No daring, no imagination, just cycle paths

The Millennium Commission has made a big mistake in rejecting the Cardiff Opera House, says Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
When the Millennium comes around, there will be bicycle paths threading across the nation, Kew Gardens will have a new seed bed and South Wales's Llanelli coastline will have had a wash and brush up. But when people ask to be shown the monument we have built to bear witness to our faith in the future, to our cultural vigour and aesthetic discernment, we will take them to a building site on Cardiff Bay and tell them, here is where it died.

Yesterday the Millennium Commission decided that, while the seed bank deserved pounds 21.5m, the comparatively trivial sum of pounds 2.7m requested by Cardiff Opera House Trust to eliminate uncertainties surrounding the project - budgeted at pounds 86.8m - was pounds 2.7m too much. The trust was not going to get a penny.

Lord Crickhowell, chairman of the trust, will go to the Commission next week to argue his case. But unless it changes its mind, Britain's best chance of welcoming the new age with a gesture of daring and imagination to rival Sydney Opera House or the Pompidou Centre will probably have been lost for ever.

The architect of the project is a woman called Zaha Hadid. Though born in Baghdad and brought up all over the place, she is a British-made architect: the unique hothouse of London's Architectural Association brought her gift, like those of many brilliant foreign architects before her, to fruition. But like all too many of them, she has discovered that her talent is too rich for domestic consumption.

Her first real recognition came from abroad, when 12 years ago she won the competition, against 539 entries, to build a club on the Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong. The project was eventually shelved, but its beauty and blistering originality brought her worldwide fame. The works she has actually built are both in Germany. The closest she has come to executing a commission in Britain was earlier this year, when she designed an exhibition stand for the magazine Blueprint. Its lifespan was less than a fortnight.

It's not merely British timidity that keeps Zaha from putting her stamp on our towns and cities. For hers is a very particular talent: the most dashing exponent of deconstructivism, she is best known so far for the extraordinary paintings which accompany her competition entries, which depict landscapes that are shimmeringly alive, molten, controlled explosions. Her buildings are like that, too: harking back to the heroic interludes of Russian Suprematism and Italian Futurism, in the dawn of Modernism, when everything seemed possible, even the redemption of industrial society; before the tyranny of the Miesian right angle and the blank curtain wall got our cities in its grip.

Everything she designs is exhilarating. This is architecture conceived not as a slow accretion of certainties but as an eruption of planes and angles and colours and functions, a frozen nanosecond in the endless flux. She may be the most original architectural form maker since Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright.

This does not mean she is an architect for all seasons. While other imaginative architects like her former teacher Rem Koolhaas have succeeded in adapting their visions to the demands of down-to-earth briefs, it is probable that a Zaha-designed house would best suit one of her confirmed fans. The fire station she built in Weil am Rhein, Germany, was commissioned by the furniture makers Vitra, who have long been admirers of her work.

But the Opera House scheme at Cardiff was exactly the sort of project she was put on earth to realise: large in scale, stupendous in its impact, a raging bonfire of a building. Yet it would also have been a highly practical one: a brilliant project team was in the process of ensuring that in all technical specifications the building would have been superb.

The scheme has already seen off the timidity of the trustees (who, after Hadid was confirmed as winner, attempted to offer the job to less controversial runners-up), and the predictable hostility of the citizens. Now it has been condemned by a Commission which, by this decision, confirms the already widespread suspicion that it does not have the faintest idea what it is trying to do.