Paramount Theatre/Boston, MA

The Boston Globe

April 23, 2010 Friday

NEWS; Metro; Pg. 1

Answering Baghdad’s call to save legacy; Landmarks architect shares preservation tips

By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff

In American eyes, Boston is an old and venerable city. But to much of the world, the self-dubbed Hub of the Universe is a precocious adolescent.

No matter. When the Iraqi government went hunting for advice on how to protect the remnants of history in the cradle of civilization, officials called a Boston preservationist much more familiar with Faneuil Hall than the millennia-old wonders of Babylon.

That call went to Gary Russell, staff architect for the Boston Landmarks Commission, who recently returned from a weeklong conference in Baghdad, where concerned Iraqis and professional preservationists brainstormed about how to save the nation’s heritage while its battered city centers are reimagined, redesigned, and rebuilt.

“There is a lot of passion from Iraqi officials and scholars in preserving their history,” Russell said. “This is something that Iraqis are very interested in.”

But how to reach that goal while worrying about everyday basics, such as safe streets and reliable electricity, is much more problematic than protecting a building in Boston.

“The Iraqis seem to be very much in love with democracy and the thinking that the people should participate, but I’m not sure they understand the complexity,” Russell said.

Iraq has nearly no experience with the kind of grass-roots process that generally determines what is saved in the United States and what meets the wrecking ball. And what is considered valuable in American thinking might be just another collection of bricks and mortar in Baghdad.

Boston’s historical expertise attracted the organizers of the conference, which drew more than 2,000 scholars, preservation specialists, and Iraqi officials such as Prime Minister Nuri Kamil al-Maliki. The conference, which began March 22, culled the advice of preservationists from countries as diverse as Japan, Britain, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, and the Czech Republic, in addition to Russell.

This attention, despite the continuing threat of violence and the ongoing burden of nation-building, is seen by many Iraqis and Americans there as one small step toward normalcy. Seven years ago, shortly after the American-led invasion, many Iraqis and US troops stood aside as priceless treasures were brazenly looted from museums.

Russell, who reviews design proposals for the Landmarks Commission, was invited to Baghdad by what amounted to a cold call. The way Russell recalls the conversation, the invitation went something like this: “Hey, there’s a conference. Do you want to come?”

The voice belonged to Mehmed Ali, a Lowell native and former National Park Service employee in his hometown who is an outreach adviser for the US Embassy in Baghdad. Ali was familiar with the work of the Boston Landmarks Commission and thought Russell would be a good fit. Baghdad picked up the tab.

While in Iraq, Russell and other participants also took short trips to visit the holy Shiite city of Karbala and the ruins of ancient Babylon.

“Gary brought his ideas of public participation in the preservation process, and that’s something that needs refinement in Iraq,” said Ali, whose office is in the former Green Zone in Baghdad. “There’s a tendency in Iraq to say, `Here are the preservation professionals and public input should be limited.’ ”

After Iraq’s long history of top-down rule, the idea of weaving block-by-block input into the preservation process is bewildering. What will be protected as Iraq rebuilds? Who will decide? How will the public influence those choices? Who has the final say? And how will the process be written into law?

“Iraq has been closed off to the world community and the world of knowledge for about three decades, so almost anybody who’s done some work in the preservation field can offer a lot here,” Ali said.

As an example of building anew while respecting the past, Russell told the conference about the Paramount Theatre in downtown Boston. Built in 1932 as an Art Deco movie house and recently refurbished as part of Emerson College’s $92 million Paramount Center, the theater shows how a contemporary structure can highlight its original grandeur, Russell said.

“It’s a good example for Iraqis that they can still adapt things with new buildings and save their historic fabric,” Russell said. “There’s so much of a focus in Iraq on antiquities that there’s a possibility that more-modern history can get lost in new development.”

For Jeremy Wells, the principal city planner for Denver, such a possibility is important because much of Baghdad was constructed from the 1930s through the 1950s. Although the city dates from 700 AD, little is left that predates the 20th century.

“A number of Iraqis told me there was a vacuum of ideas on how to treat their more recently built heritage,” said Wells, who also attended the conference. “One of the main aspects of the conference was how those places should be treated.”

Russell said he is optimistic that Iraq will work hard to protect its history while recovering from the trauma of Saddam Hussein’s regime, economic sanctions, war, and sectarian violence. The potential roadblock he sees, however, is corruption, which could hinder the process in a society long accustomed to personal enrichment at public expense, he said.

Still, Russell left the conference impressed. “I do think there will be some tangible impact,” he said.

Ali echoed that forward-looking sentiment.

“The grass-roots preservation mentality, I think, will take time to build. But there is a core group of people who are fervent about preserving their past,” Ali said. “This was really the first time in a while that you could have some honest discussion on these things. And to our perspective, that’s democracy in action.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at b_macquarrie@ globe.com.

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