New Labour's folly
...was to think it had enough ideas to fill the Millennium Dome, says Penny Lewis
Described by the cultural critic AA Gill as 'the biggest fridge magnet in the world' and by Prince Charles as 'a monstrous blancmange', the Millennium Dome was propelled into 2000 by an unrelenting stream of bad news stories about late trains, falling visitor numbers, long queues and broken machines. Even one-time Dome enthusiast Polly Toynbee was forced to admit that the Millennium Experience matched 'high-minded messages' with 'low-tech exhibitions'. But was this an inevitable disaster?
It is easy to see why the Dome has made its visitors cringe. The Work Zone reminds you of a Restart interview and the Talk Zone is like being trapped inside a BT television ad. The Mind Zone, which investigates the tricks that the brain plays, sounds promising; but Zaha Hadid's structure - a massive gravity-defying cantilever - gets lost in the crowd and the content is weak. The Tunnel of Love, leading into the Living Island Zone, begins with lovehearts and ends with a mealy-mouthed environmentalism. The zone is full of garden gnomes grasping bottles of weedkiller and artificial fertiliser instead of fishing rods, and fruit machines which demand reductions in car mileage and household waste. The most overt attempts to drum up some kind of collective feelgood factor are the weakest. Shared Ground, the zone made almost entirely from cardboard donated by 23 000 Blue Peter viewers, is more a social attitudes survey than a show.
It's not all bad. The Play Zone, designed by Peter Higgins and created by Land Design Studios, makes imaginative use of computers and technology to develop games that are simple and genuinely interactive. The Journey Zone is a museum on a ramp, which follows the history of human travel from the invention of the wheel to the present day. There is none of the usual hectoring about the overuse of the car, and the final section on the future is a fascinating display of the latest transport innovations, including the tilting train, Terminal 5, and the tiltrotor (a cross between a plane and helicopter). The Journey Zone is one of the most distinctive structures in the Dome and the interior is beautifully designed with clear graphics. It clearly benefited from the fact that the designers, Imagination, took full responsibility for the entire project.
Nigel Coates' design for the Body Zone has been the butt of jokes for over two years, but the interior makes an impact - even though it does seem to be designed to turn people off the human body. The tour begins in the pubic hairs, complete with crabs and lice and a pierced clitoris (which my father mistook for an ear). The fertilisation space feels like a flashback to Woody Allen's Everything You Need to Know About Sex, and the brains that imitate Tommy Cooper raise a smile. Unfortunately, once on the outside, the zone deteriorates into an unhealthy concoction of lifestyle advice, new-age mysticism and psychobabble. And even the Play Zone has come under pressure, as Peter Higgins says, 'to pass on a worthy way of living in the future'. Although it is both 'interactive' and 'edutainment', Higgins dislikes both expressions: 'The expressions have been misappropriated, they are used to mean a worthiness attached to hedonistic gameplay.' Proof of this worthiness was given in February, as the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) barred children on free school trips from the fun Body and Play Zones because they clashed with the 'educational nature' of such visits. And even after Jennie Page, the Dome's chief executive, was eventually sacked, her EuroDisney replacement was warned that he could not think of this project as 'just another visitor attraction' like Disneyland or Alton Towers.
Some aspects of the Dome had potential. So why did it end up such a mess? Simon Jenkins, the millennium commissioner who has driven the project from its conception, refuses to admit the project is a flop and is convinced that it will pass into folk memory as a great event. But he is prepared to concede that the Dome is a 'product of its times'. Others hold a view of inevitable doom: Regeneration, Adam Nicolson's history of the project, presents the Dome on a hiding to hell from the creation of the Lottery under John Major. Sorry Meniscus, a short book on the Dome by Iain Sinclair, holds the geography responsible: 'It was very perceptive of New Labour to nominate Bugby's Marshes as the site for their monumentally expensive folly. Where better to greet the millennium than this ravished swamp with its history of plague, pestilence and pillage?' The Dome organisers were always going to be fighting a losing battle, in a society that has grown uncomfortable with big, costly and ambitious projects.
But the government's approach to the Dome made these problems far worse. The prime minister was not content with having the Dome as a showcase for British creativity: he wanted it to have a therapeutic quality, to be a real tonic for the nation. And what became painfully clear in the development of the zones was that New Labour could not manufacture the 'sense of community' it so desperately desired.
Jeremy Irons, the actor whose voice is used on the Dome's TV adverts, claimed that the Dome suffers from the 1990s problem of being 'all about style, but not substance'. Stephen Bayley was the creative director until he resigned after Peter Mandelson was photographed in Disneyland getting ideas for the Dome. According to Adam Nicolson, Bayley spent much of his time at the NMEC staring at the ceiling or looking at his nails. Bayley may have been a little precious, but his criticism that the zones lacked substance or intellectual depth was legitimate. The response to Bayley from Martin Newman, the Dome's contents editor, was that 'we are never going to have the authority to give answers. We are only going to have the authority to ask questions'. But the reluctance to do anything more than pose a few questions is precisely the problem with the Dome's content. With a few honourable exceptions, it's hard to get much creative or intellectual stimulation - or even fun - from the zones, because not much thought and creativity has been invested in them. Zaha Hadid, the designer of the Mind Zone, put it another way, claiming that the NMEC assumed 'every visitor is an idiot who can't understand complicated ideas'.
Just because New Labour is short on ideas, does that mean the Dome had to be? 'Definitely not, they were controllable', says the Play Zone's Peter Higgins of his clients. Tony Blair said he wanted the Dome to be a 'monument to our creativity', but the result was a snapshot, throwing light on all the worst aspects of the creative sector in Britain. The creatives may claim that their hands were tied and that Peter Mandelson was the source of all the problems, but zones like the Play Zone show that it was possible to produce some interesting work, if you had some ideas of your own and were prepared to work hard to develop them. And the external structure of the Dome provided some clues to what could have been possible. Construction within the necessary time was a Herculean task made possible by the determination of the Richard Rogers Partnership and Buro Happold, the engineers. The Dome is the largest covered space in the world, and the development of the design has provided important information on how domes behave and how dome structures may be used in the future. The story of its construction by a rigging team of mountaineers, a tall ships bosun and a rock-face rescuer, is compelling. With this level of inspiration on the outside, the failure of creative content inside did not have to be a foregone conclusion.
The Dome's critics must also share the blame for its failure. Some of the knocking copy is the inevitable reaction to Blair's hype and the NMEC's attempts to over-hype the 'Amazing Day'. But much of it is cheap and unhelpful, and some of the more serious stuff betrays an extremely uncritical attitude to the government's agenda. 'The Millennium Experience was the first major misjudgement by the New Labour conceptualists. How can Blair, who emerged so powerfully, a sensitive manipulator of national emotion, from the week of public mourning for the Princess of Wales, have been persuaded to give his blessing to the Teflon hedgehog?', says Iain Sinclair in Sorry Meniscus. Inside the Dome Polly Toynbee and Hugo Young can see the half-baked environmentalism and the feelgood communitarianism for what it really is: dull and boring. Outside the Dome, they are prepared to take the same ideas very seriously. As Hugo Young put it, 'far from glorifying New Labour, [the Dome] distracts from what the government is doing. Forced to up his rhetoric to heights of overheated vacuity, Mr Blair does his real project less than justice. This project is more solid than the Dome will ever be'.
But the failure of the Dome is that it shows the vacuity of the entire New Labour project: the hole at the heart of political imagination and ambition today. When combined with designers who often seemed only too willing to restrict themselves to the government's narrow vision, and critics sniping more about cost and queues than content, the Dome is what you get - a Millennium Experience that nobody wants to take part in.
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000