But I just can’t resist joining the debate about its future.
Those of us who worked to build the dome invested four years in that elegant white enclosure on the end of the Greenwich Peninsula. The structural boys, who stayed up all night running and re-running the analysis, chewed their fingernails as the masts were erected and sweated over potential snow loads, were chuffed to bits when the dome envelope was completed in June 1998. The services team, struggling to quantify the unpredictable so that there was enough power on opening night, and challenged to provide a low-energy space that was warm enough for Lycra-clad performers, beamed as the celebrations were carried through without a blown fuse or a shivering acrobat. The architects struggling to balance budget, flexible brief and an elegant aesthetic – not to mention a ministerial injunction to be “jolly” – stood back in 1999 and agreed that the dome really did look rather good. And the thousands upon thousands of individuals who contributed to the construction of the dome and its various support buildings, from the scrap metal merchants who first cleared the site to the riggers who were there on 31 December 1999, were all touched by a real sense of pride in being involved in something so big, so unique, so bold.
And the dome is a bold statement, a unique celebration of the millennium and a genuinely world-class achievement. It is the largest enclosed space in the world, the second most visible man-made structure from space (after the Great Wall of China), the winner of the MacRobert Award for Engineering Achievement, and a potential precursor of a whole breed of wide-span enclosures that can be used across the world.
Already, the dome is an icon on the London skyline. Advertisements for the city feature the distinctive shape; it’s on the cover of the Time Out Guide to London; it’s immortalised in shop signs (“British Dome Stores” in Greenwich is a favourite) and business names (“Millennium Pizza” in Bow). It’s an anchor to the new development east of Canary Wharf; it pops up constantly in the background of EastEnders and The Bill; it’s over the river from the Big Brother house, and, love it or loathe it, it is as recognisable a symbol of the East End as Big Ben is of Westminster, not to mention a key landmark for every pilot landing at Heathrow.
Love it or loathe it, the dome is as recognisable a symbol of the East End as Big Ben is of Westminster
Nomura’s plan to revamp the exhibits and supplement them with hotel and leisure facilities would have continued the theme of entertainment, with scope for some wild and wacky rides. The company’s withdrawal has reopened the debate. The Legacy plan to use the space for developing businesses is to be applauded for its spirit of innovation. Relatively cheap, flexible space can be constructed under the envelope – portable buildings, for example, that can be dismounted and re-erected elsewhere as the fledgeling businesses thrive and fly the nest.
Technically, the dome offers a whole range of possibilities. The foundations are highly flexible – given that the content was unknown at the time. A spread of 10 458 piles were installed across the footprint, allowing, if necessary, additional two-storey buildings across the entire width. The main masts create a 200 m clear area – the masts were in fact moved further apart in the later stages of design so as to provide this area, forming sufficient space for a full-size football pitch and an eight-lane running track with clear-view seating for 35 000 spectators.
The roof itself is constructed from sections of fabric, partly for ease of maintenance or replacement, but also so that the central fabric sections can be removed when natural light is required (for a grass pitch for example). The superstructures within the dome are designed in such a way that dismantling, either in part or in entirety, is a simple process of reversing the erection sequence.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold and was its project manager on the Millennium Dome.