By the time Landmark Mall in Alexandria, Va., closed last year, the car-centric shopping hub had long been declining, as one store after another went dark. Across the globe, a market in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad suffered a much more sudden and lethal blow in 2016 when Isis detonated a massive car bomb there, killing more than 200 people.

Could the two abandoned sites of commerce—victims of dramatically different crises—be reinvigorated by those living in the opposite country? 

That’s the question students at the University of Maryland and Baghdad’s Al-Nahrain University teamed up to answer in a joint architecture studio course called “Bridging the Gap,” now in its second semester. 

Architects from the firms Gensler and Dewberry approached UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation with the idea to have students from the two countries reimagine each other’s sites. It was born “out of a conviction that we need to have better cultural understanding between the U.S. and Iraq,” says Associate Professor Madlen Simon, who leads the studio, funded by the university’s Global Classrooms Initiative. 

For the course, Simon’s graduate students from Maryland and undergraduates from Al-Nahrain University, led by Professor Shaimaa Hussain Alahbabi, communicated with each other over Facebook, video conferencing and a specially built website.

The studio centered on the theme of marketplaces “because that’s really about exchange of goods, exchange of ideas, exchange of foods—a kind of cultural exchange,” says Simon. 

The challenge for the Iraqi students in reviving a dead mall, Simon says, was to “understand what the mall represented in American culture, how that’s changed, and then to participate with us in envisioning a new future for these kind of ubiquitous, suburban landscapes.” 

The American students faced a similar challenge of learning about the Karrada market’s cultural place in Baghdad, with the added difficulty of understanding what the market looked like without much help from government websites, Google Street View or other online sources. 

Students appreciated the chance to learn “how we are so different but also so alike at the same time,” says Dalia Raad, an Iraqi student who participated in the studio in its first semester. “It helped us to understand each other’s perspective, to learn from each other, to get to know new design techniques and learn more about architecture styles and interests in a different weather, culture and language.”

The students from Raad’s semester got some less lofty lessons in cultural exchange, too. The Al-Nahrain students taught the Americans how to make klecha, a traditional Iraqi cookie, and the Maryland students shared pointers on making an American classic: grilled cheese sandwiches.