Erbil’s Justice Tower: an ironic landmark

About the Author
No'man Bayaty
No'man Bayaty is a writer and lecturer at Tishk International University in Erbil, Iraq. He holds a master's in urban design from the University of Mosul.

Iraqi academic No’man Bayaty explores Erbil’s Justice Tower, and provides insight into its architectural form and the urban challenges it poses.

Cities are defined by the buildings that make them, and in many cases some structures surpass the level of a common tower and attain landmark status. This article discusses such a building: the Justice Tower in Erbil, Iraq.

From the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, certain buildings become icons of their cities, and appear on promotional content, like postcards. Either because of their contrasting form, their strategic location or several other reasons, these buildings dominate the image of their city, and take on its spirit.

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Justice Tower is a 40-storey office building constructed in Erbil and developed by Nasri Group. It was completed in 2016, and is mainly made up of office apartments with some auxiliary facilities, such as restaurants and cafes, a gym, swimming pools, and a hotel. The building rises to 130 metres.

Justice Tower features a very simple shape: the outline is a clear rectangle that rises vertically to become a pure box. The long layout results in a clear and functional distribution of spaces, while the elevation of the building emphasises the simplicity of its form. The tower does not compensate for its simplicity with complicated solutions, and it drops all historical, local and traditional referencing from its priorities. With the horizontal arrangement of windows and the vertical decorative elements, the façade is a rigid representation of a direct and practical mentality.

What adds to the grandeur of the setting is that the building, with its height, is the only structure standing in its location. The building faces the largest park in the city, while on its other side is a large unbuilt piece of land. The rest of the surroundings consist of two-level residential blocks. The closest structure, which might rival its height, is almost one and a half kilometres away.

The form, with its clear outline and the direct functional approach of elevation articulation, gives the building an air of Rationalism and seriousness. The building is easily seen and stands firmly on its ground. This large openness, with clarity of form and firmness, prepares the building to be the ‘Empire State’ of Erbil. Approaching the building from the street it stands on, too, is almost similar to approaching a winged ox from an Assyrian palace.

However, Justice Tower is filled with ironies on many levels. There aren’t many people who find familiarity in it, or who view the building with fondness. Many of Erbil’s residents are not shy to declare the ugliness of the structure, and they often use words like huge, heavy, bulky and boxy to describe it. With that – all the grandeur and prestige fades away.

What adds to its irony is that the building can be seen from anywhere in the city. It surprises those driving through Erbil’s streets, and appears at the least expected moments. It’s likely that a more scientific study is needed to measure the building’s dominance on the visual axes and vistas throughout the city, as you can see the building (it is the first thing you see actually) before you even enter the city from the west (Mosul Road). You can also see it from several neighbourhoods at street level. What happens when you can see ugliness from any point in the city?

Justice Tower appears from the east before entering Erbil. Image courtesy of No’man Bayaty

The building, which is supposed to be the grand protector of the city’s skyline, becomes, from the viewpoint of the residents, an unwanted ugly beast sitting on it. The continuous images of the city recorded in the viewer’s mind while moving through the city are sullied by redundant images of the Justice Tower. The structure is no longer an individual building – it is a repulsive urban magnet.

On a functional level, too, the building has problems. The building’s length is almost five times its width, and the offices are distributed on the two sides of a central corridor. The typical offices are thin in dimension to provide the largest number of offices within each floor, making them inefficient. The corridor is also narrow, long and double-loaded. With a large number of offices and no serious connections to exterior natural lighting, the corridor is not a very comfortable space to be in.

The building next to Justice Tower – the Presidency of Appellate Court of Erbil – makes things worse. The governmental building is four storeys high with an elevation more compassionate to local architectural elements. The giant Justice Tower stands over the court building in a dominating way, dwarfing it and placing it in its shadow. It is quite sarcastic that the building which represents the justice system of the city is diminished in position by an office building that is ironically called ‘Justice Tower’.

The appearance of the Justice Tower grew clumsier recently when extra lighting systems were added. A ribbon of lighting now wraps around the top of the building, likely for no reason other than to make the tower more visible. The lights radiate colours of different hues that are unpleasant to the eye – purple, yellow and pink-red – which are arranged in a strange combination echoing the CMYK colour palette on testing printing papers. The non-harmonious coloured lights eradicate the prestigious message communicated by the pure form and clean façade. Now, the tower looks like a king wearing a clown’s hat.

The recently added lighting that crowns Justice Tower. Image by No’man Bayaty

The reason people hold negative feelings toward the tower goes beyond its form; it is more political. The tower represents the wealthy class rising in the city, who benefitted from the prosperous economic period the region experienced in the past two decades. The majority of the middle class and the whole lower class hold grudges toward the tower for its alliance with the rich minority, instead of them – the majority. Most of the towers in modern cities represent capital and economic power, and people will probably grow accustomed to this as more towers appear in Erbil.

I conclude by bringing this argument back to the urban case of the Justice Tower. Cities are made of buildings, and beautiful buildings that spread around a city’s canvas would solidify a collective beautiful image of a city. The general opinion of the city’s residents about Justice Tower is mostly negative, and therefore, the building is not seen as a constructive element in producing a positive image of Erbil. The labels of “big block” and “bulky” are not positive descriptions for a building that dominates the city’s skyline. Large buildings have a bigger responsibility than small buildings because their size takes up more volume in this three-dimensional visual.

Justice Tower is the end of many visual axes in the city, and this strengthens its presence in the city’s image. Urban designers should be given a bigger role when designing such large buildings to avoid any dilemmas, which would cost not only money, but the collective mental perception held by the inhabitants, which last for generations.