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Our Man in Kurdistan
A New Urbanist Works to Rebuild a Shattered Culture in Iraq

You awake to sunlight on Qala, a 9,000-year-old hilltop citadel considered to be the longest continuously occupied settlement on earth. You carry a 9mm pistol to meetings. You are protected by armed fighters whose name means "those who face death." To the east, Iran is getting aggressive; to the north, Turkey has amassed 20,000 troops at the border.

The company you work for was brought into the region to build more than 10,000 flats for widows of war dead and homeless driven from thousands of villages destroyed by a tyrant who met his end at the most anticipated public execution of the 21st century. And the only source of funding that will truly allow you to recreate a town that is traditional and respectful of centuries-old culture is held up in Baghdad.

You are activist, carpenter, engineer and new urbanist Peter Swift, current resident of Erbil, Kurdish Regional Government, Iraq. And you face challenges that pale in comparison to a turbulent traffic meeting for a town center in Tacoma, Wash.

Swift, owner of Colorado-based Swift and Associates -- which remains active as a new urbanist town planning, civil and traffic engineering firm -- has the present position of director of town planning for Mid Atlantic Enterprises. Since 2005, he has been in northern Iraq in historic Kurdistan, an area dominated by the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries and destroyed by Saddam Hussein in recent decades.

"Generally, the recent architectural work here is bad -- even for modernism. This Mess-o'-potamian Crypto Bombast is legion," says the ever-cutting Swift.

"The urbanism is functional and diverse, however," he says. "We are trying to reintroduce a Kurdish architecture because most of this area has been wiped clean in 45 years of wars and conflicts. We've studied Kurdish social structure to get an understanding of how families function and how the buildings should respond."

Mid Atlantic Enterprises, with Swift in the driver's seat, has plans for a town center on 3 square miles of land, university housing, a new police academy and possibly a teaching hospital. If all goes according to plan, the firm eventually will create a new oasis in a harsh land, where temperatures can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit, making the desert sand as fine as talcum powder.

"There are a lot of people in government that are open to advanced ideas for sustainable development," he says. "The design concepts that we present are generally welcomed with open arms. This is an excellent opportunity to avoid mistakes of the past in dealing with developing nations."

Though he grew up in Cairo, it wasn't a familiarity with the Middle East that drew the 59-year-old Swift to the land of devastation, danger and days-old "fresh" food.

"I got tired of listening to the willfully ignorant and the poisonous rhetoric of the lame upper-middle and wealthy class in the States," he says. "The people here have life and death issues to deal with and don't give a [crap] about regulating roof pitches.

"Here was an opportunity to tackle important issues with smart people who wanted to reconstruct, for example, the 4,000 villages destroyed by Saddam. The regional culture, including building and urban form, was obliterated and there is a strong desire to bring those elements back after 45 years of conflict and war.

"Certainly, members of the CNU have a battle dealing with the aftereffects of Katrina, but they are facing the same silly arguments, for example, of lot size and big streets," Swift says. "This grossly simplifies the problem, and there have been some significant advancements, but in Iraq we have a society that has a strong desire to reestablish their historic vernacular and urbanism with the best modern tools offered."

Swift wants his work with the Kurds to capture something largely lost in America: history and craftsmanship.

"When we look back at the early 20th century, a lot of the work was done by craftsmen that did these amazing things with their hands, not their heads," he says. "A lot of things back then didn't have specific drawings; the craftsmen simply knew how to do it. If we hadn't lost that, we'd have an architecture by the people."

In Iraq, Swift remains focused on a journey he believes will last another three or four years, in an oil-rich nation where gasoline is astronomically expensive and the electricity is on just three hours a day. As for the perils of working in perpetually conflict-ridden territory, Swift is characteristically piercing in his observations.

"I carry a 9mm Tariq pistol around to meetings most of the time, but it is generally very secure here," he says. "If I work back in the States again, I'd like to pack that 9mm in meetings with traffic engineers. That ought to snap their heads out of their butts pretty quick."