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 remains today.
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 in Washington, DC, from her remarkable brain for the US veterans of that war.
Frank Gehry dreamed 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 a US-reordered Middle East.
We’re talking, of course, about the still-uncompleted US Embassy, the largest on the planet, being constructed on a 42-hectare 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 Web site): “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 has 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 United Nations sanctions.
Who can forget those vast, sculptured 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 US-based journalist 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 underground.”
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 a US embassy, the newly arrived occupation officials chose – are you surprised? – one of Saddam’s 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 US 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.