Introduction

The O2, still generally referred to by its former name, the Millennium Dome, is a large dome shaped building on the Greenwich peninsula in south east London, the United Kingdom. The name was officially changed when O2 plc purchased the naming rights from the developers, Anschutz Entertainment Group.

The dome was constructed in order to hold a major exhibition celebrating the beginning of the third millennium. This exhibition opened to the public on January 1, 2000 an run until December 31, 2000; however the project and exhibition was the subject of considerable political controversy and never quite achieved its objectives.

Since the closure of the original exhibition, several possible ways or reusing the building have been proposed and then rejected. The renaming of the dome on May 31, 2005 gave publicity to the Dome”s transition into an indoor sporting arena. In this role the plan is to host the 2009 World Gymnastics Championships and the artistic gymnastics and trampolining events of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The sports area will be complemented by a proposed substantial entertainments complex, the contents of which are still the subject of political decision.

Construction

The Millennium Dome is the largest single-roofed structure in the world. Externally it appears as a large white marquee with 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.

The building structure was engineered by Buro Happold, and the entire roof structure weights less then the air contained within the building. Although called a dome it is not strictly one as it is not self-supporting, but is a mast-supported, dome-shaped cable network.

The canopy is made of PTFE coated glass fibre fabric, a durable and weather-resistant plastic, and is 50 m high in the middle. Its symmetry is interrupted by a hole through which a ventilation shaft from the Blackwall Tunnel rises.

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 an earlier gasworks 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””.

The area is served by the North Greenwich tube station on the Jubilee Line, which was opened just before the dome.

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. T he 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 the BBC correspondent Robert Orchard, ””the Dome was to be highlighted as a glittering New Labour achievement in the next election manifesto””.

Millennium Celebrations

During the whole of 2000 the Dome was open to the public, and contained a large number of attractions and exhibits.

A major problem was that, having been given the objective of creating an exhibition now substantially inflated from the original conception, the organisers of the project did not in fact have much of an idea of what to place in it for the public to see. Some saw the result as a disjointed assemblage of thinly-veiled corporate-sponsored promotions, burger stalls, and lacklustre museum-style exhibits that were so weak as to appear almost as parodies.

The interior space was subdivided into 14 zones – Body, Work, Learning, Money, Play, Journey, Self Portrait, Living Island, Talk, Faith, Home Planet, Rest, Mind, and Shared Ground. Some of the Zones were perceived as lacking in content and pandering to political correctness. The Journey Zone, outlining the history and development of transport, was one of the few singled out for praise.

The central stage show accompanied by music composed by Peter Gabriel and an acrobatic cast of 160. The show was performed 999 times over the course of the year, Throughout the year, the specially commissioned film Blackadder: Black & Forth was shown in a separate cinema on the site. These features escaped a great deal of the criticism that was heaped on the rest of the project, although the lyrics and meaning of the stage show were considered difficult to follow by many, and the Blackadder film was noted for being neither as sharp or funny as the original four series and specials. The music from the stage show was later released on Gabriel’s album Ovo (complete with lyrics). There is apparently no video record of the show, though arguably it would be difficult to capture a show of such large scale on video. Had the higher forecast of attendance proved correct, then the visitors” enjoyment could have been reduced by queueing and congestion.

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.

Financial and Management problems

The project was largely reported by the press to have 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 Lottery body which supported it; the Millennium Commission. Numerous changes at management and Board level, before and during the exhibition, had only limited, if any results. Press reports suggested that 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 – slightly more than the 6 million that attended the Festival of Britain, which only ran from May to September. 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. In 2005 the London Eye was number one and Alton Towers number two.

According to the UK National Audit Office, the total cost of the Millennium 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.

Aftermath

The Millennium Dome was then closed during 2001 and 2002, the failure of the project to match the hype became and remains a continuing embarrassment to the Labour Government. It is still of interest to the press, the government’s difficulties in disposing of the Dome being the subject of much critical comment. The amount spent on maintaining the closed building has been criticised. Some reports indicated the Dome was costing £1 million per month to maintain during 2001, but the government claimed these were exaggerations.

Following closure of the Dome some Zones were dismantled by the sponsoring organisations, but much of the content went under the auctioneer’s hammer. This included a number of artwork specially commissioned from contemporary British artists. A piece by Gavin Turk was sold for far below his then auction price though Turk stated he did not think the piece had worked. A unique record of the memorabilia and paraphernalia of the MEX is held by a private collector in the U.S.A.

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 fireworks display on New Year’s Eve.

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.

Development into The O2

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 (0.6 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 May 31, 2005, in a £6 million-per-year deal with telecommunications company O2 plc, now a subsidiary of Telefónica O2. 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 June 24, 2007, with a concert by rock band Bon Jovi.

Effects and Political Careers

Issues related to the Dome helped to finish Peter Mandelson’s cabinet career. It also did great damage to John Prescott’s. The scheme also did little to enhance Michael Helseletine’s reputation, and was an early example of what some saw as Tony Blair’s often excessive optimism: “In the Dome we have a creation that, I believe, will truly be a beacon to the world”. Although it should be noted that the green light, and foundations for this project were provided by the previous Conservative government.

Useful Links

The O2 Website