Hollow promise

Controversy has plagued the Dome since building started. Design Week decided to take a look, and also asked some prominent British designers their opinions.

Great achievement or flop? Stimulating or banal? Frustrating or delightful? Defying categorisation, the Dome is a noisy, tiring and ultimately disappointing mix of all these things. Things start well and go rapidly downhill.

Despite its discoloured appearance, the Dome itself is fabulous, even more so when illuminated at night. If you leave behind any quibbles about the Dome’s £758m budget, entering the huge tent among a crowd buzzing with anticipation is exciting enough to thrill even the most hardened cynic. Inside loom the zones we’ve all heard so much about in all their weird and wonderful glory, jostling alongside each other around the central performance space.

There is a stunning mixed bag of architectural styles. Branson Coates’s Body zone is the star attraction, reclining gracefully in a skin of shimmering pink and yellow tiles. It is visually counterbalanced by Allford Hall Monaghan and Morris’s linear Work/ Learning zone, which, covered in advertising hoarding, transforms from a giant set of bookshelves to an industrial staircase and again into a lush field of cows. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Externally, Richard Rogers’s Rest zone looks like a corrugated, rainbow-coloured armadillo. The Talk zone, by Imagination, is a glitzy six-storey pavilion. Fletcher Priest’s contribution to this visual extravaganza is a flying saucer for the Home Planet zone, while Zaha Hadid’s Mind zone doesn’t disappoint, despite its somewhat squashed position, which makes it hard to appreciate fully the dynamic structure.

There’s nothing wrong with such an eclectic approach, which makes a virtue out of variety. But the organisers’ folly has been to pay so little attention to the dowdy areas surrounding each zone, and, more importantly, to how the zones relate to each other, or the Dome itself. The sorry result is final proof of Stephen Bayley’s assertion that a strong creative vision was essential to unite the zones.

As one visitor commented, it was more like trudging round a trade show at Earls Court exhibition centre than a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And unfortunately, due to an astonishing failure to anticipate how to handle the expected 35 000 visitors per day, when you’re inside the Dome you see far more of these drab general areas than the insides of the zones.

Visitor flow is one of the fundamentals of creating a leisure attraction. While teething troubles are inevitable, you don’t expect anyone to get it this wrong. Queues both taint the experience and heighten expectation – the zones have to be pretty amazing to justify them. Some are. But many, sadly are not.

The zones’ organisers hope the Dome will entertain, inspire and educate visitors. In trying to do all these things, most of the 14 zones fail to do any of this well – you get better exhibitions in top museums and more thrilling entertainment in a dedicated theme park (although the central Millennium Show itself looked great). Education and cultural values were far down the agenda, compared with entertainment, yet many of the zones seemed pedestrian and old-fashioned, rather than exciting.

Surprisingly, there were no Disney-style rides and little visual razzmatazz, but there certainly was sound, in over-abundance – which accumulated into a cacophany that would have anyone reaching for the Paracetamol.

Technologically, apart from some of the games in the Play zone, the many interactive exhibits seemed tame and a worrying number were already not working. One general disappointment was the scale. The Dome is enormous, but many of the zones themselves seemed squashed inside and didn’t take advantage of the huge space inside the venue.

While it is easy to find fault, there is also a great deal that is enjoyable about the exhibits, even if they aren’t ground-breaking. Children were obviously enjoying themselves – it’s destined to be a great venue for school outings, and the experience would be more positive without the queues, which are now being tackled.

Top Dome exhibition designer by a mile is Work, designer of four zones, including two of the best: Living Island and Work (with architect AHMM), where the designers showed a sense of humour and flair missing from most zones.

The Work zone begins with a witty presentation of the old, grinding world of work. Everything is on a larger-than-life scale – a huge overhead conveyor belt bearing depressing messages, a bank of hamster cages with a furry toy on each treadmill, giant clock-in machines, post-bags and an outsized 100 000-hour clock ticking away the number of hours each person works in a lifetime. A huge wall of back-lit Post-It notes show the banal messages left in a typical office.

We’re led out of this depressing environment into the new ways of working room (cue jaunty music), with huge illuminated touch-screen panels displaying the new work: portable skills, mobile, remote, part-time working, and so on. Next it’s past an assembly line of new skills needed for this new work and then into a games room, which cleverly demonstrates each skill through games. A table-football game for 22 people represents teamwork, for example. A successful exhibition – nothing too ambitious, but with humour, strong imagery, and popular group activities.

Above Work is the Learning zone by the same design groups, which set the scene well with an outsized school corridor, smells of boiled cabbage and playground sounds, before ushering in visitors to a simulated school assembly with a projected row of teachers. We watch a sweet film demonstrating the spirit of learning, before entering into the Learning Orchard, attractive with twinkling lights, trees and grass, but let down by some of the 50 interactive learning pods – the ones I tried weren’t working.

Living Planet is a fun way of demonstrating the harm we are doing to our environment and what we can do to about it. Work accomplished this by creating a tacky British seaside resort with a cliff of recycled cans, a wall of Millennium rock, and a Tunnel of Love concealed by a sewage pipe and a lighthouse decorated by lightbulbs. Palm trees are wind blown by climate changes, gnomes in the flower displays hold damaging fertilizers, and changing cubicles are closed due to water shortages. Environmental messages are rammed home in saucy postcards with serious messages and there are plenty of adaptions of typical pier games: shooting galleries with targets for energy reductions, a grab game where the target is insulation, which you manoeuvre into the roof of a dolls house. Some say the designers of this zone are preaching, but it confidently delivers an important message in a witty and accessible manner.

The Money zone has its moments – notably the entrance lined with £50 notes – and a strong theme. You start by recklessly spending £1m at screens mounted in supermarket trolleys and surrounded by golden arches, then progress through a nightmare of bankruptcy to an investment room where you are shown better ways of spending your money.

Journey, slickly designed by Imagination, will probably appeal to adults more than many of the zones, and takes a chronological approach through the history of travel with a bombardment of interesting facts on future ways of travelling, including work by students at the Royal College of Art. It is conventional, with no surprises, but informative and well-conceived.

Home Planet is a guide by aliens to earth – charming but embarrassing by Disney entertainment standards. Yet it is far more preferable to the jingoism of the central exhibit in the Self Portrait zone, which trumpets British qualities: “We invented fair play”, “Britain is the No 1 creative nation on earth”, and many more.

Mind is far better – it is a little perplexing but stimulating and more adult-oriented than most zones. Play’s exhibition of interactive futuristic games proved highly popular.

Three major disappointments are Faith, Body and Talk. Designed by Eva Jiricna Architects with exhibition design by Jasper Jacob Associates, Faith – admittedly a challenging theme – is uninspiring and curiously static. Starting with an unappealing image of a baby, it trots through Christianity on panels set against cross-shaped recesses, before lumping together other faiths in one space. A considerable area was also dedicated to Millennium messages from well-known figures.

The mundane presentation failed to engage the visitors, who seemed keen to find their way out as soon as possible. Their seemed to be no attempt to explore the subject in any depth. In the middle is a mesmerising James Turrell light installation, the inclusion of which seems arbitrary rather than fundamental to the zone, and too similar to the Rest zone.

Talk, by Imagination, is shocking for its too obvious links with sponsor BT – the ET theme music from its ads is playing and visitors have a chance to have their photo taken with ET.

The Body, fabulous on the outside, is disappointing inside. The magnified skin (complete with animated mites) is fun, but the golden opportunity for a great exhibition has been largely squandered by the unsophisticated presentation. The Eye room consists of little more than film footage of emotional scenes that make you cry. Brains are bizarrely illustrated by an animated brain, wearing a fez, telling Tommy Cooper jokes.

After the queues of the Body, Rest is a completely empty zone – though sadly already badly scuffed – where the weary visitor can recline and enjoy the ambient music and lighting. Bold, pure concept or a cheap cop-out? Either way, after the largely futile sensory overload elsewhere in the Dome, such nothingness was, indeed, a blessing.

Verdicts

‘It’s a very commendable effort. Well worth the £20. [But] I don’t think there’s a happy juxtaposition between the building and what went into it… Faith is very disappointing. People were wandering through looking for the exit as soon as they got in.’ Rasshied Din

‘We had a fantastic day, but not many were so lucky… I didn’t see who the zones were aimed at. I don’t think the content was in designers’ hands.’ Ron Arad

‘The structure [of the Body Zone] is amazing. It is a shame the insides didn’t match it… Tommy Cooper’s brain and the pumping heart struck me as being really pedestrian stuff. I’m surprised the insides are so old-fashioned.’ Roger Mann of Casson Mann

‘I found it all very interesting and stimulating. It’s good that the zones are diverse, but there aren’t enough links between them. I’d look for more cohesion.’ Andrew Summers, chief executive of the Design Council

‘I was disappointed. I felt there seemed to be very little intelligent stimulation. It doesn’t reflect anything artistic or cultural… The building itself is brilliant, but when you get inside it’s been thrown together a bit. It’s suffered because of design by committee.’ Rob Price, senior designer at Found Associates

‘My feeling is that the Dome is a fantastic structure and the Jubilee Line Extension is a superb achievement – if the Dome helped realise that then great… The Dome shrieks of class, but the inside doesn’t.’ Architect Alex de Rijke

‘The Dome and its contents are incongruous. As a covered fairground it works – I’m not sure there was any attempt to do more than that.’ Terry Pawson of Pawson Williams

‘It doesn’t have a celebratory atmosphere. I felt the whole thing was slightly drab. It needs to keep people entertained.’ Graeme Elder, general manager of Corsie Naysmith

‘It’s just a whole mish-mash inside a very clever piece of engineering. I was impressed by the technology and scale, but you’ve got all this junk inside it.’ Richard Allen, architect associate at Building Design Partnership

‘There have been such strides made in modern museums that its very hard for the zones in the Dome to compete with them.’ Alex Reid, director-general of the Royal Institute of British Architects

‘Our favourite part was the Home Planet. Simple, quick, fun and educational – all the things they said the Dome would be. [But] there is a lack of cohesion and signposting. I felt we were in a giant trade fair.’ Stephen Page, director of Paper White

‘Everyone thought it was well worth going. It is surprisingly sophisticated given its diverse audience. [But] the map design is crap, the signposting is bad and it is already looking frayed around the edges.’ Roger Felton of Roger Felton Associates

‘There are a lot of good ideas, but it seemed like people had to walk through political treacle to get them done. There were no risks [taken] and a huge lack of design cohesion.’ Nick Brown, head of graphics at Rodney Fitch & Co

‘It’s more about edutainment than entertainment per se. Discovery is absolutely amazing, very worthy and sometimes breathtaking.’ Jill McArdle, strategic development director at BDG/ McColl

‘There’s a discrepancy between political aspirations for the Dome and what’s been produced. Ten years ago, interactive-based exhibitions were seen to be the future of museums. The Dome proves it isn’t. It’s been and gone.’ Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison

Who designed the zones

Body – Branson Coates Architecture (architecture), Spike! (Body Show), HP:ICM (Explore Area)

Home Planet – Park Avenue Productions, Fletcher Priest (structure)

Self Portrait – Caribiner with Lorenzo Apicella at Pentagram

Journey – Imagination

Living Island – Work

Work – Work with Allford Hall, Monaghan and Morris

Learning – Work with Allford Hall, Monaghan and Morris

Mind – Office of Zaha Hadid

Play – Land Design

Shared Ground – Gumuchdjian & Spence with Shigeru Ban (architecture), Work (content)

Faith – Eva Jiricna Architects (architecture), Jasper Jacob Associates (exhibition)

Talk – Imagination

Rest – Richard Rogers Partnership

Money – Caribiner with Bob Baxter at Amalgam

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