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Life after the Opera House : did Zaha do Cardiff a favour?


While hurling insults at the Scottish Parliament has evolved into a national sport, the Wales Millennium Centre has suffered an even greater ignominy:

complete indifference.Both projects were born out of an ambition to create a national symbol of international stature.While Scotland's controversial decision to entrust the symbol of Scottish democracy to a Catalan architect catapulted it into the headlines, Wales'rejection of Zaha Hadid's radical competition-winning proposal in favour of project by Percy Thomas Partnership effectively excused the building from serious scrutiny on the world stage. Its change in status from opera house (serious architecture) to Millennium Centre (something which will have to be bailed out in a couple of years time) reinforced the perception that the project had declined in stature. The merits or shortcomings of the chosen design faded into insignificance beside the incontrovertible fact that, depending on your point of view, the building: a) represented a victory for common sense over the forces of radicalism-run-wild; or b) epitomised the forces of conservatism and should not have been built at all.

Now it is finally taking shape, the building is proving worthy of attention in its own right. By an accident of history, Cardiff has inadvertently entrusted one of its major building projects to a Will Alsop scion, albeit one who operates under the shelter of a practice which can best be described as 'safe'.

Jonathan Adams, the project architect, has responded by delivering a building which marries technical and formal ambition with a genuine attempt to grapple with more theoretical territory, not least the highly contentious issue of 'Welshness'.While not to everybody's taste, the incorporation of typography depicting poetry in both English and Welsh takes on particular significance in view of the symbolic role of language in Wales'on-going battle to reconcile its unique cultural identity and its relationship to the UK as a whole.

In retrospect, it seems that Hadid did, after all, play a positive role in moulding Cardiff 's future.Had it not been preceded by Hadid's audacious radicalism, Percy Thomas Partnership's design might well have been dismissed as dangerously bold.

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