Silencing the dome doomsayers

Scott Billings speaks to the designers tasked with redeveloping the millennial monument and the surrounding Greenwich peninsula

The danger in creating a boldly iconic building is that if its inaugural event is seen as a flop, the building itself comes to symbolise failure. It’s branding gone wrong; brand values in reverse gear.

This is arguably where the Richard Rogers Partnership-designed Millennium Dome is now planted in the public consciousness. For many it came to be seen as a grand waste of money, poured into an ill-advised and somewhat transient celebration – the Millennium Experience.

This legacy does not augur well for the most recent plans for the site. Earlier this year English Partnerships, the Government quango that owns the plot, signed a deal with developer consortium Meridian Delta to produce a blueprint for the regeneration of the entire Greenwich peninsula. This £5bn masterplan was drawn up by architect and urban design group Terry Farrell & Partners.

The plan will give the peninsula 33 000m2 of retail space; a 22 000-seat sports and entertainment Arena within the Dome; 10 000 homes and office space for 24 000 people. Its guiding design principle is one of modern, sustainable living, according to English Partnerships. Alongside these buildings will be a host of cafés, restaurants and spaces for public art and performance. The land between the Thames-facing side of the Dome and the water’s edge will be branded Dome Waterfront, an area fully accessible to the public, offering sports and leisure facilities, as well as eateries.

The opportunities for design consultancies are substantial, as elements of the regeneration scheme come to fruition over the next three years. The masterplan carves the peninsula into nine zones and designers and architects will be appointed on a plot by plot basis, according to a spokesman for Meridian Delta.

One of the first elements will be the creation of Millennium Square, an area the size of London’s Leicester Square, that will act as a gateway between the Alsop Architects-designed North Greenwich Tube station and the entertainment area surrounding and inside the Dome.

The design plans for the square were unveiled last week (DW 9 December). It is scheduled for completion in spring 2007, to coincide with the opening of an HOK-conceived Arena by entertainment and sports event company Anschutz Entertainment Group Europe, a partner with Meridian Delta.

Millennium Square was given the go ahead by the council at the end of last month and is being overseen by design and architect consultancy Barr Gazetas. Director Alastair Barr has put together a multidisciplinary design team to ensure that each aspect of the public space is handled by the appropriate experts.

Lighting specialist Speirs & Major previously worked on lighting architecture for the Dome itself, as well as the surrounding area. It will produce a lighting solution that harmonises with the Dome, while catering for the range of activities that will take place in the square.

Being home to offices, housing, entertainment and leisure facilities, the space must be adaptable from a design point of view. ‘It is a complicated brief, encompassing both permanent and temporary elements. It has to transform in many different ways: in the daytime there will be workers and in the evenings there will be concerts and other events,’ says Barr.

Speirs & Major director Mark Major agrees. ‘The lighting has to inform the square for the many different types of life it is going to have. It must feel comfortable and safe for residents and workers, but sometimes exciting events will be taking place and the lighting has to animate that too,’ he says.

Barr assessed some of the major squares in London when drawing up the proposal for the Greenwich project. ‘We measured [the designs] against places like Leicester Square and Somerset House. All the great squares of the world are the work of many hands, so I wanted to put together a comprehensive team.’

This team includes structural engineers Whitbybird and landscape architect Whitelaw Turkington. A wayfinding and signage strategy for the peninsula was drawn up by Henrion Ludlow Schmidt as part of the original masterplan document, although implementation has not yet begun. Barr indicates that HLS will pick up the integrated graphics and signage brief for the square at a later stage.

A key focal point for the Millennium Square will be a permanent 56m-tall ‘mast’ installation that draws visual references from all areas of the peninsula. There are also plans for a performance stage and an innovative temporary ‘wall’ that will help to define the space ahead of the construction of surrounding buildings. Local artists and craftspeople will exhibit work on this wall.

Barr believes that the project is a ‘great opportunity’ for designers to create a major new public place in London. ‘Greenwich has a rich history of engineering, so this is a great project for a number of reasons,’ he says.

But will the curse of the Dome strike again? The New Millennium Experience Company, the Dome’s previous owner and architect of the original experience, ended its tenure rather ignominiously, facing criticisms of poor management and low attendance.

The gripes were abundant, too, from the design industry (DW 11 February 2000). Consultancies working on the experience spoke of a lack of coherent creative direction and a marginalisation of design in the process. Stephen Bayley presciently resigned as creative director of the Dome as early as 1998, concluding that the site would be ‘crap’. These days he prefers not to talk about it at all.

Clearly the scope of the Greenwich peninsula masterplan – to generate an entirely new urban environment over the next 18 years – is a much grander and more permanent proposition than the evanescent Millennium Experience.

Indeed, it is the largest regeneration project to be undertaken in the UK. And if lessons have been learnt from past experience, Meridian Delta and its partners will place great importance on a coherent and well-managed design strategy.

Greenwich Peninsula Masterplan

• 33 00m2 of retail space

• 340 000m2 of commercial space

• a 22 000-seat entertainment Arena within the Dome

• a further 62 000m2 of entertainment and leisure space around the Arena and inside the Dome

• a new hotel

• office space for 24 000 people

• 10 000 homes Websites

• English Partnerships

• Anschutz Entertainment

• Meridian

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