That damn dome

January 20, 1999

That damn dome

Dear Simon,

Now that the party tent is up and the stocking fillers have been unwrapped, domophiles have an unfair advantage over domophobes. The damn thing exists; and nothing short of guerrilla action with a wrecking ball is going to dislodge it. Gone, then, is the dignity of dissent which can still change the world. Now domophobes look like a bunch of curmudgeons, tiresomely whingeing on about architectural eye-sores or the frittering of public money. There are even those who find us somehow un-British. So let's begin by levelling out the field of play and pretending that the debate is still an open one.

My dilemma is this: I am thrilled to belong to the generation which will see the dawn of a new millennium. What could be more exciting? What could promise more hope? Yet I feel utterly alienated from the theme-park-cum-corporate-trade-fair that the New Millennium Experience (NME) is shaping up to be. As I see it, irrespective of what we think we're celebrating-the birth of Christianity or the wonder of human existence-the year 2000 presents an unusual opportunity for self-examination. In order to arrive at the point where we can re-affirm our will to make Britain a better place, we need to ask ourselves as a nation-a pluralist nation-who we are, where we are going and what we want from the new century.

These are questions that will not tolerate glib or simple-minded answers. And not a shard of light will be cast on them if our millennium "experience" is to consist of a button-pushing tour through the colon of some two-headed giant, a bit of travolator distraction and the chance to mess around with an assortment of interactive gadgetry which has all the appeal of an early learning centre. Is this really the best we can do in terms of holding a mirror up to ourselves?

I forget: we're not supposed to recognise ourselves, because it's the future we're looking at. But hasn't anyone told the millennium commission that the brave unknown which lies ahead of us loses every vestige of its allure once it is submitted to conservators and museologists for the kind of commemorative packaging usually meted out to the past? Just as Star Trek, for all its warp drives and teleporter technology will be forever stuck in the 1960s, the dome will be stuck in 1999. Its future is consigned to the heritage industry before the millennium has even begun.

It would perhaps have been better to have left the thing empty. It might then have served as a place of quiet contemplation. As it is, we have something worse-and a perfect symbol of the Blairite project: a dome empty but for sponsorship.

Moreover, no one should be surprised if, by some bizarre trick of Mandelsonian magic, the dome remains empty even after it has been stuffed to bursting-point with its competing wow-factors. I cannot be alone in feeling that there is nothing more fundamentally hollow than a design-fest. I do not mean to demean the creative talents of those architects and stage designers, graphic designers, image makers and computer whizzes who have worked so hard to meet ridiculous deadlines. I want only to suggest that contemporary Britain is much more than the sum of its entertainment and design industries. But try telling that to a star-struck government which consistently mistakes style for content and spin for dynamism.

I have no intention of visiting the dome. That will be my protest. I think it is an insult to the municipal pride of the citizens of Leeds, Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester to expect them to trudge down to a toxic little peninsula of estuary London to get their slice of millennial action. How can a government already committed to devolving Scotland and Wales, and considering regional assemblies for England, be so blithely centralist about its millennium programme?

I have nothing against monuments per se. But let them be artistic paeans to the mood of the moment, like Antony Gormley's Angel of the North-a contentious creation, I admit, but the debate it spawned was stimulating and aesthetic, not moribund and political. Would that the government had seen fit to mark the millennium by commissioning a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread or Anthony Caro. It would then have had oodles of cash left over for co-ordinating a pan-national celebration-something more human, more participatory-that would bring the regions together for an extraordinary shared experience. Imagine: no one would have to leave home to get an injection of national pride. And the Jubilee Line management could stop sweating. Although ephemeral, such a celebration would at least be inclusive.

Perhaps when Greenwich has served its short-term purpose, Millbank HQ could be made to uproot itself and take up residence in the dome as fitting punishment for having led the nation on a merry dance to nowhere.

Marina Benjamin

30th November 1998

Dear Marina,

Relax about being on the losing side as a "domophobe." The dome has been more abused in advance than any such project since, well, the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain. Edmund Burke was right in warning that any great public project is opposed by everyone-until it happens. The dome was always fated to receive a vituperative press from the start. Such is the English way.

At least you do not use the "schools and hospitals" argument against a millennial celebration in itself. The millennium commission was given lottery money "to celebrate," and not to make up for other public spending shortfalls. The commission felt we ought to attempt at least one big show, if its cost were limited to one fifth of its total revenue. The rest has gone to other parts of the country, as you want, and one fifth of the dome's own budget is allocated to its national programme and to millennium events in other big cities. You imply that Glasgow, Manchester and Cardiff have no millennium funds. This is not true.

The manner in which people, individually and collectively, mark their historic milestones always invites ridicule (read Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, about the Austro-Hungarian jubilee, or think of any birthday). You say you would have preferred a giant work of art-by Caro or Whiteread-as a millennial gesture. I can only say that there was widespread public support for a national exhibition, which a quarter of the nation is expected to attend. Alternatively, you want a "question-asking" session about "where we are going," with regions brought together for a "shared national experience" without coming to London. I often hear this idea, and always ask: what does it mean?

I believe your ambition is at least partially met by the remit that the commission gave the dome company. Both Richard Rogers's dome and Norman Foster's linked station canopy are significant works of British art, dismissed only by a nation that still places architecture far beneath the artistic salt. The dome's national programme, to be launched this winter, is aimed at extensive civic and educational participation. Those involved will collaborate in projects both electronically and at the dome. Fighting to set this programme up, against a blizzard of ten-parts-critical to one-part-useful ideas, has not been easy for the young people involved. They have done it.

The dome content team cannot win until opening day. The content designers, under contract not to be trivial or boring, let alone a trade fair, have nine months to first rehearsal. The commission went for high risk on content: it will explore the present and future, not the past, which every museum in the land will be exploring. Hundreds of designers now know that they are on their mettle, but it is as unfair to sneer at their work in progress as it would be to sneer at a first draft of your or my writing. I can list their ambitions if you wish, not whether they succeed.

The dome itself adds up so far on time and on budget. Others can judge it, and on the whole they admire it. The content is a different venture and phenomenally difficult. It has set itself the task of being both informative and fun about the future of people, communities and the planet. I suppose any fool can read that sentence, scoff, and mutter "Disneyland," "trade fair"-or both. It must be neither. For my part, I prefer those who walk the occasional high wire, rather than those who point only to the drop.


Simon Jenkins

1st December 1998

Dear Simon,

You surprise me. Of all the illustrious dead who might have been ranged domeside, you choose Edmund Burke. Is there any figure more closely associated with the counter-Enlightenment's forces of reaction? Were Burke alive today, no doubt he would be as deeply suspicious of us "sophisters, economists and calculators" as ever he was. And is not modernisation the very model of reformist "innovation" which he classed as voodoo? My choice would have been PT Barnum.

Forgive me if I remain unimpressed by the fact that "the dome is up... on time and on budget." At the risk of repeating myself, the foreclosure of debate by rude reality is precisely what I am objecting to. That is why I believe that the dome's contents must win the day on their own merits, not on the back of the brow beating television advertising to which we shall shortly be subjected. If people mock, and they do, some notice ought to be taken. The "vituperative press" you say the dome has so far received cannot simply be dismissed as quaint English folly. It is heartfelt criticism. Besides, if there is such a thing as "the English way," I prefer to think it is a clerkly scepticism.

But let's not be so negative about the Brits. You need only look at rock concerts and football matches to witness the heights of enthusiasm to which we are capable of rising when we are not patronised. Indeed, had we been party to the kind of pacts other nations have made with the future-Kennedy's space programme, say, or Mitterrand's grands projets-who knows what groundswell of support we might have mustered. The dome, I'm afraid, is just not stimulating the right nerve endings.

Your estimate that a quarter of the nation will visit the dome does not sway the argument. Some 10m people watch Gladiators each week; does this mean that Gladiators is good television? In any case, what of the 75 per cent of the population who won't be visiting the dome?

The only common ground between us is a shared belief that good architecture merits artistic consideration. So, in lieu of a fine art millennium commission (which incidentally, need not shout about its credentials by being "giant"), I will call again for the dome to be left empty.

The fact that numerous critics have been making this same suggestion is a testimony to the mute power which aesthetic symbols exert upon us. Compared to the sensory overload guaranteed to stupefy anyone fool enough to purchase a ticket to the NME, contemplating a work of art does some of the work of moral reckoning that I have been recommending. It encourages introspection and reflection and forces an interpretative engagement with the world. That done, we can party.

You ask how a shared national experience might be engineered among a geographically disparate people. It is not an easy question to answer, but if the millennium programme admitted some sort of relay element, then a celebratory torch could be passed from one region to another. Such a torch need not be merely gestural. If, for example, the government had pledged to overhaul the entire nation's rail network by the year 2000, it could then have commissioned a "millennium train" to put the show on the road.

This is no more than an off-the-cuff suggestion; small fry. But give me a budget, give me a millennium commission, give me a high powered "litmus group" and I promise to deliver. Like the Jubilee line management, I will ask only for a little faith.



2nd December 1998

Dear Marina,

I am struggling to understand whether you really feel there should be any millennial celebration at all. Your comments, like those of most critics, seem more a sceptical shrug than an argument. Your zany idea of torch-handing, offered to avoid the charge of negativism, is a version of various "hand-holding" ideas which were indeed considered-but nobody came up with a scheme. As for renewing the railway, there would have been an outcry if millennium commission money were used to relieve the Treasury of that obligation. We were told, quite literally, to celebrate.

I think that it was right to ask the widest range of people, mostly far from London, how they felt the millennium money should be spent. I also think the mix-of artistic, scientific and environmental projects, local celebrations and an exhibition in the capital-was reasonable. There was scope for imagination and taking risks, of which the dome was an example. No such exhibition has ever been applauded before the event. Most, including those of 1851 and 1951, were damned for their extravagance and commercialism in terms similar to yours. Yet they were popular and were treated afterwards as appropriate markers in Britain's cultural history.

Nobody can make such a claim yet for the dome, except for its architecture. But all involved are acutely aware of the challenge, and of the long dark night of the cynics through which they must pass along the way. The dome has been built with the public's money; it must answer to the widest possible public. With its national programme, it should have the biggest outreach of any lottery project so far. I suppose we could have given everyone a torch, a sparkler and a feel-good pack and gone home. I would love to have read your scathing attack on a Britain that could do no better than that.

The remit of the dome content designers has been the same from the start: to explore the three themes of "Who we are, what we do and where we live." I am sure that we can easily list the pitfalls in such a remit, but it does not seem cheap, or unworthy, or ignoble. The designers of the 14 zones and the central show have a year to go. I see no point in cutting them off at the ankles, knees or neck when they are flat out; and when, in my view, they are on course to honour their remit.

This is the moment in any project when the devil always has the best tunes. I can hear yours, but still find them hard to hum.



3rd December 1998

Dear Simon,

Just as you are struggling with my motivations, I am struggling with your PR-speak. Chunks of your letters could be inserted into the copious bumph produced by the New Millennium Experience company with little danger of detection. I am dizzy with so much sales talk, with pitches, puff and marketing mantras. It's rousing stuff but, rather like the dome, it seems to evade real content.

Why have we so little substance to work with so late in the day? The public has only the haziest idea of the dome's contents and it knows nothing about the national programme-which, despite your assurances, is just an afterthought. With an insult of a budget-just ?50m compared to Greenwich's ?708m jackpot-I cannot see how the NME will have the "biggest outreach of any lottery project," unless it is also the thinnest.

It was all very well, in 1951, for London to hog the Festival of Britain to itself, knowing that the postwar population was happy to rally behind a monolithic, flag-waving nationalism. Not any more. In a multicultural, post-modern age, it is not the nation which embraces the people under the banner of a unifying mythology, but the people who define their own terms of belonging, who make an elective commitment to a sense of shared identity.

Futurism and nostalgia make miserable bedfellows. For this reason the dome is doomed. Come D-day, those seeking to recuperate some vestige of a bygone Britain-a Britain that was great-will be as disappointed as those expecting to be instantly transported into a Carrollian world of tomorrow. However, should that new world dawn by some unfathomable twist of fate, I shall be eating humble pie and you will be Earl Jenkins of East Greenwich.



4th December 1998

Dear Marina,

We shall see. We clearly understand different languages of celebration, though I sense a shared belief in the vitality of communities, peoples and nations, and in the role of icons in their first rites of passage. The dome is not a cherry on a cake of some less tangible national experience. It is a thundering great exhibition. For all the prophets of electronic communication and global villaging, there is no evidence that people have lost their enthusiasm to congregate, to wonder, to be taught, to participate and to have fun.

Of course the dome may turn out to have been an adventure too far. The content may not all work: it is no more ready for your or my criticism than is an unfinished book or an unrehearsed play. Anyone can so define the dome's purpose as to claim it a failure from the start. That is the oldest sceptic's gambit. But it would be a miserable world in which such adventures were never even tried.