Awarding a contract to one of the world’s most celebrated architects to design a landmark $1bn (£590m) building that, it’s hoped, will herald a new dawn for a country whose future appears in doubt should not be too controversial a decision.
Yet news that the Baghdad-born British architect Zaha Hadid has quietly signed a contract to create Iraq’s new parliament complex has caused a stir in the UK and Iraq, after her practice originally came third in the open competition that was supposed to decide the best design.
In the contest run by the Royal Institute of British Architects on behalf of the Iraqi authorities, Ms Hadid lost in August 2012 to a team led by the British design studio Assemblage, which included Adamson Associates, the executive architects for London’s Shard building.
There is now anger after it was revealed that Ms Hadid personally signed the contract to design the complex last month at the Iraqi embassy in London – with some in Iraq upset they have been unable to see the plans.
Assemblage director Peter Besley alleged that his team was “completely frozen out” by the Iraqis – despite being announced competition winners and receiving the $250,000 first prize.
Mr Besley told Building Design magazine: “Like many things in Iraq, they start off on the right foot but don’t carry it through with the transparency required.”
It had become increasingly clear last year there was reluctance to build his design – a cylindrical building surrounded by walls patterned to provide shade – and Mr Besley had questioned whether Ms Hadid’s Iraqi heritage automatically made her the natural choice of architect for the new parliament.
“Most new parliaments are by non-nationals. The message it would send the world could in fact be provincialism. Elsewhere in the arts, new winners emerging from left-field is taken for granted.
“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 decision has also now upset Iraqi observers, despite Ms Hadid’s status as the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize – the so-called Nobel Prize of architecture – with a track record of designing successful buildings including the London 2012 Olympics Aquatics Centre.
In an email sent by the Iraqi Architects Society, the critic Ihsan Fethi complained about the apparent secrecy surrounding the Hadid team’s design. “I tried so many times even to have a quick look at the design with no success,” he said.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for any Iraqi citizen to be prevented from seeing what their parliament would look like.”
Ms Hadid was unavailable for comment last night. But a spokesman for Ms Hadid’s practice has previously said it could still pursue the contract because “the rules allow for any of the submitted proposals to be selected for construction, irrespective of placement in the competition”.