What is the Millennium Dome?
The Millennium Dome was the centrepiece of British celebrations for the dawning of the year 2000.
Built on the site of the Meridian Line in north Greenwich – symbolising time – the Dome was, at the time of construction, the biggest dome in the world, occupying 300 acres of a formerly contaminated derelict gasworks. The former gasworks had been derelict for more than two decades and was the largest undeveloped site on the River Thames.
The Dome originally contained a theme park-cum-scientific exhibition entitled the ‘Millennium Experience’. This was a series of themed ‘zones’ representing concepts such as ‘money’ or ‘the body’, supported by live theatrical events throughout the day. The Millennium Experience closed on December 31 2000, and the Dome has since been sold to be converted into a 26,000 capacity entertainment and sports arena.
The Millennium Commission was set up by the Conservative Government in 1993 to raise funds for the celebration of the new millennium.
The idea of a national exhibition was first mooted by the Commission in 1994, and in 1996, the Commission announced its intention to award a grant to fund an exhibition in the Greenwich area. Having failed to attract private backing for the proposed project, the Government ensured its completion by undertaking a commitment to secure any development with funds from the National Lottery.
The Millennium Central Ltd, latterly the New Millennium Experience Company Ltd (NMEC), was set up to administer the project, and ministerial accountability for the project was assured initially through Peter Mandelson, as Minister without Portfolio.
The Dome itself was built on time and to budget, with work beginning in June 1997, and Prime Minister Tony Blair attended the ‘topping out’ ceremony in June 1998. It was another year before the contents of the Dome were unveiled, and as planned, it was closed to visitors at the end of 2000.
In 2001, government agency English Partnerships took ownership of the building and NMEC was liquidated. The Dome and about 170 acres on the Greenwich peninsula were sold to Meridian Delta Ltd in 2004 to create a 26,000-capacity arena and develop the surrounding area, including building 10,000 new homes and creating 24,000 jobs.
Under the terms of the deal, proceeds from the development would be shared between English Partnerships and Meridian, with the former expecting to earn about £550 million over the period up until 2018. The national lottery was also due a share, worth £70 million, in recognition of its original investment.
In May 2005 the Dome was officially renamed the O2 as part of its re-branding as an entertainment district. The O2 opened on June 24 2007, its stated ambition being to become London’s premier entertainment centre. The opening concert featured Bon Jovi, the last musical act to play at the old Wembley Stadium.
The O2 centre will feature in the 2012 London Olympics, when it will host both the gymnastics and basketball finals.
The Millennium Dome project was one of the most controversial public works projects ever undertaken, for a large number of reasons.
Firstly, the project was financially mismanaged from the outset. A 2000 National Audit Office report declared that the NMEC grossly over-estimated the number of visitors likely to attend (this figure was scaled down from 12 million to seven million in May 2000, and the final figure was 6.5 million), that it had mismanaged the construction of the Dome, and that its marketing had failed to attract the public.
The report said the first signs of budgetary pressure emerged in November 1998, 14 months before the Dome opened, and suggested that the Dome may have been insolvent since February 2000.
Criticisms of the project escalated long before the opening ceremony. The Jubilee Line extension, seen as essential for bringing visitors to the north Greenwich peninsula, was delayed by 14 months. When the station opened in May 1999 some facilities were still incomplete, including disabled access.
The Dome received extremely bad press from the outset and was highly politicised – not least because of the boasts made for it by the new Government. Some saw New Labour’s prestige entangled in the fate of the project, which NMEC executives later claimed made their job even harder. Many believed (wrongly) that the huge sums of money going into the project were public funds, which were being used to save the face of the Government, whose image was very closely tied up with the Dome’s fortunes. This worsened the public perception of the Dome.
The Dome’s contents and its performance also generated public criticism. The Experience had been expected to focus on British history, but in fact aimed to be modern, prompting anger about what some saw as its ‘political correctness’. The Dome was also beset by organisational problems when it opened, with thousands of visitors made to stand outside in the cold queuing for tickets. However, a Mori poll in 2000 revealed satisfaction levels of 85 per cent among visitors to the venue.
There was also criticism about the deal agreed with Meridian in 2004, and whether it represented good value for money for the taxpayer.
A new scandal hit the Dome in summer 2006, relating to the ambitions of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to host Britain’s first ‘super casino’. AEG formed part of the Meridian consortium and was responsible for turning the building into a sports and entertainment arena.
It emerged that deputy prime minister John Prescott had visited the Texas ranch of Philip Anschutz, who owned the firm. Mr Prescott had previously held responsibility for government planning matters. He was rebuked by parliament’s committee on standards and privileges for failing to declare the visit, which could be seen as a conflict of interests, on the register of MPs’ interests at the time
AEG still hoped to host a super casino in the reserved space at the O2. In the event it lost out to a bid from Manchester which was given provisional go-ahead to build on a site in East Manchester. However, the super casino project was finally axed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown who was reported to be strongly opposed to any kind of ‘Las Vegas’ style gambling in the UK.
Millennium Dome building:
Architect: Richard Rogers Partnership
Dates: 1996 – 1999
Civic Trust Award Commendation 2000
European Structural Steel Design Award 2000
RIBA Award 2000
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1998
Providing 100,000m² of enclosed space (2.2 million cubic metres), the structure is 365m in diameter, with a circumference of one kilometre and a maximum height of 50 m.
The Dome is suspended from a series of twelve 100m steel masts, held in place by more than 70km of high-strength steel cable which in turn support the Teflon-coated glass fibre roof.
The building itself was remarkably inexpensive – £43 million for groundworks, perimeter wall, masts, cable net structure and the roof fabric.
More than 6 million people visited the attraction during 2000.
“Mike Davies, project director, and Gary Withers of ‘Imagination’ together plotted the projection of the comets and stars, dawns and dusks on to the Dome’s surface prior to its detailed structural rationalisation. For Davies, an enthusiastic astronomer, the idea of time was uppermost in his mind – the 12 hours, the 12 months, and the 12 constellations of the sky which measure time are all integral to the original concept. Indeed the 12 towers are intended to be perceived as great arms, out-stretched in celebration.”
rshp.com: Millennium Dome