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The Millennium Dome

Written by Robert Lingham

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Millennium_Dome_(zakgollop)_version.jpg

The Millennium Dome- Was it a failure?

Intro

A white elephant refers to an extravagant, impractical gift that cannot be simply disposed of. The phrase is said to have originated, from a practise by the King of Siam. He would give away rare albino elephants to courtiers who annoyed him. Hopefully, they would be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs.

It appears that the people behind today’s project took direct inspiration from this historical tale, they even made it white.

This building was constructed to celebrate the beginning of a new era and bring a new landmark to London. Impressive as it might be, questions were asked, about its purpose or what was inside it and most importantly, who was going to pay for it?

Today on megaprojects we’re looking at what happens when a new government, which is determined to prove itself by staging a huge celebration and big engineering project, doesn’t go to plan. With funding problems, no creative direction, political infighting, and an angry public to contend with. It’s not a surprise that the Millennium Dome was considered a failure.

But was it?

Pitching the Tent

The story of the dome is a politically driven one, beginning in 1994, when Prime Minister John Major’s Conservative government turned its attention to the celebration of the upcoming Millennium in six years. The idea being that an event of some kind could be held to celebrate the dawning of a new era.

One idea put forward was a festival of Britain, to showcase everything the country had to offer in terms of culture and creativity. This great idea was a recycled one from the 1951 festival of Britain, which had as the main attraction a Dome of Discovery. Well, it worked once, so why not again? The PM formed the Millennium Commission in 1995, headed by chief executive Jennie Page to run the project.

Things were starting well. It would be a tight deadline to meet but still achievable, so long as a creative director for the project was chosen and if nothing politically major happened in between. Well, in 1997 the government lost power to New Labour, so a small hiccup.  

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With a new government in place, they inherited and greatly expanded the project. New Prime Minister Tony Blair, wanted it to be a giant festival that would run for a whole year. It would be a showcase of what the tabloids had coined, Cool Britannia. Presenting a vision of Britain as a creative and vibrant country with a dynamic new government.

A lot was riding on this project, for it would be an expression of how this new government worked to pull off such an event. The PM wanted to show how they could work with major corporations to sponsor different elements of the festival into something working and profitable. This wasn’t just a new year’s celebration; it was a statement.

Finding a suitable location in Britain for such an event was imperative. Not just a suitable site was needed, but one that was in a terrible state of disrepair. If the government could change the fortunes of the site, then it would be a huge win, not just for the area, but for New Labour.  

There were many to choose from, with the shortlist of locations consisting of Birmingham, Derby, Stratford and the Greenwich Peninsular. Ultimately Greenwich was chosen, the site of a former gasworks with its soil laden with arsenic and mercury, and a few unexploded bombs thrown in for good measure. Exactly the kind of area that needed regenerating.

Another reason for choosing Greenwich was a logical one. Close to the Greenwich Peninsular is the home of the Meridian line, the point of zero degrees longitude from where the new Millennium would begin.

That is not strictly true.  A new year starts on Caroline Island, which is situated just east of the international date line. A piddling detail but it’s all in the past now.

Failure to plan, plan to fail

Now that the project had a location, what was going to go there? Inspiration was again taken from the 1951 festival and its Dome. What the architects had planned was not strictly speaking a dome but rather a tent.

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Mike Davies, along with his team at the Richard Rogers Partnership and engineers, Buro Happold plan was a giant oversailing roof, within which individual displays could be constructed. This would keep visitors and exhibitions protected from the weather and most importantly this structure could be simple and quick to erect.

The huge structure would offer one hundred thousand square metres or one million square feet of exhibition space. Measuring 365 metres that’s 1,200 feet in diameter, with a circumference of one kilometre or 0.6 miles and a height of 50 metres that’s 165 feet.

The Dome would be suspended from a series of 12, 100-metre or 330-feet tall steel masts, held in place by more than 43 miles or 70 kilometres of high-strength steel cable, that supports a Teflon-coated glass fibre roof. This design was to emulate a clock face or calendar with each of the masts representing the months of the year.

The budget for the dome was stated to be £750 million or $976 million, with the building itself, remarkably inexpensive budgeted at £43 million or $46 million, for groundworks, perimeter walls, masts, the cable net structure, and roof fabric. This simple construction meant the design teams had more time to figure out what was going to go inside it.

Publicly the Dome project was progressing nicely, with concept designs and ideas being revealed it appeared to be an efficiently run project, things weren’t so simple though. With enough political infighting and resignations to fill a post by itself. Put simply there was no creative director for the dome project. This left an inexperienced middle management team to supervise the designers.

To solve this problem, Jennie Page formed the litmus group. Made up of museum directors and television bosses, it was their job to handle the designer’s ideas for the Dome and pick the best and most viable for the project. But having a group of people taking on the role of a single person caused another problem. How could a group of people have one vision?

One of the designers described the litmus group as ‘Made of people who couldn’t make decisions.’ There was no clear idea of what the whole thing was meant to be about. Other than celebrating the third millennium, nothing could be agreed upon.

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The lightest building in the world.

Setting aside what was going to happen inside the Dome, building work needed to commence. After difficulties funding the project through private investment, the government stated that the Dome would be funded with public money and with help from the National Lottery.

The first job was clearing the disused gasworks and derelict buildings that peppered the site to begin the clean-up operation. Since this was a former industrial site, the ground was saturated with decades of waste and hazardous materials.

To remove this soil vapour extraction was used to remove volatile chemicals such as benzene and petrol. This process of removing dangerous pollutants and converting them into harmless products was carried out on two-thirds of the site. Almost 220,000 cubic metres of material were removed to a specially designated landfill site and replaced with clean soil.

Another safety procedure was a slurry wall being installed around the site to prevent contaminants from leaching into the Thames. There were other concerns about the Dome weakening the Southbound Blackwall tunnel which runs below the Dome’s footprint. They couldn’t have chosen a better place.

After a relatively quick fix and the tunnel was reinforced to reduce vibration damage, and the dome could begin to be built. It needed to be done quickly since time waits for no man, and it wouldn’t hang on for the dome either. Tony Blair told a parade of journalists while breaking ground at the site ‘this is a statement of faith in our capacity to do this bigger and better than anyone else.’

Actual construction began on site in June 1997, with the driving of the first of 8,000 piles for the foundations, followed by drains and service trenches. A concrete ring beam was erected around the circumference of the Dome.

Next was the 12 masts which were assembled on site from 1,600 tonnes of steel sections, with each mast sitting on a quadrupod steel frame, anchored to four inclined concrete blocks. Six Bolt holes, 35.5millimetres or 1.4 inches in diameter were diamond drilled 650millimetres that’s 25.5 inches deep per block to secure the resin anchors for each leg of the frame.

On the quadrupods sit the 90-metre or 295 feet tall masts. Each mast was welded together before being lifted into position, with them all being erected between 13th and 30th October 1997. Once the masts were up, the fabric skin made from Teflon-coated fabric was connected to tension cables by a team of abseiling construction workers at the beginning of 1998.

A government decision that the Dome should have a useful life beyond the year 2000, prompted the decision to use the expensive Teflon material instead of the cheaper PVC-coated polyester originally specified. This made the Millennium Dome the lightest building in the world.

Openings in the centre of the roof release rising hot air and 12 fans draw in cooler external air. Water runoff is filtered through reed beds and recycled as grey water for toilet flushing. This was even included as an attraction, with the water cycle of the Dome being exhibited outside. Other toilet waste is dried and then burned to produce electricity for the Dome.

The entire Dome enclosure, was completed in 15 months, and handed over to the management team for the exhibition fit-out in autumn 1998, on time and well under budget.

Additionally, to the Dome being built, a major extension of the Jubilee Line of the London Underground was commissioned with the new station added, North Greenwich. This would provide hassle-free travel for visitors, setting them right at the front door of the new landmark. More on that in a little bit.

It seems nothing was wasted then, with an efficient workforce, of 1,500 people on site building the structure in time and on budget, a clever sustainable power source and a new transport link, everything was coming together. Surely things were on the up for the big top.

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Highway to the danger zones

After years of discussions with nothing being decided, the litmus group finally agreed on what was to be housed inside the Dome. It would reflect the visitors and the world them. Each divided into different aspects, who we are, what we do and where we live.  

Scattered around the dome would be a series of 14 zones, that would focus on specific parts of the themes. In the centre of the dome would be a large performance area, staging a musical show featuring 160 acrobats.

The exhibitions including body, mind, money, home planet and faith, attracted big-name sponsors like Boots, Ford, and Tesco funding them. When details were revealed about the contents of the dome, it appeared to be a product of 90s expressionism art, architecture and well, all a bit odd.

For example, the largest attraction, the body, designed by John Hackney and built in only 20 weeks, was a giant, pink-checked male and female body intertwined. Visitors would enter through the leg of the male figure. From there was an uninspiring escalator whisking people into a chamber, featuring a beating animatronic heart hanging from the ceiling.

While gazing up at the organ, a deafening scream would shriek out to demonstrate what happens when a person is scared. Certainly, a few terrified children would give a live demonstration of that!

From the heart was a trip up to the head. Once inside the skull, there was another surprise, with the eye sockets, cheekbones and mouth resembling a theatre. Each cavity housed two small brains enjoying a comedy performance by the large brain wearing a fez on stage, voiced by Tommy Cooper. Weird.

A running theme with the Millennium Dome was, good intentions with the aims of educating and informing the public about the world around them, but it was all just so odd.

Nevertheless, everything seemed to be on track for a great exhibition, with the money backing from the National Lottery, top designers and now major corporate sponsorship how could this project fail?  

Granted it couldn’t be all smooth sailing, and there were a few problems to contend with. Such as political interference, no creative direction or clear statement of purpose, an idealistic target of visitor numbers, the relentless timescale, and the compromises that came with large amounts of corporate sponsorship. Apart from that, it was all set to be phenomenal.

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Boats, Trains, and Acrobats

The deadline for the dome had arrived, December 31st, 1999, ready or not the Dome was going open and be the centre point for the UK’s millennium celebrations. Jennie Page was on site to go over all the details and to make sure the night went off smoothly.

As the winter night drew in and the last century ticked away, there was a major problem. 10,000 guests were expected at the dome, a mixture of high-level politicians, members of the royal family, designers of the exhibitions, VIPs and members of the public who had won tickets to the opening night.

Doesn’t sound like too much of a problem, but due to an admin error, several thousand tickets hadn’t been posted. This was rectified by having the tickets at the nearby Stratford train station, where guests could collect them, go through security and onto the tube to the dome.

It started well but deteriorated as more people arrived at the station. With so many tickets needing collecting and there only being one metal detector on hand for security checks, queues intensified.

Notice boards displaying useless information fuelled irate parents, as they tried to console their tearful children. Meanwhile, invited members of the press were seeing the positives of this chaos as they stood about scribbling in their notebooks, trying to think of witty headlines for the morning’s front pages.

Two specific families that didn’t suffer any of these woes, were the Prime Minister with his family along with other ministers, whose journey via the London Underground, went perfectly. The other was the Royal Family, who arrived at the dome by boat. When greeted at the Dome, they were surprised but the lack of people there.  

By the time most of the other guests arrived, most of the exhibits were closed and not a glass of fizz was in sight. The audience inside the auditorium and at home watched on as the acrobatic show and fireworks display rang in the new era. Everything seemed to go off like a well-executed night of celebration, that they would never forget. Certainly, the people stuck in the cold night at the tube station wouldn’t.

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Roll up, Roll up

1st December 2000, after the chaos of the night before, a new year and a new start to the Dome began, with its opening to the public. Before its grand opening pre-booked ticket sales were looking good, with over a million being purchased for the first month. The hopes of recouping the £750 million cost of the dome appeared to be on track.

The organisers hung all their hopes on 12 million sales during the year. The team in charge of the project were advised that 8 million was a more realistic target but carried on expecting the Dome to prove them right.

However, the business plan was flawed from the start. To recoup the funds hung on ticket sales alone. The sponsors would see a return on their investment from merchandise sales and advertising. The money poured into the dome from the public purse would see none of that.

The bad press didn’t seem to deter visitors to the attraction. If you were to visit the Dome during the first two weeks, you’d be greeted by the two-hour queue for the body exhibit. This wasn’t just down to its popularity, it was never designed to handle that volume of visitors.

The sponsor for the body, Boots was not too happy about the queues and withheld funds until it was sorted. Timed tickets were trialled to ease congestion, this helped somewhat but was not a permanent solution.

Added to this, many of the attractions were out of order. Effectively the Dome was having its shake-down cruise in public with all the teething problems being experienced by frustrated visitors. Coupled with the contractors handily going on holiday as soon as the dome opened, meant no one was around to fix any issues.

When the first visitor numbers were published, they were half of what was expected. Sponsors were incensed at the numbers and began withholding funds. Additional lottery funds were requested but with the caveat that better management was put in place.

The writing was on the wall for Jennie Page, in this case, it was on the tabloid front pages. At the end of January, she resigned due to the poor attendance figures being published. Page later quipped; she could see that she wouldn’t get through this. She had worked with the government before.

Desperate for a new head of the dome, the government brought in Pierre Yves, otherwise known as PY, from Disneyland Paris. With his expertise, he may just save the project and get visitor numbers back on track. His first task was sorting out the star attraction.

The queuing situation was swiftly dealt with by diverting the flow of visitors through the sponsorship village and away from the body near the entrance to the dome. Queuing time dropped to five minutes in one month.

A small victory, however later in February a survey found that the zones feel disconnected, some weren’t entertaining or have a clear message of what they were about. Chief amongst was the central acrobatic show from the mind of Genesis bassist, Peter Gabriel.  Telling the story of the earth people meeting the sky people was just too eccentric for the public to comprehend.

Following the rainy summer months, sways of free tickets being issued, and a new ad campaign, didn’t detract from the bad headlines. It seemed nothing could be done to save the Dome.

The only good headlines came from an attempted diamond heist at the dome. I’ll save that for my casual criminalist podcast if you’d like a post on that comment below. Subsequently, the attempted heist happened in November, and this was too late. If only happened earlier in the year, it may have helped with publicity.

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That’s all…

In the final month of the attraction, PY did manage to squeeze in one last interactive exhibit.  A passion of his was ice skating so a rink was installed to go with the other Christmas-themed attractions.           These new additions did little to improve visitor numbers.

With the end nearing the dome,  it was time to evaluate how the attraction had fared. The UK’s National Audit Office published a report blaming unrealistic attendance targets for the Dome’s financial problems, which had steadily increased throughout the year.

But in December, the play zone won an award for the best event space in the world. It appeared the dome did have a continuity theme, one small triumph in the sea of heinous headlines.

At least the Dome’s woes provided tabloid cartoonists with plenty of material for their scribblers for the year. Not exactly what the organisers or the government hoped for but at least their attraction was in the press.

With the gift shop bulging with discounted items, it was a visual representation that the organisers had expected more visitors. The final numbers were in, just over 6 million people had attended the dome, half what was hoped for.

Putting a brave face on it, Tony Blair, paid one final visit to the dome to give his thanks to the staff and designers who kept it running throughout the year.

The Dome’s original political supporter, MP Michael Heseltine stated, “I have seen the inside story, and of course, with hindsight, all of us would do it differently”. Roughly translated as we balls it up.

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Was it a failure?

To say the Dome was a failure may be too harsh, but the ticket sales and feedback cannot be disputed. The overall impression of the Dome was of its strangeness, eccentricity, and lack of consistency within it.

It was an ambitious project that had not been attempted before, with more planning and a clear creative message, then the Dome may have survived over the year it was built for.

Instead, there was a mass auction held for the contents of the Dome, of 17,000 items were up for sale, including the benches dotted around the dome and kitchen equipment. Once everything was sold for a bargain price, all that remained was the big white tent carcass of the Greenwich Peninsula, held up by its 12 bright yellow masts.

After a few small-scale events held in the Dome after its closure, a buyer was finally found. Now the 02 arena, is one of the most popular venues in the world. It may not have been a success in 2000 but it certainly is now.

PY summed up the Millennium Dome with this simple phrase, “politics and business do not mix.” The Dome is proof of that.

Sources:

http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=73

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/dec/01/millennium-dome-20-years-on-new-labour

https://rshp.com/projects/culture-and-leisure/the-millennium-dome/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Dome

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