Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Baghdad’s Architectural Changes: A Lost Identity

Baghdad’s loss of identity after the 2003 invasion has significantly influenced the state’s architectural transformations.

Baghdad, 2022. The difference in Iraqi houses before (right) and after (left) the country’s housing crisis.

Dina M. Abdulrazzaq

Iraq‘s Architectural identity changed drastically following the 2003 invasion. The post-war urban landscape has influenced and raised several questions regarding urbanism that the team at Fanack tries to tackle as it monitors changes in urbanism across the MENA region.

Here, we provide an overview of Baghdad’s architectural changes, their influence on public preferences, how they relate to social and economic class and how these changes affect the quality of life.


Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Empire and the centre of Arab-Islamic civilisation for centuries. It was a cultural melting pot that represented the natural growth of the Islamic Empire in many aspects of life, including its remarkable architecture. However, a series of crises, conflicts and neglect have gradually eroded Baghdad’s architectural identity.

This article investigates the modifications that were made to houses in Baghdad over the past two decades. The purpose is to draw attention to the value of its architectural identity, outline the architectural issues and violations the city has experienced since 2003, explain the factors that contributed to the growth of informality in Baghdad’s neighbourhoods and examine the impact of these aspects on the city’s quality of life and living standards.


Baghdad’s cultural and architectural identity crisis has affected public preferences and escalated visual pollution.

Throughout history, Iraq’s capital has been characterised by appealing designs and structures influenced by Baghdad’s cultural heritage. Residential neighbourhoods used to be architecturally attractive and followed building and planning codes.

The destruction in Baghdad during the war was mainly limited to public infrastructure and government buildings. Although some residential areas and monuments also suffered damage, unlike other big cities in Iraq, such as Mosul, Baghdad has survived the conflicts since 2003 relatively intact.

However, the years following the war have not been kind to the city’s unique and historic character, which has gradually started to fade.

Traditional architecture in residential neighbourhoods has given way to fragmented housing units, driven by the emergence of informal construction activity. Today, the majority of Baghdad’s new buildings are of poor construction and design.

Baghdad is now caught in a spiralling cyclone of chaos and deterioration resulting from a lack of quality control, poor management and inadequate planning over the previous two decades.
The main focus of this article is the city’s architecture and identity.

It will look at how historic Baghdadi houses with attractive architectural designs are disappearing to be replaced by new structures that negatively impact the city’s appearance.

The changing landscape of Baghdad’s houses

Buildings play a significant role in every society. Besides serving the fundamental purpose of providing shelter and a place for different activities, architecture also reflects a community’s culture, legacy and wealth and impacts the environment.

The increasing demand for residences in Baghdad caused a sharp change in the city’s architectural style. Over the years, the city’s neighbourhoods lost their original architectural heritage style and gave way to informal buildings. The changes in architectural style from the late 19th century until today will be explored in more detail below.

The traditional Baghdadi house from 1880 to 1958

Baghdad’s traditional houses focused on the interior. The houses usually consist of two floors. The ground floor is dominated by a square or rectangular courtyard surrounded by rooms and an Iwan, a square room or hall that usually is vaulted, enclosed on three sides, and has one entirely open end. The first floor contains rooms connected by a corridor surrounding a large open courtyard that allows for light and ventilation.

The facade of traditional houses is less interesting from a visual perspective since the interior design is given more attention. The facade is a simple brick wall that often only contains the entrance door and a few wooden windows that open to the street.

These windows are frequently accompanied by Shanashol, or Mashrabiya, a projecting window covered by often elaborately carved woodwork. This provides one-way visibility so that residents can look outside, but strangers in the street cannot look inside.

The dominant colours of Baghdad’s urban design are the pale yellow of Iraqi bricks and the brown wooden Shanashol windows with their gorgeously coloured glass.

The old Baghdadi house deals with weather changes in a remarkable way. The central courtyard has thick walls that keep the cool nighttime air inside. Additionally, there is often a substantial difference in temperature between the inside and the outside that sometimes exceeds 20 degrees.

This is the result of the houses’ attachment to one another on three sides, limited external windows and the use of underground basements and air tunnels.

It is important to note that the history of the old Baghdadi houses is a continuation of residential architecture dating back to the Abbasid era. The influence of Ottoman architecture on these houses was limited and is mostly visible in the architecture of mosques instead.

Moreover, the primary building materials in traditional houses were brick and wood, which carried over from the Abbasid era. The impact of Ottoman architecture was limited to the expansion of the use of wood on the second floor and the introduction of decorative elements.

Despite the importance of preserving Baghdad’s architectural heritage and its identity, a large number of Iraq’s traditional houses have been damaged by war and terrorist attacks, and sadly many are neglected and poorly maintained.

The picture shows a traditional Baghdadi house in one of Baghdad’s old historic neighborhoods. (Photo by © Françoise De Mulder / Roger-Vi / Roger-Viollet via AFP)

The Western-style villas from 1958 to 2003

After World War I, Baghdad’s traditional architecture and urban layout experienced significant changes. This became more pronounced following World War II due to the city’s position as the country’s capital and hub of many activities.

Most of the houses constructed in Baghdad during this period had only one or two floors and stood out for their simple and elegant design. Each house had a private garden in the front or back, surrounded by a low fence. Unlike the traditional Baghdadi houses, these houses were oriented outwards rather than inwards towards a courtyard.

The government originally introduced this villa-type design, influenced by Western middle-class residences, as a standard house for locals. The house was placed centrally on the plot, while the remaining space was used for setbacks, gardens and garages.

Remarkably, these villa-style houses had large glass windows that opened to the outside since the surrounding gardens were big enough to provide the family with privacy. As a result, the Shanashol or Mashrabiya was no longer required.

Baghdad Architecture
The picture shows a modern villa-style house in Baghdad in 2022. In contrast to the old Baghdadi house’s architecture, which was oriented toward the inner courtyard, the new house is outwards. This design was generally influenced by Western houses.

Undefined-design houses, from 2003 until now

Over the past two decades, Iraqi cities, and Baghdad in particular, have been experiencing a growing housing problem as a result of the country’s rapid population growth, internal migration and the slow progress of housing programmes.

This has created a high demand for existing houses and pressure to decrease the floor space of available housing. Random house designs started to take off when landowners began to divide and sell off parts of their properties, often for financial reasons. In some instances, families divide the house to accommodate the needs of their children and growing families to provide independence without having to buy new houses.

Therefore, owners began to extensively subdivide their housing units. Without consideration of construction laws, houses that initially ranged in size from 200 m2 to 800 m2 were divided into small residences not exceeding 50 m2 per unit.

As a result, many homes currently violate numerous construction regulations, including those related to front and side setbacks, permissible building area, legal height, number of stories and construction on private gardens and parking spots. This dynamic has increased the pressure on urban infrastructure, creating a potentially unsafe urban environment in the capital.

Moreover, these practices greatly influence residential district planning and architecture and could lead to the quick transformation of a house from a spacious 300 m2 into six small units. They could lead to a house being transformed from a spacious 300 m2 into six little units in a short period of time. As a result, the property’s single entrance is often replaced by six individual improvised doors.

Since most citizens do not have the means to hire architects and professionals during the construction and design processes, these buildings have appeared all over the city. The emergence of these architectural violations and countless little entrances has significantly impacted the aesthetic character of the city, giving it an informal appearance.

The photograph shows the construction’s urban violations, ignoring setbacks, encroaching on the sidewalk and subdividing the dwelling into four small houses by constructing on the space allocated for the garden and garage. Baghdad, 2022.

Residential buildings and gated communities

The first significant step toward addressing the housing crisis in Baghdad is taking shape in a residential complex known as Bismayah City, located 10 kilometres southeast of the capital. After a decline in construction and development activities of over 20 years, this project is considered the first of its kind in the capital.

It is one of the largest housing developments in Iraq, comprising 100,000 homes, and will accommodate nearly 600,000 people. Work on the project’s construction began in 2013 and is still ongoing.

The project sparked debate around Baghdad’s architecture, which had suffered two crises: the economic crisis that completely stopped the country’s reconstruction process, and the crisis resulting from many years of war, insecurity and limited education that has adversely affected creativity, and the exposure to and implementation of global architectural innovations.

The project sets a standard in terms of infrastructural services and living standards much better than those available in residential neighbourhoods in the capital. However, the project’s architectural design and change to vertical construction continue to raise questions. The Bismayah City project, with its tall residential buildings, does not align with Baghdad’s architectural characteristics and does not represent the city’s identity.

Unfortunately, Iraq’s architecture suffers from identity loss due to the influence of Western architectural movements and modern architecture on the majority of today’s young architects in the city. As a result, building projects that incorporate the concepts of local identity, whether during the design process or in the final product, are in short supply.

Images from Bismayah City in Baghdad, 2022, illustrate the new urban movement in the city that uses vertical development to address the housing crisis and adopts an apartment system rather than a villa system.


There is an urgent need to educate people on the importance and value of local identity in all its forms. Moreover, it is essential to document the architectural heritage because of its legacy and crucial role in creating and maintaining the characteristics of local identity.

Updated and improved education, aiding in increasing students’ understanding of the value of regional architecture, is also critical, particularly in university courses on architectural identity and its development. Above all, the government must first emphasise the importance of enacting and implementing laws that help stop building violations and the erosion of the identity of one of the most important historic cities in the world.

Finally, it is imperative to develop plans and solutions to the housing crisis and to expand the city to accommodate its growing population. This can be achieved by delivering new housing projects that take into account the Iraqi climate, people’s social and cultural backgrounds, and the city’s traditional and unique architectural identity.


Rabee, M. (2020). Fragmentation of residential units in Baghdad city. Al-Adab Journal, 1(132), 159-184.

Akram, O. K., Ismail, S., Alberta, N., Yunos, M. Y., Ismail, N., & Ariffin, N. M., 2015. The Important Values of Architectural Baghdadi Heritage. Adv. Environ. Biol., 9(24), 46-52, 2015.

Agha, R. k., 2017. Adaptations in Traditional Courtyard Houses in Baghdad, Iraq. International Journal of Building Pathology and Adaptation 2017, 35(4), 348- 363.

Al-Dawji M., Taha S. , Al-Singer H., 2018. The spatial identity of the housing environment in the trends of contemporary Iraqi architecture and its reflection on the academic architectural output.

Ali, Sh., Yildirim, M., 2020. The Cyclical Evolution of Patterns in Housing in Arab Cities and the Impact of Modernity: A Case Study of Baghdad. Journal of Science. GU J Sci, Part B, 8(3): 681-694 (2020).


The effects of the housing crisis and house division alter the city’s civilized appearance of the capital.

Al-Azzawi, S., 2014. Baghdad’s Architectural Heritage.

Our building, from Baghdad to Bismayah.

user placeholder
written by
Kawthar Metwalli
All Kawthar Metwalli articles