Fifty miles from Mosul’s front line sits a sprawling complex of residential homes in the suburbs of Irbil, the capital of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Spread in rows like little ornate white boxes, these opulent villas contrast not only with the surrounding environment but Western cliches about the Middle East, says photographer Eugenio Grosso.
Grosso’s series “Irbil White House” explores the often-ostentatious architecture of the homes built inside the gated residential complex Dream City. “I went for dinner to Dream City the first night after I moved to Kurdistan and was immediately fascinated by the architectures of the white houses,” Grosso told In Sight. “I also liked to see how elements from the Western culture and classic Greek architecture were mixed together. I thought that I might have found those kinds of villas everywhere else in the world but didn’t expect to find them in that region.”
Who lives in these homes? Grosso says that some are inhabited by locals but mostly by international residents. Some of the homes are vacant because they are too expensive and the conflict nearby halted the once booming economy, he said. According to a 2014 article from NPR, one of the homes belongs to Kurdish business tycoon Shihab Shihab, who modeled the exterior of his home after the White House.
“I wanted a house people would talk about,” Shihab told NPR. “I wanted to create a new landmark that rivals the citadel. And I think if you have money you should live in luxury.”
While the exterior might look like 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the lavish interior, complete with Italian tiles and 21-karat gold leaf treatment on the ceiling, the columns and the grand staircase’s banisters, is another level of luxury.
This lux lifestyle surprised Grosso:
“I was impressed by those houses because of the stereotypes about Iraq I had and didn’t think I could find that kind of villa in that environment,” Grosso said. “I guess that the series would be much less impressive for locals because it would not be a surprise for them to see those houses in Irbil or anywhere else in the Middle East. I believe that this difference matters because it shows how our beliefs and knowledge affect the way we perceive and react to reality.”
“I think that the series shows a different but still real aspect of Irbil and Kurdistan which is often forgotten or ignored, the fact that, even though the war is just less than 100 km away, there is much more than that and Irbil is a normal city where people have normal lives and businesses. The process of Westernization which Kurdistan is undergoing is changing the region’s face and, as in any other developing country, there are people who get richer and richer while others struggle just to support their families.”