An assembly by Assemblage? Iraq plans $1bn parliament building

London practice’s competition-winning design faces challenge from third-placed rival, Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid

‘Collegiate campus': the winning scheme by Assemblage architects. Image: Assemblage

It has been a bumpy start to 2013 for Iraq‘s fledgling government. Its parliament is on the brink of being dissolved, potentially plunging the country back into infighting and civil war, according to reports earlier this month; the president, Jalal Talabani, is in Germany for treatment after a stroke; one of the two vice-presidents, Tariq al-Hashemi, is in exile after murder charges; and last week a fistfight broke out in parliament.

So it may come as a surprise that last week also saw the announcement of a brave new vision for the country, in the form of a new, $1bn (£620m) parliament building, designed by the London-based Assemblage architects. Could the plan be an optimistic salve to current turmoil?

A series of simple, bright-white geometric forms, surrounded by a matrix of streets and courtyards, the scheme is the winning result of an open international competition launched in November 2011. The contest brief called for “an architectural-civilisational monument symbolising and testing the history of great Iraq and its renaissance, its present and new transformations and its future and distinguished role in human civilisation”; the structure should exude “solemnity, sobriety and dignity”.

Hungry to have a hand in defining what this brave new era might be, more than 130 practices entered the competition. These were shortlisted to 32 entries, judged by a RIBA jury that included CZWG’s Piers Gough, an  ex-RIBA president, Sunand Prasad and the former Cabe director Di Haigh.

The project is slated to be built on a 50-hectare site near the disused al-Muhanna airport, where Saddam Hussein had begun to construct his gargantuan super-mosque. Halted 10 years ago by the US-led invasion, all that remains of that project is a series of forlorn, 45 metre-high concrete columns as well as some substantial foundations, which the winning architects have cleverly incorporated into their scheme.

“We wanted to take an urban approach rather than propose a single megastructure,” says the Assemblage director Hannah Corlett describing how the scheme proposes a new, two-storey urban grain for the vacant site. The design would comprise a series of streets with open courtyards housing government departments and offices as well as “community” functions such as medical centres and libraries.

“The campus solution was very attractive,” says Gough. “It creates a strong relationship between the public and their government representatives, as well as a collegiate situation between departments, creating the space for chance meetings with a free flow through the site.”

The central rotunda of the council of representatives. Image: Assemblage

Within this perforated grain, the three main buildings rise up as dazzling white forms set in open spaces and linked by visual axes carved through the surrounding low-rise streets. With echoes of the ancient circular city of Baghdad, the main council of representatives building takes the form of a giant rotunda, with an outer shell of monumental brise soleil screens offering shade, variously angled to create a changing rhythm around the facade. Within this are housed the two semicircular chambers of the great hall and the council chamber, curved in what the practice co-director, Peter Besley, describes as “a geometry of agreement” – which, coincidentally, forms something of a CND peace symbol, in plan. Perimeter walkways offer the public views both down into the chambers below and out to the horizon.

“The first drawing we did, on the plane back from the briefing, was of a person looking out to the landscape of Iraq, in one direction, and down into the chamber on the other,” says Besley. “It’s crucial we capture this feeling of accessibility in a context where the democratic process is so new.”

Assemblage received its $250,000 prize in August, but the designs have only just been released after it emerged that the client was still in talks with the practice’s third-placed rival, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), as Building Design reported this week.

The Iraqi-born architect, whose father was a prominent member of the country’s National Democratic Party in the 1950s, was invited to address technical queries at the end of August.

“At this initial meeting, ZHA was made aware that the competition rules allow for any of the submitted design proposals to be selected for construction, irrespective of placement in the competition,” the practice told the Guardian, “and only on this basis ZHA continues to address the committee’s ongoing queries. To our knowledge, no decision has been made.”

While no images of Hadid’s entry have been released, it appears to follow the practice’s trademark style of fluid geometries and exuberant, sculptural forms: Gough describes it as “a series of eroded mountains” with a river-like form running between them, “alluding to the Euphrates”.

“It had a fantastic chamber,” he says, “but there were deliberately convoluted connections between things. The practice seems fond of these etiolated forms that add to distance rather than subtract from it.”

Hadid is the obvious candidate for a symbol of a new state rising from the ashes – and it would surely be the dream commission for the 62-year-old Iraqi architect. But if the client changes their mind and opts for her “eroded mountains”, it risks losing a scheme that offers a radical new form of open parliamentary campus and a truly democratic piece of city-making.

“It would be great if our scheme was built and became a loved, well-used building,” says Besley. “And we would be delighted if no one could remember who designed it.”