Photographer Eugenio Grosso moved from London to Kurdistan four months after the battle of Mosul began. But rather than join his colleagues on the battlefield, he chose to stay behind in the Kurdish capital of Erbil and explore Dream City.
Beyond the heavily armed gates of this affluent community lie hundreds upon hundreds of gaudy, western-style mansions that celebrate the decadence and affluence of Kurdistan’s elites. These enormous villas—each covering at least 3,000 square feet, with at least four bathrooms—are “characterized by attributes not found in homes built outside the city,” the developer boasts.
The self-contained community provides every amenity a wealthy family could want, including schools, high-end shopping, and a pizza joint. It was the promise of a hot slice that drew Grosso to Dream City on the very night he arrived to ferret out stories in the region. Before eating a “really strange-tasting” Iraqi version of a margherita pizza, he strolled through the development, surprised to find such opulent estates. “It impressed me because it was unexpected,” he says. “I didn’t think that in that part of the world there were villas like those.”
So began his fascinating series Erbil White Houses. Grosso visited Dream City 10 times in February, wandering the residential streets for a couple hours before dusk with his Fuji X100t. He found the neighborhood quiet, almost deserted but for security guards, construction workers, and the occasional resident emerging from a home to slip into a car. “People don’t walk there,” Grosso says. “They just get in their car to go get shisha or tea or dinner.”
His images highlight Dream City’s most ostentatious structures. Many are jarring collisions of architectural styles, combining Greek columns and porticos with modern touchs like gleaming panels of glass. A home owned by Kurdish businessman Shihab Shihab replicates the exterior of the White House. Grosso wandered by a house still under construction, and the workers invited him in to have a look. “I told them that the house they were working on was beautiful and they replied that it could be President Trump’s house,” Grosso says. “Or, at least that’s what I understood from our little chat as they were repeating ‘Trump, Trump’ while pointing out at the house.”
Some mansions remain unfinished, their progress stalled by the ongoing war. “They started building these when the economy was booming, but when ISIS came it slowed down and they couldn’t manage to sell them,” Grosso says.
Speaking of the war, Grosso eventually made it to the front lines, but found he much preferred exploring Erbil and how people live during warfare. “I thought it was good to show a different aspect of the Middle East, one I didn’t expect to find,” he says. Erbil White Houses captures the universal desire and pursuit of ‘the good life,’ even as a war rages just 50 miles away.