Read any newspaper published this year and you’d think the dome was a cross between a refugee tent in Grozny and a third-rate trade exhibition whose organisers had gone bust. In reality, the New Millennium Experience Company’s show is accommodated in an extraordinarily well worked out building laid out in a manner so clear and comprehensible that its designers should be praised for the success of that aspect of the project alone.
It also demonstrates some really marvellous design work, not only in the infrastructure of the dome itself, but also in the exhibits and the pavilions.
That the whole operation was completed on time and to budget is a tribute to the construction industry. Being able to get there on the scintillating extension to the Jubilee Line is just the icing on the cake. And once there, the behaviour of the staff is exemplary.
Of course it’s not perfect, but the place shouldn’t be closed down tomorrow just because there weren’t any tomatoes for my mozzarella salad. Everybody has conveniently forgotten that two years ago there was nothing but a pile of methane-contaminated ordure at the end of the Greenwich Peninsula.
From the newspapers you’d think the dome was a cross between a refugee tent in Grozny and a third-rate trade exhibition
Richard Rogers Partnership, Buro Happold and the rest of the team have laid out the basic shell so that everything in and around it can be made to operate very easily. The amphitheatre is in the middle, with bleacher seating all around. The seating, the ramps and the lifts are all framed in steelwork. The aesthetic is 88 Wood Street or the Lloyd’s building, with a combination of steel strings and precast concrete treads giving the whole a feeling of solidity and permanence not usually associated with structures of this type. These access points are all located on the inside edge of a giant circular road, rough-surfaced and painted maroon. This road is bordered with what is effectively a pavement that is smooth-finished but painted in more or less the same colour. On this are located the 12 service pavilions – three storeys high and again made of steel, with sexy glass lifts. The pavilions are fitted out to suit whichever catering operation has taken over, often five or six at a time, but somehow the overall clarity is not swamped by the usual “burgerama” visual diarrhoea.
The visual clarity is greatly helped by having all the steelwork in the servicing structures painted tangerine. The infill balustrading is uniform throughout the dome and is made of chromed mesh panels with the perimeters folded round to provide rigidity. There is surprisingly little stainless steel, perhaps because the total global output had already been used up on the JLE stations.
Behind the catering facilities in the pavilions are the WC and nappy-changing facilities. These are really something. Huge rectangular rooms with 50 m2 of Gauloises-blue mosaic tiles on the walls and floors around stainless steel urinals flushed with recycled rainwater, all bathed in a nightclubby blue light and accompanied by the quiet hiss of the extraction.
What this means in practice is that, wherever you are in the exhibition space, you are never more than about 50 m from something to eat or a loo. This is no mean achievement on an 8.8 ha plot. Slotted in between the pavilions are the things that the visitors are supposed to have come to see – the exhibitions and the zones. Most of these have been designed by high-profile architects. The famous Body Zone, of half-a-mile-long queue fame, is by Branson Coates, the Mind Zone was designed by Zaha Hadid and the Faith Zone is by Eva Jiricna. While the punters are trying to decide which exhibit to head for, NMEC is cranking up for the next show in the central arena.
Of course it’s not perfect, but the place shouldn’t be closed down tomorrow just because there weren’t any tomatoes for my mozzarella salad
The show itself is hard to quantify, but it is much more Cirque du Soleil than Widow Twankey. I don’t know whether the director has shares in a stilt-making business but almost all the performers walk, or fly, with 1.5 m high aluminium poles attached to their feet. What is really impressive is the way that the central core of the dome converts to a big top when the show proper is about to begin. Hundreds of 20 m long blue blinds silently unroll to provide a backdrop for the lighting effects projected from gantries that themselves drop like giant lianas in some electronic jungle. This provides a quality of enclosure missing from most entertainment staged under canvas.
What is probably most extraordinary is that the acoustics are better than those of a concert hall. Mind you, the show (composed by Peter Gabriel and designed by Mark Fisher who also did The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon tour) is the visual and acoustic equivalent of Cinderella meets the third world war, so it is hard to imagine whether the acoustics would work so well for a string quartet playing Beethoven. But if serious crash bang wallop is what you are after, you won’t be disappointed.
Where the whole experience falls down is in the discrepancy between the form of the zones and the way their contents are presented. In the centre of the Faith Zone, for example – an elegant steel and canvas enclosure resembling a giant sea urchin – there is a womb-like contemplation space that is also a vast light sculpture by James Turrell. The experience of being inside it, however, is marred by noise leaking in from the outside. A shortfall in funding forced the designer to make economies, so the acoustic insulation was reduced – rather than taking away the brightly lit Toblerone-shaped display cases in the aisles outside it, making it look for all the world like a giant estate agent’s window.
This was probably a result of the fact that the architect and the sponsor that provided the initial brief were not in direct contact with each other. Perhaps this was part of a divide-and-rule strategy on the part of NMEC? As Zaha Hadid recently said of the dome officials: “They had no appreciation for the skills of any of the artists.”
These problems are all tweakable, and it’s hard to see how the designers could have fulfilled all the expectations of such a colossally ambitious (albeit undefined) brief. I would be interested to see how soon an entrepreneur begins staging other shows in the central arena. Wembley Stadium eat your heart out.