Thoughts on the Dome

As time ticks on, the contents of the Dome is still a mystery. Philip Cowlam shares his worries. Philip Cowlam is a design consultant and art director.

I have yet to meet anybody who has expressed any interest in attending the Dome. Whether this is simply due to lousy PR or a lack of conception, we have yet, as the big date approaches, to find out.

Nobody from Blackburn, Bolton, Edinburgh or Carlisle will bother to travel so far south unless somebody does a lot more explaining.

The first question the majority of British citizens asked was – apart from its coincidence with the Meridian – why Greenwich?

And why not Woolwich Arsenal? Why so temporary? Why quite so ephemeral? Why a single Dome?

That Disney’s name was invoked too has been regarded by many with great sadness. In fact, dear old Walt had a deal more foresight when he placed both Disneyland and Disney World. He undertook a demographic study for Disneyland; it proved to be at a population epicentre. Through similar research he sited Disney World on waste ground near a future population epicentre. Epcot was intended to be the dream of a nation to come and was loaded with altruism. Will Greenwich really be that dream? Will it be relevant to 2001 or 2100? And, more to the point, will the Dome be relevant to the nation at large?

The public is currently appalled by what it thinks is being prepared for it at Greenwich and with the vast expense involved, however novel and innovative these exhibits or events eventually turn out to be. It queries the relevance of the so-called Body or any other known exhibits to the perceived theme of The (British) Millennium Past and The (British) Millennium to Come, to the subject of time. It also seems to be mystified and saddened by commercial involvement. Why was a pitch (nasty word) required for the various sections; was this just a lack of brief or indecision? Sooner of later someone will query the cost of design studies.

Years ago I visited a Switzerland exhibition. The Swiss explained their nation via a series of very individuals pavilions with space between to breathe, ponder and reflect, eat or drink. Within each very individual pavilion a topic was well-explored and well-explained, between each were cleverly landscaped areas with a clear route to follow. Will our site be so impeccably and imaginatively landscaped? Will it have the flair for landscape and gardens which have characterised this nation?

Individuals question the choice of a single Dome, however awesome, with the inherent mechanics of such a vast space: acoustics, solar gain, temperature loss, means of escape, public address, ventilation, first aid, security and signs.

The public questions whether shuffling with the multitudes will be a pleasurable experience. Are we committed to vast aisles between style-rich gondolas? What do you do when your child wants to pee? Will the place stink of people, chips or beer? Will it be policed or have Securicor taken the contract?

I gather (very well chosen) food will be offered in the Dome. Will this hearty British/Asian/Caribbean fare really suit the wider public? Is the food so affordable and is the content so ethically/culturally correct when you’ve travelled so far? Will there really be chip-butties, Cornish pasties and kebabs but no burgers? (The first Doner-kebab arrived from Turkey in 1970-71, Wimpy was already in business.) Will there be vindaloo for beer drinkers? So why not pizza? Are these areas multiple-choice or odd kiosks? Is Watneys or Carlsberg available or do we drink Coke? Glasses or plastic containers? Are the designers also sorting out the wrapping and waste to be recycled or biodegradable.

The public also feels the prime content should be aimed at us, the British, not camera-toting foreign tourists.

Millions will also question the relevance of good design and taste to the experience of the past and immediate future of the mixed bag of Saxons, Picts, Celts, Norse, Asians and Caribbean Africans who make up this present island race, emigrants and immigrants. Its pertinence to 1066, Domesday, Shakespeare, Chaucer and the language, Watt & Brunel, Nelson, Churchill, Darwin, Parliament, Capability Brown, Constable, WG Grace, The Beatles, Henry VIII, Rolls-Royce, Whittle, Livingstone, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Wren, Elgar and a lot more besides is missing.

Nobody is suggesting Beefeaters, Black Dyke Bands and Morris Dancers, but the vast British public may not take too kindly to a sub-Conran netherworld without a dash of heritage. Is this to be a celebration of the British millennium or a designer’s Dome? Judging by what I have seen at the Natural History Museum, high-profile designers require lots of money and space to explain very simple concepts. Frankly, give me the V&A.

Dome architect Richard Rogers is in his sixties with an oh-so-capable team proficient at solving complex technicalities. From hearsay, comment and more particularly the TV, one suspects that many of the far younger Dome designers are very much less experienced either in problem solving or static presentation for the general public.

And the price paid for that logo failed to amuse the population. So discreet is the news from the design camp that we suspect a conspiracy. Say nothing until we tell you. Are they holding back?

The tender list seemed to have been directed at a very specific section of the design community. Were none of our excellent theatre or film designers invited at any stage to participate? Ralph Kolai would make mincemeat of some of the competing designers. Is there no feature extolling just pure engineering or just plain fun? Ronald Searle (the cartoonist) made some clever contributions to the Festival of Britain, are we no longer whimsical? Again, does the site buzz with exotic lighting at night, is the Thames riverfront being exploited.

If I am ill informed the public might be even more so. They are hoping for something intrinsically and ironically British with cultural breadth, not just a well-styled arcade or amusement gallery. They will not want technique at the expense of content.

Latest articles