It’s absurd that the critics should label the architecture of the planned Millennium Dome retrospective (see News Analysis, page 8). A free-span dome is one of the most efficient and elegant ways of creating a building and is as close to nature in its physical properties as you can get. If a cobweb is a timeless structure, then so is a tent.
Nor should they be surprised that we’ve seen the form before, not least in Ralph Tubbs’ Dome of Discovery at the 1951 Festival of Britain. Because they need minimal support, domes make great exhibition spaces with relatively few masts to get in the way. And if you’ve been in a circus big top, partied in a marquee or visited London’s 100% Design show, you’ll know the sense of occasion a tent can create.
The Millennium Dome seeks to do all that, but on a truly grand scale. No mean feat. But the team from Buro Happold, Richard Rogers’ office and Imagination has technology on its side, and it is in the use of this – and in Imagination’s scheme for the 12 pavilions inside the dome – that real innovation will likely lie.
Materials in particular have moved on since Tubbs’ day. The revival of interest in tensile structures in the early Eighties we noted last week was partly due to the sheer drive of hugely talented engineers such as Peter Rice and Ted Happold. But also key were new materials such as Teflon-coated fabrics to replace traditional canvas and carbon fibre, combining great strength with very little weight. The Millennium team will surely have even more advanced materials at its disposal.
News of the dome emerged the day the Design Council named its nominations for the European Design Prize. Among them is Chas A Blatchford & Sons, a 100-year-old pioneer of design innovation to create better artificial limbs. One of its successes is the use of carbon fibre-reinforced plastics. Examples like this show new materials can make a big difference to both performance and aesthetics. We can be sure that in its specification for the Millennium Dome, the design team will once more lead the way.