A monumental spot of local trouble

The people of Cardiff were to have an opera house. A competition was he ld, an architect was selected. Then the people of Cardiff took against Zaha Hadid. Jonathan Glancey reports
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Zaha Hadid is a 43-year-old Iraqi-born, London-based architect who has captivated students the world over with her imagination and vividly energetic neo-Expressionist paintings. Avant-garde would be too tardy a phrase to describe her work. She has realised just one building - a fire station for a furniture manufacturer in Germany - but has also designed swooping furniture and smashing flats.

She dresses to please herself, speaks her mind and has an ironic sense of humour. In short, just the sort of architect most British planning committees, the Prince of Wales's coterie and the British public find it hard to like, much less appreciate.

So, put yourself in the shoes of the citizens of Cardiff when, last September, Hadid won a well-organised competition to design the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House, one of the most important new buildings in Wales for the best part of a century. Hadid had beaten 268 other architects from around the world, among them Sir Norman Foster.

Her striking design was shown on Harlech TV shortly afterwards, along with those of the runners-up (Sir Norman Foster and Itsuko Hasegawa of Japan). Viewers were asked to vote with their phones: 88.5 per cent were against Hadid. The local press took up the story with a vengeance; why not kick an arty, intellectual, Arab woman when she's down?

No one said that, of course, but Hadid was given a very rough ride indeed in south Wales. So much so that the gentlemen of the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust decided not to commission her. Yes, she had won the competition, but she could not have the prize. Hadid's position was not unlike that of an Olympic runner who wins a race, but is denied her gold medal by judges who preferred the cut of the shorts of those who came second and third. Dr Johnson described opera as "an exotick and irrational entertainment": events in Cardiff give strength to his sally.

Speaking for the Opera House trustees, Lord Crickhowell (a former Secretary of State for Wales and a collector of watercolours) has now asked Hadid to re-submit her design. He is also asking Sir Norman Foster (runner-up) and Manfredi Nicoletti (unplaced,but a favourite of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation and Cardiff Bay Business Forum) to send in revised designs, one of which might oust Hadid's. The other runner-up, Itsuko Hasegawa, a Japanese architect of great refinement and gentle manners, says that, as far as she is concerned, Zaha Hadid is the winner and that is that. She, for one, will not play to the gallery.

Most of a shocked architectural community - Hadid's treatment is, as far as anyone can remember, unprecedented - trust Sir Norman Foster, one of the world's most distinguished architects, to decline Lord Crickhowell's invitation and to support Hadid. Manfredi Nicoletti, however, is likely to go the distance.

Nicoletti's kitsch "glass wave" design - an architectural one-liner of the most banal kind - is known to be favoured by, among others, Lord Brooks of Tremorfa, local Labour bigwig and deputy chairman of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, responsible for the £1bn redevelopment of Cardiff Bay and, to a large extent, the future of the opera house that Welsh National Opera has dreamt of for the past 50 years.

A Roman architect best known for his winning design of the, as yet, unbuilt museum for rehousing the Elgin Marbles in Athens, Nicoletti was invited by the Cardiff Bay Business Forum to talk to them before Christmas (weeks after the competition had been run and won). When news of the visit leaked out, they felt obliged to extend the same invitation to Foster, Hasegawa and Hadid.

The long saga of building a home for WNO thus descended into shamefaced farce (or the libretto for an opera) and this largely because, in the teeth of unformed public opinion, the board of trustees lacked the conviction to follow the advice of their expert competition assessors.

Yet an enormous amount of consultation work had preceded the appointment of the assessors. As these included such unabashed fans of the most innovatory architecture - the architects Michael Wilford and Paul Koralek as well as Lord Palumbo, then chairman of the Arts Council - the trustees should have expected a radical and exciting design to win.

Hadid's design is certainly challenging, but according to the respected experts who have worked alongside her, her opera house will be easy to build within time (planned opening: St David's day, 2000) and budget (£47.5m) and will cause no special problems to construct or maintain.

Hadid's design may well have a clean bill of health, yet for all its ingenuity and subtlety, the Cardiff business community, the local media and local people still dislike it and Lord Crickhowell has made it clear that he is not prepared to spend the next six years fighting to build an unpopular design; he does not want a Welsh British Library on his hands.

Public opinion, however, is fickle. Although 88.5 per cent of Harlech TV viewers said they disliked Hadid's design, a poll taken at an exhibition of the opera house designs shown in Cardiff (later transferred to the ITN Building, London, an impressive work by Sir Norman Foster) revealed 438 visitors in favour of Foster, with 343 choosing Hadid and only 251 opting for Nicoletti. It seems once people had a chance to come to terms with Hadid's powerful imagination, they felt able to support her.

Perhaps the real problem with Hadid's design is not so much that people dislike it, but they find it difficult to understand; a bit like those people who have never tried Guinness because they don't like it. "You can't flash plans of a complex building like an opera house across TV screens," says Hadid, "and expect people to make sense of them. In Britain, whenever people come across something new and exciting, but challenging, there is a tendency for them to run for cover, to want what they know and are comfortable with. To design a great new building takes courage on everyone's part. I think we have a lot more explaining to do."

She does. Hadid needs to show not just that she has resolved questions of function (she has), but just how glamorous her opera house will be. A translucent, and sometimes transparent, necklace of glass-fronted public spaces, offices and rehearsal rooms will form a spectacular courtyard wrapping around the stone or copper-clad asymetrical auditorium. The building will be animated by the sight of people moving, very visibly, inside the building. The whole structure will be a stage, or, in Hadid's w ords "an urban living room". Offices, rehearsal and changing rooms will all benefit from daylight and natural ventilation; snatches of opera will "leak" from rehearsal rooms into the courtyard.

The undersides of the cluster of buildings - or "beads" - that make up Hadid's "necklace" will be painted bright colours, while facades will be faced in a palette of glass: clear, fretted, milky. The flytower will be incorporated into the superstructure of the auditorium, so that it will be invisible. The auditorium itself promises to be one of the finest, built with superb sightlines and acoustics.

So, what happens next? Sir Norman Foster may well play a magnanimous and deciding role by lending his support to Hadid, who is still, after all, the winner of the competition. Hadid needs some help in explaining her design more fully to the business community of Cardiff and the people of Wales. The trustees of the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust need to decide exactly what further changes they want from their architect. (They gave none of them a clear idea of what new buildings the opera house would back on to, which is why none of the 269 entrants really solved the design of the back of the opera house.)

Wales is not exactly famous for its architecture, yet what architecture it does sell to visitors is pretty extreme stuff: the gloriously mad Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch designed by William Burges and the Inmos silicon chip plant, in Newport, by Sir Richard Rogers, featured promiscuously in those famous "Made in Wales" television adverts. Richard Rogers, among others, and inspired architects of this and previous generations have made their reputations through winning competitions with spirited desig ns recognised by intelligent and imaginative judges and patrons.

Rogers (with Renzo Piano) won the competition for the Centre Pompidou in 1971; at the time, the design was nothing short of outrageous. When President Pompidou saw the drawings, he looked a little alarmed, but - in a manner the burghers of Cardiff would do well to emulate - nodded sagely and congratulated the scruffy young architects standing before him, who have since gone on to international stardom. Hadid's opera house would do exactly the same for Cardiff if, and only if, the winner is finally allowed to get on with shaping one of the most spirited opera houses and lyric theatres since the very first at San Cassiano in Venice opened 350 years ago.

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