The Kuwait National Assembly Building is the home of its popularly elected legislature. Designed in 1972 by the Pritzker award-winning Danish architect Jørn Utzon, and the construction completed in 1982 under the supervision of his son, Jan. Utzon is widely known for his iconic design of the Sydney Opera House in Australia which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. He was invited by the Kuwait Authorities to participate in a competition for designing the national assembly building located on the city’s waterfront. The political narrative of the National Assembly Building rose controversially with the commissioning of the foreign-born architect revealing the connections between the bureaucratic sprawls, authoritarian balance and democratic openness of the nation. 

Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet1
Jørn Utzon ©utzoncenter.dk
Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet2
Kuwait National Assembly Building, Kuwait ©scandinaviastandard.com
Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet3
Kuwait National Assembly Building ©Flickr user Cajetan Barretto

Philosophy: Utzon has created his well-known style with designs ranging from monumental civic buildings to unobtrusive housing projects. Transcending architecture as art, He emerges his forms from poetic discoveries that hold thoughtful programming, structural integrity and sculptural symphony. He got his earliest inspiration from architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto and, whose organic interpretation of architecture was of great significance for Utzon’s own. 

He is quite intrigued by additive and prefabricated forms which he discovered from traditional Chinese art and architecture. The national assembly building was his interpretation of the Forbidden City of Imperial Beijing, which he studied during his 1958 study trip to China. He believes in a synthesis of geometry, modulation and prefabricated/standardized products.

Design: The design of Kuwait’s National Assembly Building, having connections with Islamic architecture, invigorates from a walled miniature city embracing offices designed around courts and accessed through a central hall. It is reminiscent of a souk (an Arab marketplace or a bazaar) facing the sea while the canopy mimics Bedouin desert tents.

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A Photograph by Jørn Utzon captured during his trip to Iran
Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet5
Kuwait National Assembly Building ©Jeffrey van der Wees

Planning: It is a two-storey complex comprising a parliamentary chamber, a large conference hall, each with sag roofs, ancillary offices, reception halls, and a free-standing, flat-roofed mosque. It is square in plan with a grid of 5m by 5m. The offices are arranged in modules of 20m by 20m, with open central courtyards and separated from other office modules by a 5m corridor. 

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Plan ©archnet.org
Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet7
Floor Plan Assembly ©places-of-power.org

Within the building complex, one of the canopies faces northeast while the second, which has a more elongated scale, lies just ahead of the enclosure and faces towards the sea. It is visually distinctive that both are supported by precast concrete pylons that taper towards the point of bearing immediately beneath them.

This compactness of the hall leads through a 12.5m wide central walkway heading to the main entrance, which stands under a high monumental and the third undulating canopy of 3000 m2 that also covers a public square, beneath which political power would represent itself to the people at large. It symbolizes a tribal leader under a canopy, and is supported by a double row of concrete columns with semi-cylindrical shells post-tensioned with steel cables, and is capped by a roof that plunges towards the sea of the Persian Gulf. 

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3D View of Kuwait National Assembly ©places-of-power.org
Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet9
Section ©scandinaviastandard.com

The flat roof has half-barrel vaulted skylights that deliver natural light into places that do not have access to the courtyard like the corridors, library and cafeteria modules.

Design Style: It is an approach towards Additive Architecture which concentrates on set modules that could branch out to include similar interlocking modules such as Lego-like blocks, adobe bricks, and precast concrete structures. With the use of repetitive grids, he was able to standardize the design and the patio structures designed as a series of folded plates, are offset by three monumental shell-concrete canopies.

Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet10
Kuwait National Assembly Building ©Jeffrey van der Wees

Inspired by traditional Islamic architecture, the interior hall has no windows while the offices have daylight only from the courts. 

The architecture is as evolutionary as nature taking inspiration from a tree the complex comprises a 130m long and 10m wide central walkway, which serves as the trunk with corridors and stairs as the branches that hold ministerial rooms and offices as their foliage.

Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet11
Kuwait National Assembly Building ©The Utzon Archives, Aalborg University Library, Denmark.
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Kuwait National Assembly Building ©archnet.org
Kuwait National Assembly Building by Jørn Utzon: Architecture inspired from Bazaars - Sheet13
Kuwait National Assembly Building ©archnet.org

Complexities: At a later stage, The authorities suggested removing the covered square. To which Utzon argued in his words, “it is an architectonically necessary link between the open natural space over the sea and the enclosed building.”

Materials and Construction: The concrete was cast in a manner to replicate sails billowing in the wind which produces unique rounded and curved forms. Facilitating the best use of local resources and creating a juxtaposition between traditional and modern architecture, Precast structures enabled the building to incorporate both vernacular and new forms together within the same design. 

The two wide-span roofs were cast on-site and moved into position to replicate the so-called ‘railway tracks’.

Fire Damage: In 1991, During Gulf War I, the retreating Iraqi troops set fire to the building. The appearance of partial damage in the national assembly building plays a vital role in monitoring the history of the government at that time, as it has the constitutional right to approve and disapprove the ruling emir.

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Kuwait National Assembly Building ©utzoncenter.dk

Jørn Utzon had consistently given a clear account of his intimacy with nature, seeing it as his aesthetic inspiration and confirmation in a religious tone. He kept the needs of the society at prime deliberation and accomplished a thriving harmony of architectural and political values in a singular structure.

Author

Yachika Sharma is an architect who recently graduated from Chandigarh College of Architecture. She has a profound passion for architecture, poetry, art and travelling. She believes that it is crucial to go on to an adventure to fathom a city and unravel the little subtleties of city life.

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