No curtain to raise

September 26, 1997

Kam Patel unearths the powerful interests that coalesced to deprive Cardiff of Zaha Hadid's award-winning opera house.

To this day, the architect Zaha Hadid is at a loss to know why the Millennium Commission rejected her plan for the Cardiff Opera House despite its having won an international competition. She is not alone. Two years on from her scheme being ditched, people are still curious. Ordinary people stop her in the street: "Hey, are you that lady with the opera house? What happened?". And when she meets Welsh people the conversation invariably begins with "I am terribly sorry ...".

But, as Hadid explains, this is not a "two-minute story". She is wary of boring people with what is a "hugely complex and many layered tale". And the passage of time has not helped. "We have missed the story by so much now that there is no longer a clear view, but I believe the answer lies with the Millennium Commission," she says.

Nicholas Edwards throws his spectacles down on a copy of The Opera House Lottery: Zaha Hadid and the Cardiff Bay Project, the book he wrote to "put on the record" what led up to the final rejection of Hadid's scheme. Edwards, president of the University of Wales, Cardiff, is well placed. In 1985, as secretary of state for Wales, he commissioned the first studies into the merits of having a major complex for the performing arts in Cardiff.

In 1993 a trust set up by the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation launched an international competition to get an opera house built in the principality's capital. Edwards was chairman of the trust between 1994 and 1996, the scheme's critical years. On the face of it, his is is an illuminating story of just how badly things can go wrong when the politics of local and central government and those of the architectural community collide.

Hadid was announced winner of the competition in September 1994, beating well-established architects including Sir Norman Foster, and sparking an extraordinary public reaction. "We had this amazing behaviour on the part of the media, the public and the architectural community," says Edwards. "People became frightfully excited by the building, deciding there and then, rightly or wrongly, that they either hated the design or loved it."

Opposition to the Hadid design quickly mounted, particularly among members of the CBDC. Media criticism was also rife, with Wales's morning newspaper, the Western Mail, leading the pack. Edwards confesses that until the final rejection of the Hadid scheme he did not know that The Sun was also campaigning against it. There was a public row over opera being "elitist". A rugby stadium was put forward as an alternative "people's choice" for lottery funding. Edwards says: "The Welsh National Opera is not elitist. The Cardiff Arms Park (Wales's premier rugby ground) with its corporate hospitality is probably more elitist. But there we were, labelled as 'elitist'." The trust tried to persuade the public of its commitment to more popular arts as well as to staging operas - but in vain.

The increasingly public row began to have an impact on the Millennium Commission, set up to allocate money to projects for Britain's millennium celebrations. The commission had agreed to consider backing Hadid's Pounds 86-million design. "In the end," says Edwards, "it just wanted to take the easy way out." In his book, the commission, then under the leadership of Jennifer Page (recently put in charge of the Millennium Dome project), is portrayed as clueless and indecisive. "I do think it proved singularly unhelpful, particularly with regard to the ceiling it put on funding for the project," says Edwards. He believes the incompetence he feels the body displayed stemmed from some of the commissioners having to deal with a field - the arts - in which they had insufficient experience.

The trust was "horrified" that the commission's executive team appeared not to have read crucial documents adequately. Edwards also believes that the commission suffered from having two senior ministers, deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine and heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley, involved with its affairs, creating a kind of "we-must-avoid-error syndrome", with the emphasis on ensuring that if mistakes occurred the commission would not be blamed. "They never had a clear view of what they wanted or where they wanted to go."

In December 1995 Heseltine phoned Edwards to break the news that the commission would not back Hadid's design. There was still enthusiasm among the commissioners for an opera house in Cardiff, he said, but added: "...the trouble is that there is no enthusiasm for a project of this size and cost."

Edwards writes that he felt "physically sick. I told him I was shocked and very angry". Heseltine wanted Edwards to take a fresh look at cutting the cost of the project, citing, bizarrely, the possibility of building a Pounds 40-million concert hall as an alternative. Edwards says: "Did he really think that you could build an opera house with stage and equipment for the same cost as a concert hall? I said to him I couldn't do it, that it had cost me Pounds 2 million and ten years of work to get where I was ... If we could have done it cheaper we would have - we were not a bunch of amateur fools."

Hadid, shocked on being informed by Edwards of the decision, said: "It is a bummer. Why have a Millennium Commission at all? Do they want nothing but mediocrity?" The commission's decision was announced at a press conference attended By both Bottomley and Heseltine. Edwards ran into Bottomley many months later at a wedding. He was trying to avoid her but she managed to pin him down. "She said she had been in favour of the scheme, that she had struggled singlehandedly to save it and wasn't it unfair that it was she who had to announce the rejection?" Edwards finds it "remarkable" that Bottomley, the heritage secretary, had so little influence.

This week, however, Bottomley was in fighting mode. She told The THES that she "deplored" the fact that the book had been written: "The group was unable to satisfy us that the funding gap between capital costs and revenue could be resolved. There were also ongoing reservations about the design. Unlike other landmark projects the (Hadid) scheme was unable to secure unequivocal support from the CBDC and local government. The commission finally decided that it was not safe to proceed. Everyone thought that it was a thrilling, exciting plan but we were not prepared to fund a white elephant."

One speculative version of events Edwards finds plausible revolves around the role of Sir John Hall, a member of the Millennium Commission. "He is a rough, tough character and I can imagine him saying 'well, I know all about building, I spend my time building leisure centres and costs are always too high, fees are too high' and so on. And Michael (Heseltine) is impressed because he is always impressed by someone like John Hall and suddenly the mood is against the scheme."

All was not lost, though. Fresh impetus to the Hadid scheme was provided by the possibility of incorporating a museum into the design, making it eligible for joint funding from the Millennium Commission, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of Wales. The commission agreed to consider such a bid and the trustees and Hadid again went to work on the modifications. But the newly won confidence was not to last. A few months later Geoffrey Inkin, chairman of the CBDC, informed Edwards that, in the corporation's view, "the chances of success of the existing proposals are extremely limited". A different approach was needed.

Worse, Inkin handed Edwards a letter circulated to all the major organisations involved. The CBDC letter said: "We have concluded on the grounds of its high total cost, its apparent lack of support by the new unitary authority and the public and the absence of backing from the Millennium Commission that the Hadid scheme should be set aside."

It was a devastating blow to Edwards, not least because Inkin was an old friend. Edwards says Inkin did not like the Hadid building anyway and was under enormous pressure from fellow CBDC members who strongly objected to it. "Looking back though, I blame him for not trying harder to rein in his CBDC colleagues - their powers had gone to their heads ... to decide to cut our throat without any prior consultation was very ... it's something even now I find very difficult to deal with. And since I, when secretary of state for Wales, set the corporation up in the first place, it was all a rather painful experience."

Edwards dedicates Opera to Hadid. "She must have been bitterly disappointed and, running a small practice, well this wasn't just some minor financial setback for her. I mean it was a professional disaster for her team. To go on winning competitions as she does and not getting the business cannot be easy."

And yet, with hindsight, there are certain things Hadid and her team could have done to deflect some of the hostility. Her original model for the scheme was "poor and hastily prepared", he says. "She does not share this view but the original model was certainly a brutalistic interpretation and gave no right view about finishes and materials that are of pretty fundamental importance. Most people made their judgement at the beginning on the basis of an awful model. And, much as I love Zaha and wonderful as her drawings are, they are extremely difficult to interpret - they are almost abstract. Getting traditional impressions out of her was very hard work indeed."

Rumours spread like wildfire after the final rejection. Was the decision based on prejudice because Hadid is a woman and an Iraqi at that? Edwards has deliberately steered away from giving a view on such questions in his book. He says: "If she had been male, white and Welsh would it have been different? I do not know. I hope not. There are those who tell me I am naive. I really don't know ... but I suspect that if it had been a young Welsh-speaking architect who had suddenly produced the design, the Western Mail might have taken a different line."

A new initiative was soon launched to fill the gap left by the demise of the Hadid scheme. Edwards suspects there are lots of people who believe that the new Millennium Centre, as it will be called, is going to be different from the opera house. "It is going to have, almost to the minute, the same number of opera performances as we were going to have and the same number of musicals. But somehow they have got the message over. We failed. We failed!" For Hadid, the biggest of many ironies is that the brief her office and trust came up with for the museum version of her plan is identical to that used for its successor scheme, the Millennium Centre. "I find that equally, if not more, shocking than my experience with the first initiative," she says. "And then to have another competition, not even bother to contact me and choose my partner firm from the first competition for the new one, well I find this very questionable practice."

She still cannot understand the fuss created by the commission over the cost of her design. The scale and cost of the project were decided well in advance of the competition at a very top level. "It was not as if the brief were invented later on," she says. Hadid even bumped into Jennifer Page recently: "She was extremely friendly, as if nothing had happened."

Hadid admits that the behaviour of some of those she had to deal with in Wales shocked her. "I had not experienced anything like it in 25 years of living in this country. Their degree of rudeness took my breath away." But there were also many who were supportive. "It probably hurt them more than it hurt me. They were really shaken by it all."

All architectural projects have a certain dynamic. With the opera house, acoustic space and comfortable seating for 2,000 people were among many considerations. "It is not as if you are designing and building a house ... like saying you should not have a big house, you should have a small house. You just cannot do that."

Not much good has come out of the project for her, but she believes it did pave the way for other equally daring projects. "I think people became used to another way of looking at things, receptive to another way of doing things. And I say that without being arrogant." Nevertheless it came as a disappointment for her biggest constituency of supporters - young architects and designers. "When I won the competition, my office was full of flowers, it was really spooky. It was great for them too because it signalled a breakdown in the notion that things have to be done in a particular way."

Hadid believes architecture's primary purpose should be to improve the way we live. "I do not believe in conservative development of the city." Her new dynamic poses questions about how the built environment relates to, for instance, ecology, air and light. "The nice thing about the opera house was that by just moving away from the idea of a container for performers; By chiselling away at it you allow light and air into it. By making simple moves you achieved a great deal."

One of Hadid's big hopes is that there will be a greater connection between theoretical ideas and the mainstream. "People should have an opinion about architecture, it is not a question of whether that opinion is right or wrong as long as they can talk about it, not be shy. Things are changing - there has been a lot more about architecture in the press in recent years and that's great. So, despite the loss of the project, I think lessons have been learnt."

Last summer, Nicholas Edwards, his wife and the head of a major financial institution who was staying with them for a weekend were having lunch. The phone rang. It was 10 Downing Street. Michael Heseltine, the caller said, wanted a word with Edwards's guest.

Returning to the table, the financier told Edwards that Heseltine wanted him to commit Pounds 5 million on behalf of his institution to the Greenwich millennium project. Edwards said to his guest: "God, he chose the right place to make the call. Just as well I did not know what he was ringing for because I might just have asked him why on earth he was not as bloody proactive about our project, instead of turning it down."

The Opera House Lottery, University of Wales Press, Pounds 15.95.

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