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01 March 1998


Last week, journalists were invited to meet prime minister Tony Blair to preview the contents of London's Millennium Dome. Blair appeared on video and the Dome's contents are banal. Nonetheless, Penny Lewis loves the whole idea

According to one poll, eighty-nine per cent of British people don't want to visit the Millennium Dome. It's hardly surprising given the bad press it has received. Critics complain that the UKP758 million project is too big, too expensive and short on ideas. Whatever the critics say, the Dome is a good piece of architecture on a great site.

But when I went to Tony Blair's 'power breakfast' at the People's Palace (where else?) it became clear that things were turning 'pro-Dome'. British Telecom, BSkyB, Manpower and Tesco each committed UKP12 million to be founder sponsors. Blair decided to fight cynicism with hyperbole, the Dome Experience would be 'the best day of your life', 'the envy of the world' etc. etc. I didn't expect the press pack to swallow the patter, but, to my amazement, they were like lambs.

Mandy Millennium from the Sun said the paper was dropping its highly profile 'Dump the Dome' campaign and getting behind the project. "Of course we'll keep an eye on it, if it is too politically correct then we'll criticise it" she said. Suddenly, I had lost my appetite for millennial celebrations, my giant audacious Dome was in danger of becoming a cross between a marketing exercise for Britain plc and a Diana-style mass therapy session. Nobody seemed to share my disappointment.

For Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland there was "a hole in the Dome where a vision should be...because Britain itself suffers from just such a gap". While the Dome may lack a single big idea it doesn't lack ideas. To write off the Dome as a triumph of 'style over content' would be a mistake. In fact, I've never seen an exhibition that's so ideologically loaded.

I like the Dome because it is a bit of good old fashioned modernist monumentalism. Everybody else hated it for exactly the same reasons. The content, however is all earth, mind, body and soul - all very nineties in fact. BT will use 'mille-e-mail' to shaft other internet providers and BSkyB (a stable-mate of the Sun newspaper incidentally) hopes for broadcasting privileges. The government may even slip the odd subliminal 'Vote Labour' message into the multi-media shows for all I care. What really upsets me is the terribly worthy exhibits.

Take a look at the Learning Curve, (subtitled 'match your hidden skills to the new world of work') sponsored by Manpower and designed by Derrick Tuke-Hastings of Park Avenue, the company that brought us British Airways' new image.

Derrick has probably never claimed Job Seekers Allowance, so the similarity between his scheme and the local unemployment office is accidental. Visitors travel up the 'learning curve', though a 3-D book of jobs, past the 'video job shuffle' to the next level where they mingle with mentors. They get a 'license to skill' and an introduction to the 'national grid for learning' in the 'classroom of the future'. This zone will rely heavily on an Intranet somehow linked to the best minds in Britain. Derrick and New Labour have yet to grasp the fact that IT is often no more interactive than the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Beware also the environmental campaign masquerading as a trip to the sea-side. 'Living Island' is set in a sleepy seaside town. The purpose of Living Island is to encourage us not to be so greedy. "We are reluctant to adopt ways of living which reduce our freedom and quality of life" says the brochure. Absolutely correct. But designer Tim Pyne of WORK has turned this into a warning that only if we all act responsibly for fifty years can we save the planet. A hi-tech accumulator helps you to measure the environmental impact of your actions over the next fifty years, and calculate the impact of others.

After all that excitement you'll need to escape to Dreamscape. Climb aboard a bed floater-coaster with 14 others (avoid lying next to strangers) and drift off on a water ride that takes you through four zones. En route to zone one you will be encouraged to count sheep. The first module is called 'what clouds are made of'. In area two you will travel across the night sky of the city. In area three you will be taken underwater. You may see sheep again, but wearing aqualungs. The final tunnel is full of alarm clocks to wake you up from your dream. Dreamscape is a multi-sensory illusion in which smells and sounds stimulate all the senses. This zone could be fun if it weren't for the suggestion that our lives are so out of control that we need spindoctor supreme Peter Mandelson to tell us to relax.

And finally the big body. The centre piece of the exhibits is a massive human body: beautiful and complex it may be but I would prefer to learn about space travel, genetic engineering or new construction techniques than take a trip around it. We are far too hung up about our health already without a national monument to celebrate our self-obsession.

For all the talk about daring, boldness and excellence the Dome show is incredibly mundane. It is pitched at entertaining children rather than stretching adults. The futuristic celebration of human achievement that was intimated by Richard Rogers' shell is nowhere to be found. "It takes little courage to say no to a new idea" said Tony Blair. He should know. His government and the Litmus group which came up with the proposals clearly suffer from the same condition as the cynics - a strong dose of low horizons. But while the critics carp from the sidelines and refuse to contribute anything at all, the rest of us will be thankful that there will be some sort of monument to see in the next millennium.

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