Every silver lining has a cloud

Millennium projects have provided a feast of opportunities for a generation of designers. Andrew Mylius looks beyond 2000

Marking the millennium will cost about 4bn: an unprecedented scale of spending on public design projects. To date, 185 schemes have been cleared by the purse-holder, the Millennium Commission, and more await approval. Right now, it is bonanza time for those involved in developing and implementing go-ahead ideas. But this much work in such a short period can only upset the balance.

The design profession is notoriously susceptible to market fluctuations. A boom in design , even a small one, tends to foreshadow a slump.

For now the industry is thriving. For example, architect Pawson Williams is working on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Cheltenham Museum and Library and an arts centre for Dingwall, Scotland. Partner Keith Williams says consultants from other disciplines (such as lighting, sound, graphics, exhibition and interior design) will be drafted in as the projects evolve. The millennium phenomenon “has stimulated a rather depressed creative industry”, he says. However, the Millennium Commission is a special funding body with only a short-term remit. There is talk of channelling Lottery funds into education, health and social programmes once the 2000 mark is passed.

This should cheer those such as Future Systems partner Jan Kaplicky, who would like to see monuments to something more worthy than the vainglory increasingly enshrined in the Dome. But it does raise a question over how the museums, exhibitions and performance-spaces created will meet running costs – and employ designers: “In real terms, Arts Council funding is falling,” says DCA-B managing director Tom Barker. “More institutions will be competing for the same Arts Council cash and existing venues will have less to spend.”

It is difficult to forecast the long-term scenario for designers who surf the millennium wave. Williams’ advice is “be pragmatic and don’t try to predict future trends”. Pawson Williams has added three architects, and further expansion is possible.

Nick Townend’s exhibition and events group Ideas is working on the National Space Centre, Leicester; World of Glass in St Helens, Lancashire; and a National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield. He is using the millennium experience as a platform on which to develop long-term business strategy. Ideas aims to broaden its areas of expertise to include marketing and brand-development.

Event Communication research and marketing director Cel Phelan similarly sees millennium projects as creating opportunity for expansion, and a springboard into other markets. The size and quality of exhibitions in the UK has improved enormously in recent years, she says. And the millennium festivities will be a unique showcase for UK design talent. “Millennium projects are enabling us to develop skills which may not have developed otherwise. These have provided us with a platform to find work abroad, in Germany, France, Belgium, Ireland, Oman and Qatar.” In the next two years more than one third of Event’s income will be generated overseas.

Phelan’s view is echoed by Visual Connection director Jack Lohman. He anticipates a slump after the millennium projects are complete, and will be looking abroad to cash in on the country’s image overseas: expos are scheduled for Switzerland in 2001 and Japan in 2004. Big events like the Olympic Games will also be good for business as companies such as Swatch and Nike commission trade stands. A foreign portfolio is very important, Lohman says: As James Gardner or Richard Rogers have proved, work abroad lends a practice credibility in the UK.

Though there has been no panic recruiting in response to the tight 2000 deadline, it has made an impact on the jobs market. According to Lohman, there is huge growth in freelance ancillary project management. DCA-B is hiring six project managers on six-month contracts to help on the Millennium Village bid.

Arup Acoustics, where Millennium Commission projects make up nearly 40 per cent of work, has taken on more graduates than it would normally, and most consultants are working more than 55 hours a week. “We’d like to work harder rather than fire people,” says consultant Raj Patel.

Lighting Design Partnership managing director Graham Phoenix thinks a long-term skills shortage has become more severe recently. “It is becoming necessary either to recruit more aggressively or train people up,” he says.

Phoenix reckons the sheer pressure generated by the amount of work to be done to such a short time-scale “will lead to good and bad people being involved. Quality can suffer”. In the field of lighting, some work is being carried out by people with no training and little experience. And because many projects have been rushed through the ideas phase, they are throwing up problems which can be difficult to resolve. Townend at Ideas adds: “We’ve had to be very selective about the projects we choose to get involved with.”

But the millennial design-fest should be seen as a harbinger of opportunity as well: there has been a blitz of brain-storming, which stands to invigorate the design industry as a whole. Because designers are stretched to meet the demands created by the millennium, it is giving a new generation the chance to cut their teeth on top-of-the-range projects, says Lohman. He draws a parallel with the Festival of Britain in 1951. “You can have real experience – a lot of work – in very little time. It’s a very good way to encourage a fabulous new generation of designers.” Amanda Wright, marketing manager at MET Studio which is working on The Discovery Centre at Millennium Point in Birmingham, agrees: “There are currently people getting a bite of the cherry who wouldn’t otherwise.”

Demand has grown for specialists and designers with technical expertise to join companies which are ever-more multi-faceted. Designers will be working on increasingly wide-ranging briefs as companies tie up their millennium projects and diversify. However, as Patel observes of the design business more widely, “the industry goes through peaks and dips anyway. There’s no prospect of a serious tail-off in work.” And, in the immediate term, Wright says: “Everybody is looking for good designers. We’re being very nice to ours.”

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