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Aspiring Toward Democracy – Majlis al Umma

January-19-2012

The Assembly Building in Kuwait ‘Majlis al Umma’ was completed in 1984. It was a 1968 invited competition, where beside Jorn Utzon, Studio Nervi, B.V. Doshi, Rifat Chadirji, Basil Spence/Bonnington/Collins, and a local Kuwaiti consortium (Kuwaiti Engineer’s office, National Engineering Bureau, Kuwait Architectural Consulting, Pan Arab Consulting Office, and Gulf Engineering Office) were invited. Jorn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House and a Pritzker Prize winner, proposed a three storey complex where all functions stem from a central spine, ‘Central Street’, that leads to the covered ‘Hall’ where parliamentarians meet with their Kuwaiti voters.
The ‘hall’, an encounter between the sea and the city, the voter and the voted, is the beginning of a planning system that sees no end to its natural growth, catering for a democracy in the making. The complex covers an area of 18,000 sqm (150 x 120m). The three-storeyed complex comprises a basement with all services and two upper storeys consisting of offices, meeting and conference areas, the 50 seat “Assembly Hall” with tiers for 1000 spectators. The reinforced concrete structure is comprised of 12,800 precast elements of 150 distinct types, except for the foundation raft, the “Assembly Hall” floor slab and floor toppings which are cast in situ.
The ‘hall’, the most prominent architectural element, is a 40 x 80m shaded outdoor area with eleven 7.5m wide semi-cylindrical concrete draped roof elements post-tensioned by steel cables, resting on two rows of columns. The roof bends 40 degrees over a span of 40 meters, with the internal height of columns at 12 meters and the outer ones at 24 meters. At some point in time this element was almost going to be value engineered, where Jorn Utzon asked to meet the Speaker of the National Assembly. After the Speaker of the National Assembly was told of the importance of the ‘hall’ and its architectural significance by Utzon, he said, “But it’s not important.” Utzon moved forward and, grasping the Speaker’s hand, pressed his claim: “We simply must have it.” Two weeks later the approval came through.
The National Assembly was made of white cement concrete with smooth exposed concrete finish. After the Iraqi invasion, it was renovated and painted white.

By Naji Moujaes