Designing Parliament: The Architectural Icon of a New Iraq

The future site of Iraq's parliament where the reinforced concrete columns of a mosque commissioned by Saddam Hussein remain. Hussein intended the mosque to be the largest in the Middle East. (Photo: Council of Representatives, Technical Committee for the Architectural Competition to design Council's Premises)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Iraqi government has invited a select group of international and regional architects to submit designs for its future multi-million dollar parliament. Set to rise on the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s failed mosque project, the structure is billed as an embodiment of a new sovereign Iraq, but will it live up to Baghdad’s rich yet turbulent architectural history?

The future site of Iraq’s parliament resembles a post-apocalyptic movie set. Situated in western Baghdad on a plot of land the size of over 20 soccer fields, dozens of reinforced concrete columns arranged in a hexagonal shape shoot 50 meters into the sky, supporting nothing but air. Saddam Hussein held four international competitions over two decades to build the Middle East’s largest mosque and these columns are all that remain; construction on the mosque stopped after the 2003 US invasion.

Now, the site is at the center of an international competition to design a new Iraqi parliament. In December 2011, Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Usama al-Nujaifi invited about 30 international and regional architectural firms to Baghdad’s Ishtar hotel. Representatives from firms like Zaha Hadid and Assemblage gathered in the aging hotel as Nujaifi gave a briefing on what will be one of Iraq’s most symbolic – and costly – building projects since the US invasion.

The Iraqi parliament and the Ministry of Housing and Construction have issued only general directives for the design. Foremost, the complex should “reflect the power of the elected legislative body on behalf of the people,” reads the document given to those invited to submit designs. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The complete short list of firms in the running has been “closely guarded,” according to Building Design Online, which published the identities of a few firms in January 2011. Architects will submit their designs for the parliamentary complex, which is set to include gardens and residences, by June 2012.

Alaa Maan, the Baghdad branch manager of Dewan architectural firm, said that the designs will then be judged by a panel of architects and academics. Dewan is considering a design that would evoke “the old Greek tradition that would bring together the people and represent the new Iraq,” according to Maan.

Other firms are grappling with how to handle the site’s massive concrete columns. “The competing companies can either start working from the existing infrastructure or they can change it, but they’re not restricted by it,” said Ali al-Rubaiee, a structural engineer for Maktab al-Khan, who is working with the London-based firm Assemblage on the project.

The high-profile firm of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid declined to comment on their vision for the design, but it’s unlikely to stray too far from the “architecture of excess” for which she is best known. Yet Hadid’s inclusion on the short list hints at both the Iraqi government’s expansive vision for the parliament, as well as its deep pockets. A design from a firm like Hadid’s would most likely cost over US$100 million and initial speculations suggest that the Iraqi government is willing to pay top dollar for its headquarters.

Several news outlets reported that the parliament allocated a billion dollars for this mega project – a number that couldn’t be independently confirmed – but the actual price tag won’t be determined until the final plan is selected. According to a document given to competing firms by the Iraqi parliament, the winner of the competition will receive US$250,000 and the runners-up will receive prizes of US$150,000 and US$100,000.

Previous Iraqi parliament buildings have had far less illustrious histories. In the 1950s, the original Iraqi parliament was designed in the neoclassical style by a British architect, but was squatted and looted in 2003. The current Iraqi parliament convenes at the Baghdad Convention Center inside the Green Zone, but the center was attacked by a suicide bomber in 2007, killing eight people. The new parliament will perhaps signal a break with its predecessors; it’s located well outside the Green Zone, a move that Caecilia Pieri, head of the Urban Observatory at the French Institute of the Near East in Beirut, sees as meaningful.

“It’s absolutely legitimate that the government wants to build symbolic tools for a new kind of rule and a new kind of country, especially after years and years of dictatorship,” said Pieri, who is a specialist in modern Iraqi architecture.

Pieri sees the urban legacy of Saddam Hussein extending beyond the kitsch monuments he commissioned, like the clam-shaped Tomb of the Unknown Soldier built by Italian architect Marcello D’Olivo. She sees it in the barren landscape created by Hussein’s uprooting of palm trees, which subsequently left buildings exposed to “dust from violent desert winds.”

Yet nothing compares to the havoc wreaked on Baghdad’s urban fabric by the past eight years of US air strikes and incursions, not to mention the first Gulf War. Landmarks of Baghdad’s skyline – like the towering telecommunications building designed by renowned Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji – were blackened and hollowed out at the onset of the 2003 occupation, with even more iconic buildings destroyed over time.

In fact, much of Iraq’s modern history has been filtered through the destruction and rebuilding of its monuments and iconic structures – a process that often overshadows the country’s enduring, but eclectic, architectural history. In the 1950s, Baghdad would initiate its relationship with modernist architecture in one of the most progressive architectural moves of the period. The Iraq Development Board, established in 1950 to use Iraq’s oil wealth for development, reached out to the preeminent figures of architectural modernism like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius to help transform Baghdad into an international capital. “Iraq was at the forefront of this international architectural exuberance of getting the best of the best,” said Mina Marefat, an architectural historian at Georgetown University.

“Iraq played an important part in the course of modern design and design as an international practice. This is not Dubai. This is not a fly by night kind of place where it suddenly mushrooms into something,” said Marefat, who has written extensively on both Wright and Gropius in Baghdad. “This is a city that has a very long and illustrious history, but also a long history with international exchange of architects.”

The architects submitted ambitious plans, with the founder of the Bauhaus movement Walter Gropius being the only one to fully realize his vision with the University of Baghdad Campus. Le Corbusier’s gymnasium, which included a plan for a wave pool stretching out to the Tigris, would be built only after his death, but without the wave pool and with a new name: Saddam Hussein Gymnasium. Wright’s opera house was never constructed.

This wasn’t some invasion of Western architects, but instead part of an Iraqi government initiative that sought to solidify a national identity via architecture in the capital. “Iraq had been under the British mandate and second-tier British architects had dominated the designs,” said Marefat. “These young Iraqi architects were trying to break the tradition of the British monopoly over architecture.”

While modernist architecture is often associated with being overly Western and unadaptive to local environments, Iraqi architects like Chadirji, Qahtan al-Midfai (who designed the Ministry of Finance), and Qahtan Awni made the style their own, according to Pieri.

Decades later, in 1982, Hussein would launch an international competition of his own in search of a design for the country’s state mosque, but without the same fanfare accorded to the 1950s burst of exchange. The remnants of Hussein’s competition now sit abandoned at the site of the future Iraqi parliament.

Pieri envisions the new parliament as a modernist undertaking, but with a return to the elements that have been lost in wars and dictatorship. She sees a return to a palette that was once a staple of Baghdad, one “of beige, pale green, pale grey; of the palm tree, the eucalyptus, and the sun.”

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