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Indoor sports hall at the French-designed gymnasium of Baghad.—AFP Photo

BAGHDAD: Designed by the famed architect Le Corbusier, built under Saddam Hussein then forgotten: such was the fate of a gym in Baghdad that Iraq now wants, with the help of France, to restore to its former stature.

Located in the east of the capital, the massive concrete structure has surprisingly withstood the decades of war, internecine fighting and sanctions that have hit the country.

Commissioned in 1957 by an Iraq that was then open and rich in oil, the Baghdad Gymnasium was at the time only a small part of a planned Olympic city.

Le Corbusier, who is considered one of the greatest architects of the 20th century and was at the height of his fame, designed the structure.

But the 1958 revolution, in which Iraq's monarchy was overthrown and leading officials including the king were killed, saw the project neglected. It was only completed in 1982, under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

It was finished years after the 1965 death of Le Corbusier under the guidance of one of his associates, Georges-Marc Presente, who ensured the strict application of Le Corbusier's clean, industrial, modernist principles.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was deeply involved in the project in Baghdad for which “around 500 drawings bear his personal signature,” said Mina Marefat, a Washington-based architecture historian who is an expert on Le Corbusier.

The architect went to Baghdad in 1957, then “was extremely disappointed” to learn that the project had been called into question the following year, Marefat said.

“The most surprising thing about Le Corbusier's Baghdad work is that it has received so little scholarly attention,” Marefat said.

Once completed, the Gymnasium hosted “generations of Iraqi athletes” -- basketball and volleyball players, gymnasts and a number of international competitions, said its current director Wasfi al-Kinani.

“For Iraqi sports, this is a historic inheritance, a symbol,” he said.

But its golden age was over by the 2000s. From 2003-2004, the Gymnasium was occupied by American soldiers. After their departure, opportunities for sport were dashed by the sectarian violence that swept the country.

Caecilia Pieri, a researcher for the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient (French Institute for the Near East), discovered the forgotten Gymnasium in 2005 while working on her thesis on modern architecture in Baghdad. She decided to contact the Le Corbusier Foundation in France.

New awareness about Iraq’s modern heritage

“It did not have any recent photos. This is a posthumous work, and researchers did not have access to Iraq. They did not even know if it was properly built, as they had never seen it,” Pieri said.

She has since made several visits, including one last May with the vice president of the Le Corbusier Foundation, Jacques Sbriglio.

The visit resulted in a French-Iraqi project that aims to raise the building's profile by publishing a book and holding a colloquium on the Gymnasium. In addition to Le Corbusier Foundation and the French Institute for the Near East, the project involves Baghdad University, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the French embassy.

Pieri, who from trip to trip has watched the architectural degradation of Baghdad thanks to violence, poverty and errors in reconstruction, now sees signs of what she calls a “small simmering” of change.

“After all this upheaval, we are witnessing the renaissance of new awareness about the (country's) modern heritage, and it can lead to similar movements, sparking positive momentum for other major modern buildings,” she said.

These include the finance ministry headquarters and Mustansiryia University, both of which Pieri calls “symbols for the visual identity and international image of Baghdad”. They show “that there was modern architecture of very high quality, with a specific Iraqi style,” she said.

But for now, nothing is simple.

The Gymnasium, under renovation for a year, is far from the clear-cut almost ascetic vision of its designer. Its seats are brightly coloured and the roof over the locker rooms, designed to allow in natural light, is blocked by a false ceiling holding overhead lights.

The perspective around the Gymnasium has also been crowded with newer constructions. But the building's exterior still holds Le Corbusier's motto: “Where order is born, well-being is born.”