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
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'
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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