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The End Of Ethics: Zaha Hadid’s Iraqi Parliament Design Gets the Go Ahead … Despite Finishing Third

“To win the Booker Prize you submit your book, not your brand. All architects have a stake in this outcome. It strikes at the root of what keeps architecture a vital, believable art.”

The words of Peter Besley, director at UK-based practice Assemblage, must have reverberated throughout the halls of the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s headquarters at Portland Place in the heart of London. They came as the firm’s winning entry for the new Iraqi Parliament building was overlooked in favor of Zaha Hadid’s third-placed design last month – a decision which has raised pressing questions, not only about the value of competitions as a legitimate selection process within architecture, but also about the role of politics within our profession.


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Assemblage winning proposal, via AAS Architecture

The original contest was run by the RIBA on behalf of the Iraqi authorities, and Assemblage was awarded first place in August 2012, picking up $250,000 in the process. In second place came the sculptural, rock-like forms of Capita Symonds, with ZHA’s proposal trailing in third. One juror described Hadid’s design as “very convoluted,” adding that “Alan Howarth [former architecture minister and member of the jury] was very clear that the design needed to be all about how MPs meet their constituents and how people get together — but her scheme threw everyone apart.”

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Assemblage's winning proposal, via AAS Architecture

Harsh words indeed – so it is no wonder that Assemblage might feel dazed and confused about how the selection process played out following their victory. The firm had been awarded an overall score of 88% by the jury for their striking design, a juxtaposition of cuboid and cylinder shaped forms linked by a broad avenue. The circular form is comprised of tapered fins, forming an elegant, perforated curve reminiscent of Rome’s iconic Colosseum.

The comparison with a building so synonymous with violence is tragically poignant at a time when the so-called Islamic State is reaking havoc in the north and west of Iraq. That fact has caused many to fundamentally question the political wisdom behind the decision to forge ahead with plans for a $1 billion dollar complex, when a humanitarian crisis looms once again for so many across the country. Should this kind of public project be put on hold in such dire circumstances, or is there a chance the construction of such a building could be viewed as a catalyst for peaceful political dialogue for generations to come? At present, the overriding consensus must surely lie with the former, but the project is being forced through nonetheless.

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Assemblage's winning proposal, via AAS Architecture

Aside from the architecture, the biggest criticism of all has pertained to opacity – from the moment Assemblage were announced as winners, the process has been cloaked in secrecy, with discussions behind closed doors leading to a complete turnaround. If you’re wondering why you have reached this stage of the article and still haven’t seen an image of ZHA’s chosen proposal, it’s because the design has never been released publicly … prominent home-born critic Ihsan Fethi complained roundly about this farcical reality in an email sent on behalf of the Iraqi Architects Society:

“I personally tried in vain so many times to even have a quick look at the design with no success. Of course this is contrary to the principle of transparency and it is absolutely unacceptable for us Iraqi architects, or any Iraqi citizen to that matter, to be prevented from seeing what their Parliament would look like. We absolutely have no idea.”

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Capita Symonds Proposal via BD Online

Such a lack of transparency will inevitably lead to accusations of corruption and political manipulation. The question is – should architects steer clear of commissions fraught with such complex moral issues? While Zaha Hadid has remained notably silent on this particular development, her position over other ethical quandaries might offer a hint as to her stance: she distanced herself from concerns surrounding the safety of workers building stadiums in Qatar, stating: “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government – if there’s a problem – should pick up… It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

While the disquiet regarding the selection process in Iraq is entirely different from that surrounding the workers in Qatar, both scenarios illustrate the architect’s ultimate dilemma when undertaking such vast commissions within an unstable context. And while Hadid has attempted to keep the profession isolated and focused purely on the design of form, she must surely face up to the fact that the built environment is perpetually entwined with ethics: key public buildings are the manifestation of a population’s identity, and the gravity of this fact means that socio-political issues will always follow in their wake.


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Zaha at the Signing Ceremony for the Project via BD Online

The Iraqi Parliament building holds a significance far beyond its built form – and the lack of clarity in its delivery up to this point only serves as a painful metaphor for the country’s ongoing identity crisis. Whether ZHA likes it or not, they too are now involved – and the building they have designed must stand as a symbol of future stability for the Iraqi people.

Is it possible for architecture of any kind to achieve such a feat? Only time will tell…

Yours transparently,

The Angry Architect


Images via: Architizer