A Space Odyessey

The Millennium Commission has conceded that the current round of projects being considered for funding may be the last. Matthew Valentine follows the progress of one successful early applicant.

The profile of the design industry is almost certain to get a healthy shot in the arm when visitors start pouring into the millennium attractions taking shape around the country. New Labour has made serious commitments to the UK’s creative industries, and the celebrations will afford them an international showcase.

For designers, celebration of the new millennium is proving one of the biggest potential money-spinners for, well, millennia. But those hoping for a free-for-all with good cause money from the National Lottery will have been sorely disappointed. Competition for work, and for funding, has been intense. And it will become even more so. Changes to the distribution of Lottery funding means that less will go to millennium celebrations and more to health and education programmes.

And few visitors will be aware of the enormous scale of the design effort which goes into each project. The National Space Science Centre in Leicester was awarded 23m of Millennium Commission funding in the middle of June this year. But the project organisers, from the University of Leicester and the local city council, first contacted exhibition and interior designers over a year before, embarking on a long-term brainstorming and refinement process to establish development plans before even submitting their funding application.

The centre will be built on a site at Abbey Meadows, on land jointly owned by Leicester City Council and Severn Trent Water. Intended to be of international significance, it will feature a state-of-the-art planetarium, educational facilities and access to information from the CATSAT satellite operated for the university’s space research programme, as well as exhibits about space travel and astrology.

Architect Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners won an architectural competition to create a home for the centre in early 1996. When plans for the overall building were in place, KPMG, financial advisor to the organisers, set up a four-way credentials pitch to select exhibition designers in which York consultancy Ideas was selected. “We seemed to click with the client,” says Ideas managing director Nick Townend.

The consultancy was officially appointed to the project in late July 1996, and given its initial briefing in August. “They had a reasonable idea of what they wanted it to contain, but no idea of the structure,” says Townend of the organisers.

Communication proved to be a key aspect from the earliest stages of the project. This is only fitting – the centre itself will be about communicating hugely complicated ideas to people of all ages – but must have been discomforting. “The brief was quite academic. We were dealing with physicists and astrophysicists who don’t necessarily relate their ideas in a visitor kind of psychology,” says Townend diplomatically. One of the key tasks for Ideas’ creative director Michael Wright was “to turn what they had to say into language people could understand”.

Following the initial briefing there was a two week period of intense brainstorming, coupled with a “very sharp” learning curve on behalf of Ideas staff, to establish with the client a more detailed brief. Then came two weeks of development of initial proposals, which were presented to the steering group for the project.

The final format breaks the centre into three main, complementary areas: the Millennium Dome, a planetarium; the Challenger Centre, which simulates space missions; and Science Now, which shows current activity in space. There will be an introductory presentation, Prepare for Blast Off, which all first-time visitors will need to see if they are to get the most from their visit, although repeat visitors can choose to miss it. A large proportion of the predicted 300 000 annual visitors are expected to be school parties.

Ideas had worked on major projects before, but not ones that had developed at such a breakneck speed. “We did a massive amount of work at the Lego park in Windsor, but not as fast,” says Townend. The reason for the haste was a looming deadline. “We had to deliver our business plan and design proposals to the Millennium Commission by the end of September,” explains Nigel Siesage, who was seconded from the University of Leicester to act as project manager for the centre. Hard work saw the application submitted on time, and to a positive response. “There weren’t any serious queries raised… what we were proposing to do commended itself to the commission. They were more concerned about viability,” he says.

The plans had some obvious attractions for the Millennium Commission, as they would highlight Leicester’s expertise in space research on a world platform and hopefully encourage inward investment. The centre is also expected to create 100 jobs directly.

The Millennium Commission did take an active role though. It requested that one component of the proposals be taken and developed in greater detail for a fuller analysis. Ideas was called on again. As Nick Townend explains, the consultancy was only officially employed for a two-month period at the beginning of the project. Since then, it has been available on an ad hoc basis for development work, detailed plans, advice, and helping to answer the Millennium Commission’s questions. This has led to a constant dialogue and, the consultancy hopes, a later appointment to put its concepts into practice. There is no guarantee of this, but Townend describes his mood as “optimistic”.

Developing proposals in greater detail was helpful to all concerned, says Siesage: “We found our original assumptions were right.”

There is still a lot of work to do. A further 6m of matching funding must be found for the project to continue, and it is likely that a company with relevant expertise will be appointed to actually operate the centre when it is complete. And practical work to actually build the centre should start later this year.

The millennium celebrations may still seem distant, but the countdown to their launch has well and truly started.

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