Mean times at Greenwich Dome

The Dome’s shaky progress has suffered a further blow with the departure of Stephen Bayley. Matthew Valentine reports.

The list of casualties suffered in the battle over the Greenwich Millennium celebrations has yet another name on it this week. Self-proclaimed design guru Stephen Bayley has left the project in a blaze of publicity, effectively accusing Minister Without Portfolio Peter Mandelson of running the event like a cold war-era Communist wall-building programme.

Bayley, now ex-creative director of the Dome, joins a list of design worthies, including Imagination’s Gary Withers, who have decided that discretion is the better part of valour and distanced themselves from what has, at times, looked like a farce.

Bayley’s departure leaves the 750m project with no visible presence at the creative helm, but few are surprised by it. Rumours of mutual discontent between him and the operator, the New Millennium Experience Company, have been circulating for some months.

What has caused alarm within the NMEC camp is Bayley’s unwillingness to go quietly.

In fact, so noisy has his departure been that Design Week is one of the few media he declines to speak to, following a disagreement with the magazine shortly after his appointment to the Dome project.

Imagination has maintained a diplomatic silence over its exit last March, and staff there decline to comment on their own or Bayley’s departure even now. Bayley, however, has been widely quoted as saying the Greenwich event could be “crap”, and has publicly criticised Mandelson.

The NMEC and Mandelson have responded in similar fashion, slighting Bayley’s actual contri-bution to the plans. An NMEC spokesman says Bayley will not be replaced.

The design groups working on the Dome do not appear to be excessively shocked by Bayley’s departure. “It hasn’t worried us at all,” says one creative. “While it is disappointing that Stephen is no longer involved… there are still lots of ideas,” he adds.

The designer, who must remain anonymous because of strict confidentiality clauses, concedes that Bayley’s creative ideas did not fit well with the NMEC mentality. “His ideas were quite different from the rest of the team… his not working as a team player was part of the problem,” he says. Designers working for other consultancies among the 11 appointed to develop the Dome’s interior agree and it is known that Bayley’s involvement discouraged a couple of top design groups from accepting invitations to pitch for work.

Not that Bayley had an easy job. Another source close to the project says he is likely to have been exasperated by the “team of bureaucrats, and their questionable skills and abilities”, with which he no doubt had to deal.

Something would certainly seem to have upset Bayley since the original announcement of his departure.

Last Friday, when his resignation was first made public, both NMEC chief executive Jennie Page and Bayley issued polite statements claiming a mutual agreement to part company. It was suggested that Bayley would still be called upon for advice.

The tone changed abruptly after Bayley’s Sunday Telegraph interview was published last weekend. In it, Bayley claimed Mandelson was pandering to public opinion. Decontaminated Greenwich mud then started to be slung in earnest.

The lasting impression of the behind-the-scenes situation as the Dome team prepares to go public, next month, with long-awaited interior proposals, is one of confusion. Several of the designers appointed in December to create the interiors claim to have met neither Bayley or Mandelson. They deal, on the whole, with bureaucrats.

And despite individual commitment and enthusiasm for the project by the consultancies involved, the fact remains that none have yet seen each other’s work. The first joint meetings of the 11 consultancies involved are understood to be scheduled for next week.

A major part of Bayley’s role, overseeing the appointment of those consultancies, has been fulfilled. But the fact remains that a 750m project designed in part to celebrate Britain’s creativity now appears to be co-ordinated, not by a professional creative, but by career politicians, civil servants and quango members.

A spokesman for NMEC says production director Claire Sampson is in control of co-ordinating the design groups working on the Dome contents. When asked her background, he says: “She has mainly been involved in large-scale performances.” Sampson was unavailable for comment as Design Week went to press.

The project has never run smoothly, and a significant number of its hitches have been over creative differences. If the Dome were a rock band, it would have split up months ago.

Imagination’s departure, again by mutual consent with the organisers, was certainly influenced by disagreements over the contents of the Dome. How long before the designers now working on the Dome interiors start feeling political pressure?

Another Dome insider suggests that Mandelson’s recent trip to Disney played into Bayley’s hands, allowing him an excuse for a fit of creative pique. Mandelson returned with proposals for a town square or Main Street-style centrepiece to the Dome.

This contrasts with what NMEC board member Michael Grade, of Channel 4 fame, told a Parliamentary Select Committee last December. “You don’t get the best from designers by telling them what to do,” he said. NMEC’s spokesman denies there is a conflict. “That’s a presumption that the only people who can have ideas are the ones who call themselves creatives,” he says.

Ironically, for an event meant to look to the future, the next stage of the Dome’s development is anything but clear. But what looks certain is continued development by committee.

The Dome insider believes it would be impossible, “even if Mandelson were to allow it”, for Bayley to be replaced. “You would have to question the motives, or competence, of anyone willing to replace Bayley,” he says.

The saga of the Dome so far…

January 1996 – Imagination announced as Millennium Festival operating company

June 1996 – Greenwich confirmed as venue

January 1997 – Doubts over funding result in budget cut for project

March 1997 – Imagination ceases work on Dome

June 1997 – Stephen Bayley appointed as creative director.

It becomes clear that Imagination no longer has a hand in proceedings. 30m of design contracts advertised in the Official Journal of the EC. The newly elected Labour Government considers scrapping the event. It gets a last minute reprieve

November 1997 – It emerges at a Parliamentary Select Committee that Imagination was paid 7.6m for its contribution on Dome interiors. The plans were mostly dropped

December 1997 – NMEC directors are quizzed by Select Committee. They deny the project is out of control and announce, after long speculation, the appointment of the 11 design groups to create interiors

January 1998 – NMEC accepts Bayley’s resignation.

February 1998 – NMEC due to reveal interior plans.

Autumn 1999 – Soft opening scheduled for Dome

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