An architectural puzzle: Why is Zaha Hadid building the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad?

Although her entry only came third in the competition, Dame Zaha has been offered the top prize - how come?

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It should come as no surprise that Iraqi-born Dame Zaha Hadid is to design the new £630 million home for the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad.

But what is surprising is that, having gone to the trouble of asking the Royal Institute of the British Architects to hold a design competition for the project, the Iraqis decided to give the plum job to Dame Zaha – although her entry only came third. There has still been no official announcement, nor have the winning schemes been exhibited in public, as the competition rules outlined.

The unavoidable question must be, why hold a competition at all? After all, the international starchitect is already designing the Central Bank of Iraq tower, and is also likely to design the new Iraq National Museum. This in the spite of the fact that, although born in Baghdad to Mohammed Hadid, leader of the opposition National Democratic Party in the 1950s, the 63-year-old has not visited the country in more than 30 years, Bloomberg tells us.

Appointing Dame Zaha, feted for her Olympics Aquatic Centre, outright would have saved the Iraqis the controversy which has now erupted, as architects Assemblage and Capita Symonds, whose entries came first and second, both confirmed they had not been contacted by the client since the competition’s conclusion.

Another puzzle is the apparent sanguinity of the RIBA, whose former president Sunand Prasad was also a competition judge.  “Obviously we selected a winner, therefore we would like to have seen it”, he told the Architects Journal. “But the client reserved the right to pick any of the top three and they have gone ahead and done that.”

For the competititon winners, Assemblage, the project could have been a career break, something Zaha does not need. Peter Besley of Assemblage said: “Given what happened in Cardiff, [where Hadid was outraged when her competition-winning opera house was refused funding] people are very surprised Zaha did not step aside”.

Zaha herself insist that “to our knowledge, no contract has been awarded and we await the client’s announcement of which scheme they intend to progress.”  But she has not denied press reports that her practice is the only one the Iraqis are in touch with.

In addition to her gong, Dame Zaha has won endless awards, including two stirling prizes and a Pritzker, the architectural equivalent of thr Nobel Prize. Yet in a recent interview in the Observer she complained that society” was not equipped to allow professional women to have children and then go back to work. This from an unmarried multi-millionaire, much feted by the establishment and idolised by the profession.

Still she insists that things are bad and getting worse, and describes the UK industry as “male-dominated”. She insists that women need more support and encouragement and recently noted that “When I taught, all my best students were women. Then they all drift off.”

But how many of these best students “drift off”to work for Zaha Hadid? Well, of a total of 263 qualified architects she employs around the world.  88 are female employees, which is not quite a third.

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