Brenig Davies examines the missed opportunity of Zaha Hadid’s Welsh Opera House.
Perhaps the most well known architect to many of us in Wales over the age of 60 is Zaha Hadid. Hadid, who died suddenly last week at the age of 65, is best known in Wales for having won an architectural competition three times for the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House. She is equally well known for her winning design losing out to a 90 degree swivel.
The international architectural design competition was established by the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust to decide on the design and therefore architect for the project.
Cardiff Bay Opera House was a proposed centre for the performing arts in Cardiff. It was conceived in the 1990s to be a centre piece to the redeveloped Cardiff Bay. Amongst the aims of the proposal was the creation of a new home for the Welsh National Opera company.
The Hadid design became known as the Crystal Necklace. The popularly proclaimed stunning design attracted comment comparable with the potential to change the cultural perception of Wales in the same way that the Sydney Opera House had done for Australia some years earlier.
The project, which lacked support from South Glamorgan County Council and Cardiff City Council, was conveniently criticised as being “elitist” and ugly. It may have been ‘elitist’ – what ever that may mean – but it was certainly not ugly. Against this background the UK National Lottery fund refused to support the project on grounds of future financial viability.
There was though a strongly held view at the time, and still held by those involved in the public discussion, that the bid to the Lottery fund lost out to the rugby establishment of the day, related party politics and public appointments. It needs to be remembered that was certainly considered to be the national game of Wales, far more that it is today.
The ‘elitist’ Opera House proposal got caught up with the prevailing politics of south Wales. It lost out to the successful application for funding the Millennium Stadium, with popular support, just a couple miles away.
As we now know the Opera House proposal was succeeded by the Wales Millennium Centre and built on the site of the intended Opera House in Cardiff Bay.
No doubt Wales, or at least Cardiff has the best of all worlds; a first class centre for the performing arts that embraces popular and, so called, high culture, along with a world famous rugby stadium. The new Millennium Stadium, now renamed the Principality Stadium, was build by moving the alignment of the stadium from west-east to north-south; a move of 90 degrees.
3 thoughts on “Zaha Hadid or 90 degrees: A lament – perhaps not”
The Assembly Building was a disaster an over budget product for hot air .The money could have been far better spent on providing new Health facilities for Wales.Whats more I am sure that Zaha Hadid would have had much more job satisfaction designing those facilities
I wish it could be said that these days the Opera House debacle would not have happened, but I fear it would. The Zaha Hadid proposals were, upon extended detailed inspection, subtle and rich – to a greater extent than many previous and later works of hers, that had much more ‘swoosh’ and ‘zap’ to them. I wouldn’t have called the Opera House ‘sober’ but it was certainly boldly civic and hummingly confident, and I think that’s what gave the ‘little men’ of the time the heebie jeebies; they couldn’t face it. It embarrassed them … in contrast to the vast millenial rugby shed … a safe zone, evidently.
There has been a modest raising of civic confidence in the intervening years but it is still a grind, and the combination of a supine political milieu with the poisonous Thatcheritic mindset that continues to infect the public realm, makes it only marginally less likely that this jewel would be rejected in contemporary Wales.
Regeneration is entirely based on confidence. If we think we are a failure before we begin, then it won’t work, and the same goes for nations, does it not?
The Assembly building was cheap compared with any of the designs for the opera house. Moreover it came in on budget unlike the Scottish Parliament which I think ended up costing over five times as much. The proposed refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster will cost multiples again. Democracy isn’t free but the Welsh version is cutprice
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