Since plans for Britain’s Millennium Dome began to take shape last year, condemnation has poured in from all sides. Left-wing critics are appalled at the waste of $1.3 billion that could have gone toward housing and the National Health Service. Conservatives object to the Blair government’s attempt to present England as a modern, multicultural nation instead of a tradition-bound, Christian one. With the help of constant attacks from all sides, the dome’s approval rating fell to 8 percent in one recent poll–lower than Monica’s, Ken’s, or even Linda’s. The only people in London who don’t heap scorn on it are those who complain they’re too tired of the topic to talk about it.
On the chance that something so despised might deserve defending, I put on a hard hat and rubber boots and went to look at the construction site in Greenwich, just outside London, this week. (Because the world’s clocks are fixed to Greenwich Mean Time, this is the spot where the millennium can be argued to officially debut.) As I half suspected, the dome is better than advertised. As a building, it is stunning. As the site of the main international event of the Year 2000, it may or may not succeed. But the dome has at least a chance to follow in the path of its illustrious English ancestors, the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain of 1951. Those events, too, were derided in advance as wasteful and stupid. But they are remembered now as monumental expressions of British identity and historical moment.
As a feat of architecture, engineering, and urban renewal, the dome is already close to being a success. John Major’s Tory government first conceived of the project, and Labor was officially opposed before it took power, so until 1997, no one knew what would happen. Once Tony Blair decided to make the dome a kind of signature for “New Labor,” there were just three years to plan and build one of the largest structures on earth–on a contaminated gasworks site. Before construction could begin, the ground below literally had to be washed to remove cyanide and arsenic. Engineers then went about raising a room of nearly a million square feet. This is a structure so huge that, according to Anthony Day, the retired architect who gave me a tour, weather systems would form inside if not for the high-tech fiberglass and Teflon double skin. Day suggests that winter visitors will want to bring overcoats and brandy flasks, because the building is simply too big to heat (though I suspect the Brits like it that way).
Even if the exhibition fails to draw the hoped-for 15 million visitors, it will be responsible for turning hundreds of acres of industrial wasteland into a lovely spot on the Thames linked to the rest of the metropolis by the Underground. This follows the urban planning ideas of Britain’s most famous architect, Richard Rogers, who is responsible for the dome. Rogers believes that London, like many of the world’s great cities, is being undone by traffic and unplanned sprawl. He argues in a recent book, Cities for a Small Planet, that the way to rescue London is to reduce car traffic; develop new neighborhoods for mixed use; and convert the city’s greatest natural asset, the Thames riverbank, into public space. If successful, the dome will make the case for pursuing Rogers’ grander vision–turning the Thames Embankment, now a highway along the river, into a grand park.
L ike Rogers’ best-known building, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the dome is drawn in brilliant color, which jumps out against the London drab like a brightly frosted cake. The Italian-born architect’s other hallmark, of which the Lloyd’s of London headquarters is the leading example, is for a building to show how it works, exposing its elevators, ventilation pipes, and structural girders. You can see, at a glance from the outside, how the dome stands up. Its huge tent is sustained by brilliant yellow tent poles, nearly 300 feet high and stitched together with steel cables. From the overlooking hill of the Greenwich Royal Observatory, the structure looks like a whimsical sea monster that crawled out of the Thames. The chief fault of Rogers’ other buildings is that they don’t age well–many of the better known ones have an early ‘80s, “new wave” look. But the dome has the advantage of being temporary. The millennium exhibition will last a year, and though the structure may be converted to another use, it’s only supposed to last 25 years.
The tent is beautiful empty–David Hockney, the painter, was recently quoted proposing that it be left that way. And members of the planning committee may privately share that wish. Almost every decision about how to fill the space has aroused controversy. The most ridiculed proposal is “Body,” a gargantuan naked human people can walk through, observing the operation of the internal organs as in a Rogers building. Leaving Dome Person unsexed on the exterior seems overly prudish. But the alternative of Brobdingnagian genitalia and python-size pubic hairs could be hard to stomach, even after the Starr report.
The greatest challenge may be the least futuristic part of the exhibition–the “National Identity” section, for which the committee has yet to announce any kind of plan. In deciding what to put here, Britain will be describing itself to the world. In previous great exhibitions, this was a less complicated issue. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1851, Britain was an imperial power with a unitary culture. A great exhibition was a chance to dazzle with what it could make and build, beginning with the glass and iron Crystal Palace itself, a marvel of early Victorian engineering. The 1951 Festival of Britain (organized by the grandfather of the Labor minister now in charge of the Millennium Dome) still represented a culturally homogenous, industrial country. It displayed thousands of British-made things, heralding the emergence from wartime rationing into postwar consumerism. But today, Britain is increasingly an immigrant nation with an emerging postindustrial economy. It depends far more on the export of services and its culture than it does on its goods. The Blair government has invested its prestige in the dome because it sees it as an opportunity to convey this new social and economic reality.
Peter Mandelson, the Cabinet member in charge of the millennium project, was lampooned for traveling to Disney World in search of ideas. But an excess of popular appeal is less likely than an overinfusion of centrist political ideology. Blair loves to say that he sees Britain as a dynamic, forward-looking, and multicultural society. Laborites talk unblushingly about “re-branding” the country. To New Labor, the dome is a great marketing opportunity. Which makes it, in a way, an authentic expression of the spirit of the age.