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Millennium Dome

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Background Information

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Millennium Dome
General information
Type Exhibition space
Architectural style Dome
Location Drawdock Road / Millennium Way
Greenwich Peninsula
London SE10 0BB
Coordinates 51°30′10.14″N 0°0′11.22″E Coordinates: 51°30′10.14″N 0°0′11.22″E
Completed 1999
Opening 1 January 2000
Closed 31 December 2000
Cost £789 million
Technical details
Structural system Steel & tensioned fabric
Design and construction
Architect Richard Rogers
Structural engineer Buro Happold
Services engineer Buro Happold
Awards and prizes Royal Academy of Engineering
MacRobert Award

The Millennium Dome, colloquially referred to simply as The Dome, is the original name of a large dome-shaped building, originally used to house the Millennium Experience, a major exhibition celebrating the beginning of the third millennium. Located on the Greenwich Peninsula in South East London, England, the exhibition was open to the public from 1 January to 31 December 2000. The project and exhibition was the subject of considerable political controversy as it failed to attract the number of visitors anticipated, with recurring financial problems. All of the original exhibition and associated complex has since been demolished. The dome still exists, and it is now a key exterior feature of The O2. The Prime Meridian passes the western edge of the Dome and the nearest London Underground station is North Greenwich on the Jubilee Line.


The roof seen from the air
The dome, seen from the Emirates Air Line

The dome is one of the largest of its type in the world. Externally, it appears as a large white marquee with twelve 100 m-high yellow support towers, one for each month of the year, or each hour of the clock face, representing the role played by Greenwich Mean Time. In plan view it is circular, 365 m in diameter — one metre for each day of the year — with scalloped edges. It has become one of the United Kingdom's most recognisable landmarks. It can easily be seen on aerial photographs of London. Its exterior is reminiscent of the Dome of Discovery built for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The architect was Richard Rogers and the contractor was a joint venture company, McAlpine/Laing Joint Venture (MLJV) formed between Sir Robert McAlpine and Laing Management. The building structure was engineered by Buro Happold, and the entire roof structure weighs less than the air contained within the building. Although referred to as a dome it is not strictly one as it is not self-supporting, but is a mast-supported, dome-shaped cable network. For this reason, it has been disparagingly referred to as the Millennium Tent.

The canopy is made of PTFE-coated glass fibre fabric, a durable and weather-resistant plastic, and is 52 m high in the middle - one metre for each week of the year. Its symmetry is interrupted by a hole through which a ventilation shaft from the Blackwall Tunnel rises.

The critic Jonathan Meades has scathingly referred to the Millennium Dome as a "Museum of Toxic Waste", and apart from the dome itself, the project included the reclamation of the entire Greenwich Peninsula. The land was previously derelict and contaminated by toxic sludge from East Greenwich Gas Works that operated from 1889 to 1985. The clean-up operation was seen by the then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine as an investment that would add a large area of useful land to the crowded capital. This was billed as part of a larger plan to regenerate a large, sparsely populated area to the east of London and south of the River Thames, an area initially called the East Thames Corridor but latterly marketed as the " Thames Gateway".

Background to the Dome project

The Dome project was conceived, originally on a somewhat smaller scale, under John Major's Conservative government, as a Festival of Britain or World's Fair-type showcase to celebrate the third millennium. The incoming Labour government elected in 1997 under Tony Blair greatly expanded the size, scope and funding of the project. It also significantly increased expectations of what would be delivered. Just before its opening Blair claimed the Dome would be "a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity". In the words of BBC correspondent Robert Orchard, "the Dome was to be highlighted as a glittering New Labour achievement in the next election manifesto".

However, before its opening, The Dome was excoriated in Iain Sinclair's diatribe, Sorry Meniscus - Excursions to the Millennium Dome (Profile Books: London 1999, ISBN 1-86197-179-6), which accurately forecast the hype, the political posturing and the eventual disillusion. The post-exhibition plan had been to convert The Dome into a football stadium which would last for 25 years: Charlton Athletic at one point considered a possible move but instead chose to redevelop their own stadium. Fisher Athletic were a local team interested in moving to the Dome, but they were considered to have too small a fan base to make this feasible. The Dome was planned to take over the functions performed by the London Arena, after its closure. This is the function which The O2 Arena has now undertaken.

Millennium Experience

The Millennium Dome Show
The Millennium Dome at night, September 2000

After a private opening on the evening of 31 December 1999 the Millennium Experience at the Dome was open to the public for the whole of 2000, and contained a large number of attractions and exhibits.

The exhibits

The interior space was subdivided into 14 zones (with the lead designers of the zones):

Who we are:

  • Body, sponsored by Boots, supported by L'Oréal and Roche ( Branson Coates Architecture)
  • Mind, sponsored by BAE Systems and Marconi (Office of Zaha Hadid)
  • Faith comprised 5 sections: History of Christianity, Making of Key Life Experiences, How Shall I live?, Night Rain (a contemplation area designed by James Turrell) and Faith Festivals Calender ( Eva Jiricna Architects with Jasper Jacobs Associates)
  • Self Portrait, sponsored by Marks & Spencer (Caribiner with Lorenzo Apicella at Pentagram), sculpture design by Gerald Scarfe

What we do:

  • Work, sponsored by Manpower Inc. (WORK)
  • Learning, sponsored by Tesco (WORK)
  • Rest (Richard Rogers Partnership)
  • Play (Land Design Studio)
  • Talk, sponsored by BT Group (Imagination Group)
  • Money, sponsored by the City of London (Caribiner with Bob Baxter at Amalgam)
  • Journey, sponsored by Ford Motor Company (Imagination Group)

Where we live:

  • Shared Ground, was made from recycled card sponsored by Camelot Group plc (WORK)
  • Living Island (WORK)
  • Home Planet, sponsored by British Airways and BAA plc (Park Avenue Productions)

Many of the Zones were perceived as lacking in content. The Journey Zone, outlining the history and development of transport, was one of the few singled out for praise.

Surrounded by the zones was a performance area in the centre of the dome. With music composed by Peter Gabriel and an acrobatic cast of 160, the Millennium Dome Show was performed 999 times over the course of the year. Throughout the year, the specially-commissioned film Blackadder: Back & Forth was shown in Skyscape (a separate cinema on the site sponsored by BSkyB). There was also the McDonald's Our Town Story project in which each Local Education Authority in the UK was invited to perform a show of their devising which characterised their area and its people.

As well as the above, the first ever series of Techno Games was filmed there and shown on BBC Two the same year.

Other attractions

There were a number of other attractions both in and outside of The Dome. Inside the Dome there was a play area named Timekeepers of the Millennium (featuring the characters Coggsley and Sprinx), The Millennium Coin Minting Press in association with the Royal Mint, the 1951 Festival of Britain Bus, and the Millennium Star Jewels (focus of the failed Millennium Diamond heist.) Outside was the Millennium Map (thirteen metres high), the Childhood Cube, Looking Around (a hidden installation), Greenwich Pavilion, the Hanging Gardens at the front of the Dome, as well as a number of other installations and sculpture.

Financial and management problems

The project was largely reported by the press to have been a flop: badly thought-out, badly executed, and leaving the government with the embarrassing question of what to do with it afterwards. During 2000 the organisers repeatedly asked for, and received, more cash from the Millennium Commission, the Lottery body which supported it. Numerous changes at management and Board level, before and during the exhibition, had only limited, if any, results. Jennifer Page was sacked as chief executive of the New Millennium Experience Company just one month after the dome's opening. Press reports suggested that the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, personally placed a high priority on making the Dome a success. But part of the problem was that the financial predictions were based on an unrealistically high forecast of visitor numbers at 12 million. During the 12 months it was open there were approximately 6.5 million visitors — significantly fewer than the approximately 10 million paying visitors that attended the Festival of Britain, which only ran from May to September. Empire Exhibition, Scotland 1938 held in Glasgow attracted more than 12 million visitors being open May to October. Unlike the press, visitor feedback was extremely positive. It was the most popular tourist attraction in 2000, second was the London Eye; third was Alton Towers, which had been first in 1999.

According to the UK National Audit Office, the total cost of The Dome at the liquidation of the New Millennium Experience Company in 2002 was £789 million, of which £628 million was covered by National Lottery grants and £189 million through sales of tickets etc. A surplus of £25 million over costs meant that the full lottery grant was not required. However, the £603 million of lottery money was still £204 million in excess of the original estimate of £399 million required, due to the shortfall in visitor numbers.

The aftermath

It was, however, still of interest to the press, the government's difficulties in selling the Dome being the subject of much critical comment. The amount spent on maintaining the closed building was also criticised. Shortly after it had closed, Lord Falconer reported that The Dome was costing over £1 million per month to maintain.

Dispersal of exhibits

Following closure of the Dome, some Zones were dismantled by the sponsoring organisations, but much of the content was auctioned. This included a number of artworks specially commissioned from contemporary British artists. A piece by Gavin Turk was sold for far below his then auction price though Turk stated that he did not think the piece had worked. The Timekeepers of the Millennium attraction was acquired by the Chessington World of Adventures theme park in Surrey. A unique record of the memorabilia and paraphernalia of the Millennium Experience is held by a private collector in the United States. Items such as kiosks, wastebins and assorted souvenirs appeared at the Dreamland Margate amusement park in Kent and also its sister park The Rotunda in Folkestone, Kent.

Temporary reopenings

Despite the ongoing debate about the dome's future use, the dome opened again during December 2003 for the Winter Wonderland 2003 experience. The event, which featured a large fun fair, ice rink, and other attractions, culminated in a laser and firework display on New Year's Eve. It also served as the venue for a number of free music festivals organised by the Mayor of London under the "Respect" banner.

Over the 2004 Christmas period, part of the main dome was used as a shelter for the homeless and others in need, organised by the charity Crisis after superseding the London Arena, which had previously hosted the event. In 2005, when work began for the redevelopment of the Dome, the London Arena hosted the event again.

Redevelopment and rebranding as The O2

Interior of The O2 Arena

By late 2000, a proposal had been made for a high-tech business park to be erected under the tent area, creating an "indoor city" complete with streets, parks, and buildings. The business park was actually the original 1996 proposal for the site of the peninsula before the plans for the Millennium Dome were proposed.

In December 2001, it was announced that Meridian Delta Ltd. had been chosen by the government to develop the Dome as a sports and entertainment centre, and to develop housing, shops and offices on 150 acres (0.61 km2) of surrounding land. It is also hoped to relocate some of London's tertiary education establishments to the site. Meridian Delta is backed by the American billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has interests in oil, railways, and telecommunications, as well as a string of sports-related investments.

The dome was publicly renamed as The O2 on 31 May 2005, in a £6 million-per-year deal with telecommunications company O2 plc, now a subsidiary of Telefónica Europe. This announcement, which presaged a major redevelopment of the site that retained little beyond the shell of the dome, gave publicity to the dome's transition into an entertainment district including an indoor arena, a music club, a cinema, an exhibition space and bars and restaurants. This redevelopment was undertaken by the dome's new owners, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, to a design by HOK SVE and Buro Happold. It cost £600 million, and the resulting venue opened to the public on 24 June 2007, with a concert by rock band Bon Jovi.

During the 2012 Summer Olympics, the artistic gymnastics events, along with the medal rounds of basketball, were held at The O2. It also held wheelchair basketball events during the 2012 Summer Paralympics. For sponsorship reasons, during those times the arena was temporarily renamed the North Greenwich Arena.

Effects on political careers

Issues related to the Dome damaged Peter Mandelson's and John Prescott's political careers. The scheme was seen as an early example of what some saw as Tony Blair's often excessive optimism, who stated at the Dome's opening: "In the Dome we have a creation that, I believe, will truly be a beacon to the world". The fact that Mandelson's grandfather was Herbert Morrison who as a minister had been involved with the Festival of Britain often was drawn on for negative comparisons.

Chronology of the project

  • 1994: Millennium Commission established by Prime Minister John Major and handed over to Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine.
  • 1 March 1995: Chief Executive Jennie Page appointed.
  • 19 June 1996: Greenwich Peninsula site selected over Birmingham by the Millennium Commission. The Birmingham NEC, Pride Park in Derby and Bromley-by-Bow in East London were the other locations on the final short list.
  • December 1996: Government decides to support the project with public money after being unable to raise private capital.
  • 19 June 1997: New Prime Minister Tony Blair visits Greenwich to announce that the Millennium Dome has been saved. The decision was taken only after a difficult Cabinet debate which lasted for more than an hour.
  • 20 June 1997: Tony Blair appointed Peter Mandelson to the role of Minister for the Millennium after his announcement that the beleaguered £580 million dome would go ahead.
  • 10 January 1998: Creative director Stephen Bayley quits the project. He is said to have been at "loggerheads" with Peter Mandelson as to who was in charge with the project.
  • 23 December 1998: Peter Mandelson resigns from government after a financial scandal.
  • 4 January 1999: Lord Falconer of Thoroton replaces Mandelson.
  • May 1999: The Jubilee Line Extension opens, putting the Dome on the London Underground. This too is seen as disorderly, opening 14 months late and with station facilities not yet complete (e.g. lifts for wheelchair access).
  • 22 June 1999: structure of Dome completed.
  • 31 December 1999: the BBC Balloon was Flying during 2000 Today and used throughout 2000.
  • 31 December 1999 and 1 January 2000: VIP guests are kept waiting outside for hours because of a ticketing problem.
  • 1 January 2000: Dome structure opens to public as the Millennium Dome containing an exhibition to celebrate the third millennium.
  • 5 February 2000: Chief Executive Jennie Page sacked.
  • 26 July 2000: Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee publishes adverse report on Dome's management.
  • 7 November 2000: Thieves break in to the diamond exhibit during opening hours but are foiled by waiting police. Four men were jailed for the attempted robbery on 18 February 2002.
  • 9 November 2000: National Audit Office publishes report blaming unrealistic attendance targets for the Dome's financial problems.
  • 14 November 2000: Michael Heseltine (MP for Henley), the Dome's original political supporter, states "I have seen the inside story, and of course, with hindsight, all of us would do it differently".
  • 31 December 2000: Dome closed to the public, having attracted just over six million visitors. The initial projected figure was twelve million.
  • 27 February 2001 - 2 March 2001: One Amazing Auction Sale: Four-day public auction with 17,000 lots of Dome/NMEC items, managed by auctioneer Henry Butcher.
  • 18 December 2001: Announcement of sale of site to Meridian Delta Ltd, who plan to turn it into a 20,000-seat sports and entertainment venue. Houses and offices will be built on the surrounding land, subject to the consent of the London Borough of Greenwich
  • 6 December 2003: opening of Winter Wonderland 2003.
  • 25 May 2005: Anschutz Entertainment Group sells the naming rights to the former Millennium Dome to O2 plc, a British mobile phone company.

In popular culture

  • During the political controversy surrounding the dome in 1996 Wonderbra ran an advertising campaign with the slogan 'Not all domes lack public support'.
  • On Channel 4's The Big Breakfast they had the Millennium Dome Watch, in which the same clip of the dome was used with a boat and bird going past. This was to parody the inaction over its construction. On 1 April 1998, the programme ran an April Fool's Day joke in the Dome Watch slot which showed the Dome's tented roof on fire.
  • Within the foundations of the Dome in 1998, a time capsule was buried by Katy Hill and Richard Bacon, two of the then current presenters of the long running BBC children's programme Blue Peter. The capsule is due to be opened in 2050.
  • The Dome was featured in the pre-title sequence of the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, culminating in Bond rolling down the roof of the Dome.
  • The song "Silvertown Blues" from Mark Knopfler's album Sailing to Philadelphia deals with the construction of The Dome.
  • Since its construction in 1999, it has been a prominent feature in the title sequence of the popular soap opera EastEnders, having been built in that area of London. During a climactic scene in October 1999, involving an argument and fight between Grant and Phil Mitchell, the Dome was a part of the background as the scene took place directly on the opposite side of the river.
  • A running joke in the sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart was based on Yvonne Sparrow's involvement in the Body exhibit.
  • The Dome was the site of the first IIFA Awards, the premier award show to honour both artistic and technical excellence of professionals in Bollywood.
  • Two books about the attempted robbery of the De Beers diamonds from the Dome were published in 2004: Diamond Geezers - The Inside Story of the Crime of the Millennium ( ISBN 1843171228) written by Kris Hollington, published by Michael O'Mara Books Ltd, and Dome Raiders - How Scotland Yard Foiled the Greatest Robbery of All Time ( ISBN 1852271949) written by Jon Shatford and William Doyle, published by Virgin Books.
  • The Dome was a location for the 2005 American CBS television series The Amazing Race 7 (Episode 10), for a roadblock where the teams had to drive a double-decker bus around the car park.
  • Gideon's Daughter is a BBC television drama written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff. Starring Bill Nighy, Miranda Richardson and Emily Blunt, it was first broadcast in the UK on BBC One on 26 February 2006. It is set against the backdrop of New Labour's rise to power, the death of Princess Diana, and the development of The Dome. Both Nighy and Blunt received Golden Globe Awards for their performances. The show won a Peabody Award in April 2007.
  • In the 2007, Doctor Who novel Made of Steel ( ISBN 1846072042) written by Terrance Dicks, featuring the Tenth Doctor, published by BBC Books, the Cybermen have made the empty dome their base. And also in the Eleventh Doctor novel, Borrowed Time ( ISBN 184990233X) by Naomi Alderman, the Dome is featured being used as a storage facility for alien artifacts.
  • The song "Failed Olympic Bid" from Future of the Left's album The Plot Against Common Sense mentions the Millennium Dome.
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