Spring Studio with Iraqi University Aims to “Bridge the Gap”


Gensler-UMD partnership will pair students from UMD and Al-Nahrain University in first-ever architecture international design studio

This spring, a cross-cultural studio will connect students from seemingly different ways of life to discover how much they actually have in common. “Bridging the Gap,” a design studio sponsored by Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office, will pair graduate students from the University of Maryland’s architecture program with fourth year students from Al-Nahrain University in Baghdad, Iraq. Despite decades of conflict, war is not the narrative for the new studio. Rather, it’s about changing perceptions and bridging the distance, cultural and racial gaps that exist over two continents, fueling a cultural understanding and global perspective.


The idea behind the studio initially sprouted from a misconception. Zahraa Alwash, an Iraqi-born architect working for Gensler, and local architect, Marlene Shade, who is Associate Principle at Dewberry and past president of the NOVA AIA Chapter, were interested in connecting with architects in Baghdad to learn how war has affected the contemporary culture and architecture in Iraq. The response surprised her; Iraqis are, and have been, ready to move past the war, and Baghdad, while owning a unique identity, wrestles with the same issues found in most modern cities: poverty, sustainable development and racial and cultural segregation. For Zahraa, it shed light on a divide in information and perceptions of a place half a world away.


“Life is moving forward in Iraq.” said Zahraa I think there are some general misconceptions about life in Iraq —and on the flip side, life in the U.S.—that we thought would be an interesting basis for a studio.”


“Baghdad and Washington have much in common both in architecture and cityscape.” adds Ahmed Khalil, an architect at Gensler also working on the studio. “Most people know that Washington was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant; what is less known, is that his disciples took those European ideas and methods and applied them when planning Baghdad.”


The project will be the basis of ARCH 601 and will be co-led by UMD Professor Madlen Simon, AIA, an Al-Nahrain professor and Gensler architects Alwash, Khalil and JJ Rivers (UMD Alum, M.ARCH and MRED ’14). Using digital and video technology, as well as social media, a dozen students from Al-Nahrain University will tackle a design challenge in Washington and about a dozen students from UMD will take on a site in Baghdad. Together, they will explore the challenges they share and those unique to each culture, fostering greater communication and extending the relationship beyond the discipline. The studio also doubles as a design competition: by the project’s end, two students from each institution will join Gensler for an internship in their D.C. office next summer.


“This is not only an exciting way for students to use architecture as a medium to connect with their counterparts across the world, but a wonderful opportunity for Gensler as well,” said JJ Rivers, who explained that the project is part of a Gensler Innovation Fund, designed to fuel innovation and interesting projects, spearheaded by Gensler Principal and Managing Director Jordan Goldstein, AIA (ARCH Alum, B.S. Architecture ’94). “It’s a great way for us to stay connected to the University while exploring a very interesting topic with many talented students.”


“It’s an exciting opportunity for University of Maryland students to see our local urban issues through a cross-cultural lens and to learn about urban issues in a country that we know only through news reports ,” said Professor Simon. “And it’s a tremendous opportunity for our students to gain the cultural competencies that they will need to engage in global practice. I look forward to working with an international group of students and my faculty colleague in Baghdad.”


Students can enroll in ARCH 601 now. To learn more about the Bridging the Gap studio, contact Madlen Simon.

Posted on November 4, 2015 by David Cronrath