Greenwich, 2015AD. Crowds stream out of the Millennium Dome, after watching England lose to rank outsiders Holland in the cricket World Cup final. Dutch supporters ignore the fleet of hydrogen-fuelled coaches waiting to take them back through Chunnel II and flock towards the fashionable pubs and restaurants of Greenwich and Blackheath to celebrate their famous victory.
Disgruntled English fans head home via the Jubilee Line, the RiverHoppa, or the long-delayed Thameside Maglev, which finally opened a few months earlier. Inside the Dome, a well-drilled team has already removed the steel trays that contained the sacred wicket and replaced it with less sensitive turf ready for next week's Horse of the Year show. In 12 months time the huge arena will be one of the key centres for the London Olympics, housing everything from beach volleyball to baseball, with crowds expected to rival the 250,000 which witnessed the final Rolling Stones farewell concert in 2005.
Outside on its plinth the statue of Lord Mandelson looks smug. With the controversial events of December 1999 long forgotten, the Dome is now judged solely on its merits as one of the biggest covered exhibition and performance areas in the world. Built on time, to budget, for what seems now the incredibly low cost of £57M, the Dome has joined the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House in the pantheon of world landmarks.
Back in 1996, such a future might have seemed like the wildest science fiction. But by June 1998, however, Prime Minister Tony Blair was already talking about longer term uses of the Dome in his speech at the topping out ceremony (News last week).
How likely is such a scenario? A number of entrepreneurs are said to have already expressed interest in taking over the Dome once the controversial Millennium Experience is finished. There is indeed talk of a bid for the Olympics, centred around the Dome and the rebuilt Wembley Stadium. With the sheer scale of the covered space finally obvious, imaginations are being let loose, and almost anything is possible.
Whoever takes over the Dome in 2000 will acquire a potentially very profitable facility. Maintenance costs should be low, with the self-cleansing Teflon-coated glassfibre fabric coating expected to have a working life of at least 25 years and probably much more. Even then individual panels could be replaced without major disruption to the events taking place below.
Recoating the supporting cable net itself will be needed within 20 years, and the 12 distinctive yellow masts will require repainting around the same time. Most of this work can be carried out by abseilers. Otherwise only routine maintenance of services should be necessary.
In practice the Dome will not have the sort of air-conditioned environment available at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre or Earls Court. The 2.1M.m3 of air inside will be no warmer or colder than the air outside. Only rain, wind and direct sunlight will be kept out by the envelope. Inside the Dome the central performance space being planned for the Millennium Experience will be separately heated, as will the individual exhibits. A similar practice could be adopted for subsequent events.
So, as an arena for traditionally outdoor sports, rock concerts or political rallies, as a venue for agricultural shows, funfairs or circuses and as the birthplace of completely new forms of entertainment, the Dome should have an interesting future. Already there are signs that public opinion is shifting in favour of the project, if not the Millennium Experience itself, thanks mainly to the success of the builders in keeping to programme and to budget. By 2015 attitudes will have changed completely.