For some it was a nightmare. For others a godsend. For everyone who helped fill the Dome with mind-expanding matter, it was an experience they will never forget.
Less than two months on from the opening, how are the designers, architects and exhibitions organisers involved coping with their post-Dome stress syndrome?
Tim Pyne, from Work, instrumental in creating four of the 14 zones, found the experience so shattering he has closed down his office and taken off for a well-earned rest in Antigua. He is not due to reopen for business until the end of March.
Malcolm Lewis, creative director of Media Projects International, worked with HP ICM on the Body zone. However, three months prior to the Dome’s opening, both consultancies were fired. It is clear that Lewis is still simmering with indignation about the whole affair.
“There were so many good, professional design companies involved whose ideas were stifled by the bureaucracy of the client,” he told Design Week, referring to the Government-appointed New Millennium Experience Company – before events took over and the head of NMEC chief executive Jennie Page rolled. “It simply didn’t meet the challenge to create an efficient, courageous and fast-acting organisation. What happens in these situations, and this wasn’t the first time, is that the design community takes the blame for what was, in fact, appalling mismanagement,” he explains.
This view is echoed by Simon Tapping of Park Avenue, creator of the Home Planet zone, albeit in less strident tones. “There is no doubt that a strong, central creative directorate would have benefited all the designers involved. Too many decisions were made without consultation, and we were all kept very separate from one another. I’m proud of our work on the Home Planet and I’m glad we did it, but things could have been easier for us,” he says.
For some, the Dome provided a growth opportunity as well as a showcase for its skills. Amalgam, which worked on the Money zone with Caribiner, is now working for a big City financial institution as a direct result of its Dome commission. Peter Higgins, creative director of small independent consultancy Land, considers the work he did on the highly praised Play zone has significantly advanced the cause of interactive exhibitions. His retrospective feelings of achievement far outweigh what he describes as “the angst and the pain” he felt at the time. “It would be helpful to all of us to have a proper post mortem,” says Higgins. “The participants may well finish up coming to blows, but, as an industry, we need to learn from this… rather than relying on the negative reactions of the press.”
With hindsight, Lois Jacobs, chairman of Caribiner (which worked on the Money and Self Portrait zones), says she would have been “more single-minded and less flexible” about Caribiner’s creative approach.
“Mind you, if we’d taken that approach, I’m quite sure we wouldn’t have been there at the end,” she adds. What the experience has taught the visitor attraction industry, Jacobs believes, is that creativity should be at the forefront of decision-taking: “We’ve seen what happens when the designers are marginalised,” she says.
Not surprisingly perhaps “negative and ill-informed” press coverage is cited by everyone canvassed as the most demoralising aspect of the post-opening period. This hasn’t been helped by the recently published attendance figures for January and the appointment of ex-Euro Disney whizkid Pierre-Yves Gerbeau to succeed Page, all of which has given Dome-bashers yet more ammunition.
Higgins believes there should have been a running-in period – the equivalent of a theatrical preview – with reduced admission prices and time to iron out the wrinkles. “Too much flak so early on isn’t helpful,” he says.
As for the lack of contact between designers, Jacobs clearly isn’t cowed by the client’s desire to keep them all in their separate boxes. “Of course we talked to each other,” she says. “But we couldn’t make that single creative vision happen to bring it all together. That’s what was missing.”
Heads have been rolling at Dome operator the New Millennium Experience Company, with poor attendance figures proving the final straw for chief executive Jennie Page, who was forced out this week.
The figure of 12m visitors has always been the target the Dome has aimed for, equating to a simple mean average of 1m per month.
But, despite opening hype, visitors during January numbered just 366,420. Of those, 21,800 were admitted for free, as either Greenwich residents, promotional partners or media visitors. There were 344,620 paying visitors.