Prize misjudgement

Annus horribilis: This was the year in which Zaha Hadid's great design for Cardiff Opera House was finally killed, despite the fact that she won an open competition. By Jonathan Glancey
Zaha Hadid is one of the most imaginative architects working in Britain today, but as she says, there are only three things people know about her: that she is Iraqi, a woman and a Muslim. The last isn't true, but it would spoil the picture if she weren't, for Hadid has been portrayed by those who would deny her work as some sort of female Saddam Hussein charged with a mission of destroying the face of British architecture as we know it and really want it: tweedy, drear and effete.

In fact, Hadid, who was born in Iraq but has not set foot there for very many years, draws and paints like an angel, is very funny, immensely bright and a charge of colour the British architectural canvas can only gain from.

Last year was, without doubt, her annus horribilis. Hadid was robbed of the commission she won fairly and squarely through an open international competition to design a new opera house for Cardiff. She licked Sir Norman Foster into second place, which is going some. She produced what is, without doubt, one of the great unbuilt buildings of Britain.

So what went wrong? The burghers of Cardiff took against Hadid and all her works, that's what. It was a squalid business. The idea had been a grand and even a visionary one: the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was to commission a spectacular new opera house in the sweeping setting of the newly resurrected Cardiff Bay, turning what is effectively a seaside sewer into a stretch of urban coastline that would attract critical attention and visitors from all over the world. The competition attracted an inordinate number of entries from all over the world, with many of the most feted architects taking part. Was Cardiff proud of this? Not at all.

When Hadid's inspiring scheme was announced as the winner, the Cardiff Bay boyos, together with the chaps at the Millennium Commission, who were to a large extent to have footed the bill, set about nailing it. They succeeded. Polls proved that local opinion was against such a radical design, which was hardly surprising as the public is against any interesting new building, coming to terms with them 50 or 100 years down the line. St Pancras, the Law Courts in the Strand, and the Lloyds Building in the City of London were all abominations in the public mind at the time they were built. Today, the first two are Grade One Listed and much loved, and Lloyds, Richard Rogers' masterpiece, is slowly, slowly going the same way.

Hadid was undermined and her scheme sunk. Before abandoning the opera house project altogether, the Cardiff Bay businessmen approached Sir Norman Foster, who had won second prize in the competition, to take over. Foster, unlike Hadid, is a known quantity, a great architect whose team would have had little difficulty in satisfying Hadid's detractors. Wisely, Foster turned them down. The Opera House was a glittering prize and it must have taken a great deal of soul-searching to have turned it down in an architect- eat-architect world.

The net result was no Hadid, no Foster and no opera house. Instead, a local team was commissioned to design some sort of vague general arts and cultural centre which will now be the centre-piece of a much-compromised Cardiff Bay. This sorry episode has served to make the world's best architects and engineers, together with investors and critics, wary of Cardiff.

When city representatives began to realise what they might have lost (although they have never admitted this), some blamed the Millennium Commission for losing the opera house, others the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation. No one was to blame and no one had shafted Zaha Hadid.

Hadid herself responded magnificently. The opera house would have been her Lloyds or Pompidou, her Sydney Opera House; it would have placed her amongst the world's top architects. Throughout this dismal episode, she behaved with immense good grace, which has earned her widespread respect.

She has had to swallow much more than her pride; a competition entry of this scale and ambition is an immensely expensive thing to enter. The small fees paid by the organisers of such competitions can never match the time, effort, money and emotion invested in them by architects and their teams of experts, including engineers, building technicians, model makers or, today, business consultants.

Despite rumours, Hadid is not rich; her team of young architects are not well paid and tend to finance themselves somehow. For them - many of them from overseas - working with Hadid is a privilege. She is a demanding taskmistress, but her work is very beautiful and, soon enough, will come into its own even in Britain: no one this talented can be left on the professional shelf for very long.

Meanwhile, Hadid has built a delightful fire station on the industrial estate of Vitra, the German furniture manufacturer, and is being considered for other prestigious projects abroad.

Zaha Hadid is one of architecture's true originals; she is also one of its greats. In 1997, she will come into her own and will put the sorry episode of Cardiff Bay behind her.

Monday: Alan Yentob