the outside world are hidden behind locally crafted fretwork. Guests are greeted in the reception area with warm embraces, scents of steaming tea and rose flavoured baklava. The houses are extremely efficient, staying warm in winter and cool in summer. The overall cost is half that of the favoured common concrete blockhouses. Gardens tended to by residents offer transition from the privacy of home to the bustle of public streets packed with people on their way to school or work. Wastewater from the house runs into a settling tank, and then is channelled into one of several reed beds that filter and purify it before it is diverted into the communal gardens for irrigation.

Schools and clinics take their inspiration from the mudhif. They are spaces of inclusion, constructed voluntarily by the community; they are used for gatherings alongside their principal uses. Halls of varying sizes are enclosed by a series of informal internal and external spaces. Function is characterised by materials in both buildings. In spring, both the school and clinic have views of the fields of green reeds, pushing through the remnants of their previous golden counterparts. Onlookers witness the vibrancy of new life. The colours are muted and soft, with the occasional colourful bursts of water lilies in bloom. Distant calls emanate from the marshland as farmers tend to their crops. Children gather around their teacher on the terrace outside in the late afternoon. They are shaded by an overhanging canopy of golden reeds whilst the teacher, perches on a brick wall and points into the distance explaining the history of their surroundings. Fatima looks up at the arched ceiling of her doctor’s office. She smiles remembering the trees in her late grandfather’s orchard. Her eyes trail down the smooth walls of the office and land on her doctor. Things are better now. Nightmares do not plague her sleep as much as they used to, she does not fear her neighbours or where she walks. Within her new home, she has found peace and has started to heal, like her country.

The marshland example highlights the significant and sometimes irreversible effect of our actions on not only the environment but people and cultural practices. We must strive to reconcile the demands of ever-expanding cities and countries with the preservation of our environs for future generations. We have the opportunity to produce spaces that engage and teach us about traditional wisdoms, building arts and environmental stewardship – spaces that inspire. Architecture may not be able to solve all the world’s problems but it can facilitate dramatic differences with intelligent solutions. As we move into our future, we should not lose sight of where we came from or what we know but embrace the diversity that is present within our societies.

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