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The Master Plans of Baghdad: Notes on GIS-Based Spatial History

In 1967 the state planning office Miastoprojekt Krakow from socialist Poland delivered the master plan of Baghdad which, together with its amendment that followed in 1973, provided the legal framework for the development of the Iraqi capital during the oil-boom era. With the 1973 plan about to be replaced by a new one, a graduate seminar Mapping Baghdad 1956-2016 at the Manchester School of Architecture looked back at the fifty years of history of Miastoprojekt’s plans for Baghdad, their guiding ideas, and their impact on the development of the city. In collaboration with scholars from Baghdad University and the Institut français du Proche-Orient, we have used Geographic Information System (GIS) with archival planning documents and maps collected during my long-term research project about the flows of architectural expertise between socialist countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and West Africa in the cold war. The following article documents this experience of working with GIS systems with heterogeneous and ambiguous data; and shares some findings of the seminar. In particular, GIS-based research allowed us to clarify the planning approach that informed the master plans; to identify the extent to which they guided the development of housing, green spaces, transportation systems, and heritage preservation in Baghdad from the 1960s to the 1980s; and to speculate about their effects on architectural culture in Iraq.

[Fig. 1: Land use and traffic system as foreseen by the 1967 master plan of Baghdad, geo-referenced on current map of Baghdad (OpenStreetMap). Interactive shape file produced in QGIS on the basis of archival documentation from a private archive, Kraków, Poland. Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).]

The Master Plans and their Impact

The 1960s and 1970s marked a period of explosive growth in Baghdad, which coincided with its emergence as a major centre of architectural culture in the Arab world. And yet scholars have given little attention to the urban development, architecture, and planning of the city in this period relative to the preceding and the following decades: the 1950s, when the first generation of Iraqi architects came of age and renown modernists from Western and Northern Europe and North America received prestigious commissions; and the turn of the 1980s, a decade of well documented urban reconstruction of Baghdad under Saddam Husain (Al Slik 2008, Azara 2008, Fethi 1985, Levine 2015, Pieri 2015a, Pieri 2015b, Pyla 2008). One reason for this lacuna is a scarcity of sources, many of which were destroyed or dispersed after the bombings of Baghdad in 1991, the siege of 2003, and the violence that followed. Unlike the material from prior and subsequent decades, documents about Baghdad’s architecture and urban planning between the regimes of Qasim and the Ba’ath party are narrowly represented in the archives in the United States and its Western European allies from the cold war period, that have informed most existing studies of Iraq’s urban development. This uneven distribution of archival material resulted from the geopolitical shift in Iraq: while never completely severing the networks of technical expertise established during the Hashemite regime, the Qasim government summoned architects, planners, and construction companies from socialist Eastern Europe to fill in the demand for technical knowledge. Consequently, these professionals contributed significantly to the development of Baghdad in the course of the 1960s and 1970s, and crucial sources for urban and architectural history of the city from this period can be found in archives located in Russia and the former Soviet satellites (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania), as well as in the countries of the former Yugoslavia (in particular Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Macedonia).

The master plans by the Polish state firm Miastoprojekt are among the most important of such sources. They replaced Baghdad’s first master plan, delivered in 1956 by the British firm Minoprio, Spencely, and MacFarlane (Levine 2015), while sharing with it the principles of broadly understood tradition of modern urban planning, such as functional zoning and the environmentalization of the city. Differences between the two planning approaches concerned the role of regional planning, heritage preservation, and traffic planning, which, in the case of Miastoprojekt, reflected the Polish experience of post-war reconstruction and longer traditions of Central European urban design. It is however the contrast between the twenty-three pages of the British plan and the four volumes of the Polish one that points at the most fundamental difference between the political economies that conditioned the production of both plans. It was the political economy of state socialism that allowed for the large Polish team to be permanently located in Baghdad, its interdisciplinary composition, and its integration into Iraqi institutions and professional life (Stanek 2012, 2017).

The specific conditions of work of Polish planners in Iraq facilitated the empirical, embedded, and scenario-based character of the plan and, in turn, its impact on the ground. The fact that the plan was based on the first comprehensive survey of Baghdad allowed for fine-tuning planning concepts according to the conditions of particular neighborhoods, thus avoiding large-scale demolitions and expropriations that characterized much of the 1950s urbanization in the historical center. The embedded way of planning, with Iraqi decision makers approving every step of the plan and reviewing building applications against it before its official acceptance, provided a good training for the plan’s future uses. Discussions, exhibitions, and seminars organized with local professionals delineated new tasks for Iraqi architecture brought about by the plan, in particular the typology of the multi-story housing suitable for Arab inhabitants and buildings that respected the historical context. Since the plan offered various scenarios based on alternative predictions, it was flexible and correctable as new data was becoming available (Stanek 2017). In result, the plans provided effective frameworks for the city’s development for the two decades that followed, and particular aspects of their impact on the ground have been critically discussed by Iraqi scholars, including heritage preservation (Fethi 1977) and land subdivision (Al Slik 2016).

Archival Sources and Data Criticism

The graduate seminar on Mapping Baghdad 1956—2016  contributed to this debate by studying documents from public and private archives in Eastern Europe, Iraq, and the United States. In particular, we focused on three master plans (drawings and written documentation) and five maps of the city:

  • “Master Plan of Baghdad” by Minoprio, Spenceley, and Macfarlane (1956), scale 1:25,000
  • US Army map of Baghdad (1958), scale 1:12,500.
  • “Master Plan of Baghdad” by Miastoprojekt Kraków and Polservice (1967), various scales
  • “Comprehensive Development Plan of Baghdad 2000,” by Miastoprojekt Kraków and Polservice (1973), various scales
  • Soviet military map of Baghdad (1976), scale 1:25,000
  • “The Integrated Capital Development Plan of Baghdad” (1987) by Japanese Consortium of Consulting Firms (JCCF), various scales
  • Soviet military map of Baghdad (1991), scale 1:20,000
  • Tourist map of Baghdad (2003), scale 1:25,000

These drawings were supported by additional documents, such as articles published by the members of the master planning teams, Iraqi newspapers (in English and Arabic), and architectural and urban design blueprints by foreign and Iraqi architects (Mohamed Makiya, Kahtan Awni, Hisham Munir, Kahtan Madfai, Rifat Chadirji). These designs responded to the requirements of the master plan and were sometimes developed with members of the Miastoprojekt team and other architects from Eastern Europe in Baghdad.

 [Fig. 2: Excerpts from the master plans and maps studied during the Mapping Baghdad workshop. Top left to right: “Master Plan of Baghdad” by Minoprio, Spenceley, and Macfarlane (1956); US Army map of Baghdad (1958); “Master Plan of Baghdad” by Miastoprojekt Kraków and Polservice (1967); “Comprehensive Development Plan of Baghdad 2000,” by Miastoprojekt Kraków and Polservice (1973). Bottom left to right: Soviet military map of Baghdad (1976); “The Integrated Capital Development Plan of Baghdad” (1987) by Japanese Consortium of Consulting Firms (JCCF); Soviet military map of Baghdad (1991); Tourist map of Baghdad (2003).]

The archival maps and plates of the master plans were geo-referenced by means of QGIS, an open source, Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Each of them was digitalised (redrawn) by the participants of the seminar as vector data (shape files) consisting of two layers: land use and traffic network, subdivided according to categories specific for each archival document. These operations transformed each archival document into a database of points, lines, and polygons that becomes an analytic tool that allows to ask questions about the relationship between these features and, as they refer to real-world coordinate systems, to other datasets, including those representing current conditions on the ground (DeBats and Gregory 2011; Jaskot et al., 2015). Figure 1 shows the digitalised master plan of 1967, based on the plate “Zoning and Land-Use” (scale 1:20,000) and its eleven primary land use categories, to which the classification of roads was added according to the accompanying report. Eight such shape files, extended by the current map of Baghdad (OpenStreetMap), constitute a database used in the seminar to query the plans’ principles and their impact on the ground. Being collaborative, based on visualisations, dependent on digital tools, open ended, and focused on space, we understood this approach as a contribution to spatial history (White 2010).

The resulting database is both a representation of the city in discrete historical moments, and a knowledge generator about Baghdad’s development. Since all data is capta, taken rather than given (Drucker 2014), both uses need to account for the heterogeneity and ambiguity of the underlying documents. Such account started with the basic distinction between a plan and a map, and was extended to their differentiations in terms of scales, symbolization, classification, and baseline data (aerial photography and surveys). Reading the complete documentation of the master plans clarified their classifications on the drawings; for instance, the designation of the historical parts of Rusafa and Karkh as ”commerce” in the 1967 plan was qualified by the report, which acknowledged the multifunctional uses of these areas. In other instances, our reading discovered blind spots in the methodology that had consequences for planning decisions (for example, the calculation of needs for mosques in each neighbourhood was based on the total number of inhabitants without distinguishing between denominations).

This critical approach meant that the smooth space of GIS operations always needed to be confronted with the striated space of the historical material, and the conceptual choices made by the producers of the master plans and the maps (comp. Talbert and Elliot 2008). In the following recapitulation of the seminar’s findings, I will point out how quantitative comparisons across maps that allowed for speculating about the city’s development were checked against the possible incommensurability of the underlying categories. Furthermore, I will indicate how the seamless zooming in and out, that GIS makes possible, was problematized by an introduction of a more granular resolution of the urban designs and architectural projects that followed, reinterpreted, opposed or violated the decisions of the master plans.

Housing, Urban Structure, and Green Spaces

Based on the database, the seminar demonstrated that the planners’ decisions concerning the allocation and typology of housing in the master plan were among the most consequential for the development of Baghdad. By the time the members of the Miastoprojekt team arrived to Iraq, sarifas (slum dwellings) amounted to almost half of all buildings in Baghdad (Jędraszko 1962), and solving the housing crisis was among Qasim’s priorities. The comparison of the residential areas surveyed for the purposes of the JCCF plan in 1985 with the housing layouts in the eight districts foreseen in the 1973 plan [Figure 3] shows that the latter guided the allocation of housing until the mid-1980s, in particular in the west and in the north-east of the city. The seminar also studied the share of multi-story housing in this growth in view of the decision of the master plan (1967) that required such housing to become twenty percent of the housing stock in 1990.

 [Fig. 3: Comparison of housing allocation as foreseen by the 1973 plan with the location of housing according to a land use survey in 1985. Analytical diagram based on redrawn archival documents from a private archive, Kraków, Poland; and a private archive, Baghdad, Iraq. Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).] 

More generally, Figure 3 shows that the urbanization of Baghdad within the municipal boundary followed the basic structure proposed by Miastoprojekt’s master plan: a multifunctional “Tigris belt” flanked by two belts of residential districts. The districts were subdivided into smaller entities and designed as self-sufficient, including social facilities and a limited light industry to provide employment. This design approach followed Miastoprojekt’s experience of planning Nowa Huta, the “first socialist city in Poland,” which combined an axial plan specific for socialist-realist urban composition with the tradition of modern urban planning since the nineteenth century. In continuation of this experience, Miastoprojekt’s main tool for the management of welfare distribution in Baghdad were urban norms that allowed to calculate the program of education, health, cultural, and religious facilities according to the number of inhabitants in the catchment areas. These norms, spelled out in the master plans’ documentation, were influential and continued to be referenced by planners in the years to come; for instance, as in the Al Salam neighborhood (south-western Baghdad), designed by the Indian practice Vikas Kosh in 1981 and completed in 1985 (Chauhan 1991). Figure 4 shows that this layout complies with the master plan’s recommendations of up to 300m access to primary school and other facilities, and up to 800m access to public transport. By contrast, the parking provisions recommended by the master plan were exceeded in this design.

[Fig. 4: The application of urban norms from the 1973 master plan in the Al Salam neighbourhood, Baghdad, designed by Vikas Kosh (1981-85). Analytical diagram based on drawings published by Chauhan (1991). Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).]

The Al Salam plan also complied with the provision of green spaces as specified by the master plan (between three and seven sq.m. per person depending on location). Access to green spaces was a key concern of the plans, and Figure 5 makes use of GIS in order to calculate and represent the distances of the (geometric) center of each neighborhood to the nearest green space. These spaces were conceived as a part of a system of transversal belts airing the city and, together with the green belt around Baghdad, they added to a comprehensive plan of its environmental protection. As Figure 3 shows, in 1985 some of the green belts were interrupted by urban fabric that violated the plan, thus undermining its overall environmental and redistributive performance. However, this assessment needs to be qualified by accounting for areas with private gardens, which, as scholars have pointed out (Pieri 2015b), play an important role in the ecology of the city.

[Fig. 5: Distance between neighbourhood centres and the system of green spaces in the 1973 master plan.
Analytical diagram based on redrawn archival documents from a private archive, Kraków, Poland. Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).]

Traffic Planning and Heritage

Besides housing, the second key area of impact by the master plan was traffic planning. The plan introduced a uniform classification of roads as the basis for a comprehensive traffic network, consisting of five radial roads (extending to the principal directions in the region) that linked the districts and were joined in the “Motorway Box”, a quadrangle ring road around Rusafa and Karkh [Figure 1]. Comparison between the road network in 1991 and the 1973 master plan in Figure 6 shows that the location of the main roads in the city generally followed the master plan. Since the archival material does not allow a conclusive assessment of road classification in 1991, the functional coherence of the realized network requires further study.

  [Fig. 6: Comparison of the street network in 1991 with the network as foreseen by the 1973 master plan. Analytical diagram based on redrawn archival documents from a private archive, Kraków, Poland; and the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).]

In the master plans, traffic planning was conceived together with the development of public spaces (such as the reorganization of the Tahrir Square in the early 1970s) and the protection of architectural heritage. By contrast to Minoprio, Miastoprojekt’s plans for Baghdad’s districts stressed the “priceless scientific, didactic, and aesthetic importance” of the historical fabric of Baghdad and not only of its monuments (Miastoprojekt n.d., 345). This approach followed the reconstruction of Warsaw after World War II and Polish debates on the negotiation between the historical image of the city and modern traffic planning (Ostrowski 1980). Figure 7 compares the invasive traffic planning in Kadhemiya in the Minoprio master plan with the 1973 plan, which supported the preservation concept of Kadhemiya as a whole by lowering the intensity of traffic in and around the area (this scheme was not implemented).

 [Fig. 7: Traffic in Kadhemiya: comparison of the street layout in the 1956 (Minoprio) and the 1973 (Miastoprojekt) master plans, and the 1976 map. Analytical diagram based on redrawn archival documents from a private archive, Kraków, Poland; and the Library of Congress, Washington DC. Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).]

In difference to Kadhemiya, Miastoprojekt planners and administrators at the Municipality of Baghdad concluded that the complete preservation of Rusafa and Karkh would exceed the financial possibilities of the Iraqi state. Hence, the plan introduced several categories of preservation, including the conservation of individual monuments and of clusters of historical fabric within pedestrianized zones, specified in Miastoprojekt’s’ “Outlines for detailed plans” for Rusafa and Karkh (scale 1:2500). These principles were followed by the design of a multifunctional complex in Shorjah (Rusafa) [Figure 8] by Mohamed Makiya, Fuad Uthman and the Czech architect Jan Čejka (1969, unbuilt), all educators at the newly founded School of Architecture, University of Baghdad (Al Slik, Stanek 2015). Their design integrated mosques, churches and clusters of historical buildings within the 1967 zoning plan and a monorail foreseen by it, while accepting the demolition of large parts of the area.

 [Fig. 8: The interpretation of the 1967 master plan (principles of zoning, transportation, historical preservation) by the design for Shorjah, designed by Mohamed Makiya, Fuad Uthman, Jan Čejka (1969, unbuilt). Analytical diagram based on redrawn archival documents from a private archive, Kraków, Poland; and a private archive, Münster, Germany.  Produced at the Mapping Baghdad seminar, Manchester School of Architecture (2016).]

Towards a Spatial Archive

The seminar concluded with an attempt at mapping the hiatus between the cartographic material and the urban reality of Baghdad under sanctions and occupation in the early twenty-first century, the latter understood by means of newspaper articles, movies, and reports given by recent visitors to Baghdad who shared their experience with the participants of the seminar. The partitions, zones, and barriers dramatically shifted the everyday of Baghdad’s inhabitants away from the fluid mobilities implied by the diagrams of traffic routes and from the evenly distributed access to facilities envisaged by the smooth surfaces of land use plans. At the same time, the challenges of current and future re-planning Baghdad that became apparent in this work were for us a motivation to transform the results of the seminar towards a spatial archive which, when completed, would become both a repository of archival materials and an analytical tool box for their study. The eight GIS shape files are the first step which offers an insight into the city’s under-researched past for scholars in architecture, planning, history, geography, and other disciplines; but also for architects, planners, administrators and the general public, thus adding modernist heritage to the layers of history that continue to inspire Baghdad’s futures.

[I would like to thank Ghada Al Slik, Paul Jaskot, Caecilia Pieri, the participants of the seminar InVisu (INHA-CNRS) in Paris (April 18, 2017), and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on the draft version of this text.]

Manchester School of Architecture, “Large Data Architectural Research: Mapping Baghdad, 1956—2016”, Winter Semester 2016

  • Unit leader: Łukasz Stanek
  • Collaboration: Mazin Al Saffar
  • Advisors: Ghada Al Slik (University of Baghdad), Caecilia Pieri (Institut français du Proche-Orient)
  • Postproduction: Łukasz Stanek, Erika Mikulionyte, Viktor Petkov, Mahmud Tantoush
  • Students: Lamiaa Abouelala, Samuel Bland, James Daubeney, Michael Harrison, Afshin Khalife, Charlotte Mercan, Erika Mikulionyte, Matilde Miuzzi, Stephen Morris, Evagelia Nella, Viktor Petkov, Joseph Smithard, Adrian Wong, Joshua Pearson, Mahmud Tantoush
  • GIS support: Jonny Huck, Lune Geographic
  • Participants of the PhD seminar (co-funded by DH@manchester): Sana Al Naimi, Ula A. Khalel Merie, Mazin Al Saffar, Mohamad Al Taha


Ghada Al Slik, “Baghdad: Images and Memories,” in City of Mirages, Baghdad, from Wright to Venturi, edited by Pedro Azara (Barcelona: Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, 2008): 49-72.

Ghada Al Slik and Łukasz Stanek, “Baghdad School of Architecture,” Volume 45 (2015): 18–19.

Ghada Al Slik, “The Urban Growth of the City of Baghdad, 1958-2016”, lecture in the framework of the seminar “Large Data Architectural Research: Mapping Baghdad, 1958—2016”, Manchester, November 21, 2016.

Pedro Azara ed., City of Mirages, Baghdad, from Wright to Venturi (Barcelona: Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, 2008).

A. Chauhan, “Amanat Al Assima Housing,” Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects 2 (1991), 21-29.

Donald A. DeBats and Ian N. Gregory, “Introduction to Historical GIS and the Study of Urban History,“ Social Science History 35, no. 4, Special Issue: Historical GIS and the Study of Urban History (Winter 2011), 455-63.

Johanna Drucker, Graphesis. Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Ihsan Fethi, “Contemporary Architecture in Baghdad: Its Roots and Transition,” Process: Architecture 58 (1985), 112-32.

Ihsan Fethi, “Urban Conservation in Iraq: The Case for Protecting the Cultural Heritage of Iraq with Special Reference to Baghdad Including a Comprehensive Inventory of its Areas and Buildings of Historic or Architectural Interest,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Sheffield (1977).

Paul B. Jaskot; Anne Kelly Knowles; Andrew Wasserman; Stephen Whiteman; Benjamin Zweig, “Research-Based Model for Digital Mapping and Art History: Notes from the Field,“ Artl@s Bulletin 4:1 (2015), Article 5.

Andrzej Jędraszko, “Problemy urbanistyczne Bagdadu”, Miasto 2 (1962), 9-18.

Neil Levine, “Plan for the Expansion of Baghdad Anchored by a Cultural Center, 1957,” in The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright by Neil Levine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 334-84.

Miastoprojekt-Kraków, “Report on the Master Plan of Baghdad”, n.d., private archive, Kraków (Poland).

Wacław Ostrowski, Zespoły zabytkowe a urbanistyka (Warsaw: Arkady, 1980).

Caecilia Pieri, “Sites of Conflict: Baghdad’s Suspended Modernities versus a Fragmented Reality,” in Urban Design in the Arab World: Reconceptualizing Boundaries, edited by Robert Saliba (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015a): 199-212.

Caecilia Pieri, Bagdad: La construction d'une capitale moderne, 1914-1960 (Beiruth, Presses de l’Ifpo, 2015b).

Caecilia Pieri, “New Texts Out Now: Caecilia Pieri, Bagdad. La construction d'une capitale moderne, 1914-1960,” Jadaliyya (2015c).   

Panayiota Pyla, “Baghdad's Urban Restructuring, 1958. Aesthetics and Politics of Nation Building,” in Modernism and the Middle East. Architecture and Politics in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sandy Isenstadt and Kishwar Rizv (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008): 97-115.

Łukasz Stanek, “Miastoprojekt Goes Abroad. Transfer of Architectural Labor from Socialist Poland to Iraq (1958-1989),” The Journal of Architecture (London) 17, no. 3 (2012), 361-86.

Łukasz Stanek, “Architecture in the World Socialist System,” Keynote talk at the conference "Theory’s History 196X – 199X: Challenges in the Historiography of Architectural Knowledge", Brussels, February 8, 2017.

Richard J.A. Talbert and Tom Elliot, “New Windows on the Peutinger Map of the Roman World” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles (ESRI Press: Redlands, CA, 2008): 199-218.

Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” Spatial History Project (2010).  

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