Architecture: A bolt of lightning in Cardiff Bay: An inventive design for the Welsh National Opera's new home has already attracted catcalls, but curtain up promises to be a dramatic moment

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The Independent Culture
ZAHA HADID is one of those architects whose work had reached mythical status long before she had ever built, writes Jonathan Glancey. She enjoyed her first 'retrospective' in 1983, six years before she designed a controversial private fire station for Vitra, a large German furniture manufacturer with a taste for radical design.

Last week she won the competition to design the pounds 43m Cardiff Bay Opera House, future home of the Welsh National Opera, pushing rivals of the calibre of Sir Norman Foster and Japan's Itsuko Hasegawa into the wings.

The building she has designed for Cardiff, described by her as an attempt 'to achieve a simultaneity of usually exclusive paradigms of urban space', is not as extreme as her earlier projects, but it is unlikely to be as simple as pie to understand. HTV has conducted a poll indicating that a vast majority of Welsh television viewers are against Hadid's design. What a gift to be able to dismiss such a thoughtful and potentially beautiful building so promptly.

Whatever is said in the heat of an uncertain moment, this building will draw the crowds. Engineered by Ove Arup & Partners, the Messrs Fixit of avant-garde architecture, it promises to be as well built as it is challenging to the eye. Like the Eiffel Tower and Lloyd's, it will be savaged for a while before drifting into acceptability and finally respect. Here is a Grade I listed building of the 2030s.

Work will begin on the 2,000- seater opera house as soon as possible. It is due for completion on St David's Day, 2000.

The building was chosen by a panel of mainly Welsh judges, chaired by Matthew Pritchard, head of the Welsh National Opera Trust. Lord Palumbo, a man with a robust appetite for avant-garde buildings, and Paul Koralek, one of the team that designed the famous National Gallery 'carbuncle' scotched by the Prince of Wales and his cronies, were members of an expert line-up.

They are probably right to have chosen Hadid's design. Cardiff Bay's inner harbour is almost irredeemably horrid. This is no place for spineless heritage-style architecture. Only a building of real invention and quality can help to lift the face of a drab corner of south Wales.

The judges did not allow Hadid's relative lack of building experience to stand in her way. In 1983 she designed one of the most extreme buildings of recent years: The Peak, a pleasure palace that was to have been sited high in the hills overlooking Hong Kong harbour. The question every rival architect wanted to know about that project was: could this bolt of architectural lightning be built? No problem, said Ove Arup & Partners. A shame it never happened, for financial reasons. But it takes courage, as well as the right occasion, to commission work of such visual bombast.

Hadid's work is characterised by zig-zag lines, super-stretch geometry and flamboyant salutes to the revolutionary Soviet architecture of the pre-Stalin years. She has been labelled a 'Deconstructivist', one of a litany of literary labels tagged to fashionable architects who made their names in the Eighties.

Zaha Hadid was born in Baghdad in 1950. She studied at the Architecture Association, London, from 1972-77, and won a prize for her striking and beautiful diploma-show work. A large and dramatically dressed woman, she could never be missed in a crowd. Her presence was certainly unmistakable at the AA diploma show as Bedford Square filled with the Rolls-Royces of proud relatives.

Not exactly poor, Hadid could have retired then, painting the occasional brilliant canvas and resting on the latent power of her imagination. Instead, she joined a group of progressive architectural thinkers and doers called OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), which included Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghalis. She started her own practice in London in 1979, from where she designed the interior of a flat (London), a restaurant (Sapporo) and a folly (Osaka). She also designed some emphatically sculptural furniture, won the Peak competition, and was a name on every judging committee's lips, although having to wait patiently for the chance to build.

This wait has been no bad thing. It has given Hadid and her team plenty of time to think how they can translate architectural images of crowd-stopping power into workaday reality. At Cardiff, the auditorium will be surrounded by a dramatic glazed structure housing the ancillary parts of the Opera House; here the functional will be made fantastic and the workaday wonderful. Doubtless, there will carping and sniping from the wings over the next few years as she sets out to prove that her lightning- bolt architecture is the right stuff for Gotterdammerung. When the curtain rises, Cardiff Bay Opera House will be one of the most talked-about and enjoyable buildings in Europe.

(Photographs omitted)