When the Guangzhou Opera House opened in 2010, it became the architectural star of a burgeoning Chinese business district on the edge of the city, one that had so far been distinguished by gauche neon lights and buildings adorned with giant brand names.
The city didn’t even have a permanent opera company in residence at the time.
But when Guangzhou decided to invest in cultural development, city planners had the foresight to call on starchitect Zaha Hadid to design a building that would become a source of inspiration for residents and an attraction that would draw the awe and envy of visitors around the world.
Hadid, of course, delivered. When the new building opened, The Guardian’s headline proclaimed “Move over, Sydney,” and labeled the new cultural center “the world’s most spectacular opera house.”
These reviews surely left the Welsh squirming.
Today, March 31, marks the second anniversary of the pioneering female architect’s untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 65.
Over the course of her career, she fought for a place in an industry that was largely male and largely white, and also stretched the limits of architecture itself.
Her body of work was pioneering in both her avant-garde designs and cutting-edge engineering techniques, and it would earn her a reputation as one of the greatest modern architects of all time.
Not every building was a success. One of her biggest “failures” that would haunt her until the end was a design for an opera house far from the coast of China.
In 1994, a still relatively unknown Hadid won a competition to design the new opera house in Cardiff, Wales. But despite coming in first, her design was ultimately rejected by the people it was meant to serve.
Born in 1950 in Baghdad, Hadid moved to London in 1972 to study at the progressive Architectural Association.
Over the next two decades, she won several competitions for her designs that were abstract and innovative, and she developed a style of architectural drawings that were works of art in and of themselves.
“She was working night after night, essentially living in the drawings that flowed from her pen in an apparently unstoppable flood,” writes Deyan Sudjic in his obituary for Hadid in The Guardian. “They conjured up glimpses of a world she had imagined but which did not, as yet, exist.”
It wasn’t until the early 90s that her first major architectural project would jump off these pages and into the 3-D world.
The original commission was for a chair—Hadid worked as a furniture designer and set designer, among her varied portfolio of work. But when her resulting creation proved a bit too much for such a small object, the commissioners swapped out the canvas and had her design the new Vitra Fire Station in Rhein, Germany, instead.
While Hadid’s first project was being completed in Germany in the early 1990’s, Cardiff, the capital of Wales, was experiencing a major growth spurt.
As part of the plan to encourage development in the city and to create a new home for the Welsh National Opera, the government staged an international design competition to build a new opera house. Under the terms of the contest, the winning project chosen by the Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust would not only get bragging rights, but would also be the design funded and built.
In September 1994, Hadid, who was receiving increasing attention for her cutting-edge designs in London but who was still relatively unknown in Wales, was crowned the winner among a field of 268 entries, including some of the most prestigious architects in the country.
Her design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House involved a building of glass that wrapped around another centralized glass building that would serve as the performance hall.
The structure was all straight lines that jutted out with a dynamic, even severe, energy and met in points. Terraces and ramps were strewn through the space to give the impression of what Hadid called the “jewels in a crystal necklace.”
It was nothing like anything Cardiff had ever seen before, and it was a “breakthrough moment,” as The New York Times later called it, for the architect.
Almost instantly, Hadid’s winning design was was met with resistance. The architect may have won fair and square, but it seemed the minute her championship was declared, the commission was doing everything it could to squirm out of the deal.
First, they questioned the feasibility of the design. So Hadid proved that it could actually be built and for the roughly $60 million budgeted for the project.
Then, in what was widely hailed as an “unprecedented” move, they decided to backtrack and re-stage the semi-final round, judging Hadid’s design again against two of the (better known) runners-up. Ultimately, Hadid would win the same competition three times. Yet, in the end, public opinion and that of the authorities remained firmly against her, and funding was withdrawn for the project.
Virtually everyone in the architectural community concedes that the initial excuses about the unbuildability of her plan were utter hogwash. Not only did Hadid prove time and again that it was doable, and within the limits set by the commission, but the same engineers who were responsible for the Sydney Opera House had worked with Hadid on her design.
Maybe her radical vision was a little daunting for the Welsh. But, really, the only explanation left for her horrendous treatment was prejudice. Many, including Hadid herself, have noted her ethnicity and gender as playing a part in debacle that ensued.
“That was really horrible,” Hadid told the BBC years later. “It was a very strange situation…we were treated very badly. But they didn’t want us. I don’t know what they wanted actually.”
She later said prejudice had killed the project. "I don't think that it was in any way hidden – there was commentary by certain people in various papers, on the radio – maybe not because I'm a woman, but because I'm a foreigner."
Hugh Pearman, architecture critic for The Sunday Times, attributes the rejection to an even broader base of discrimination having to do with the UK Millennium Commission's involvement in funding the project.
“There was a lot of prejudice against who she was and oddly enough, not just because she was of Iraqi origin and not just because she was a woman, but because she was from London,” Pearman told the BBC. “There was that there as well. ‘You, the Millennium Commission, are parachuting in poncy London architects to our capital in Wales and telling us we’re going to build some oddly shaped thing? Thanks very much. What’s Welsh about that?’”
The Cardiff Opera House may have been a sore spot for the architect the rest of her career, but the rejection only added to her resolve. After another five years of entering competitions and losing them, Hadid finally broke through with a ferocious force. “I always thought, in the end, we’ll win,” she said, and win she did.
Hadid would go on to distinguish herself as a true visionary and one of the greatest architects who ever lived.
She was the first woman to ever win the Pritzker Prize; she was awarded the UK’s most prestigious architectural honor, the Stirling Prize, in back-to-back wins in 2010 and 2011; she is the only female architect to have earned the Royal Gold Medal; and, in 2012 Queen Elizabeth made Hadid a Dame. Her buildings, most of which were designed for public use, became a point of pride for cities and countries around the world.
In the end, Hadid’s “failure” perhaps haunts Cardiff most of all.
“To this day I’m angry this was not built, the Cardiff Opera House,” Pearman told the BBC. “It was really buildable, and this would really have not only established her name rather sooner as an architect who could build as opposed to maybe an architect who could draw and paint and model. But also it would have been the Bilbao, the Guggenheim, of an England and Wales.”
Architect Piers Gough put it a little more plainly: “What a drastically bad decision those Welsh guys made. I mean, really stupid. They had this fabulous architect with this fantastic design and they blew it, they just completely blew it. And one could boycott Wales forever really just on that basis. Why not?”