The new year opens as the old one has just closed, with a flurry of comment on the Millennium Dome. Just before Christmas, the Commons' Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee under the usually acerbic chairmanship of Gerald Kaufman, MP, issued a report on the dome. A quick scan of the personnel of the committee, all MPs, does not at once hint that they are entirely competent for the job in hand. But, following the parliamentary path, they took evidence from those who might be expected to know what they were about and came to conclusions based on that information.
Kaufman, who can usually be relied upon to find fault wherever it exists, and sometimes when it is only in his imagination, was uncharacteristically effusive. He acknowledged that the dome is the largest single construction project in Europe and will be the biggest cable net-supported structure of its type in the world. Being 320m in diameter and 50m high, it will be large enough to contain 13 Albert Halls or two Wembley stadiums and the supporting masts will be twice the height of Nelson's Column. These statistics are striking but the realisation of this concept had a remarkable effect on Kaufman and his committee.
Starstruck, the committee concludes: 'As we discovered during our site visit, the structure has great power, even in skeletal form, to excite and inspire. The Dome is magnificent in conception and likely to be breathtaking in execution'.
That is handsomely said, and if the project can prompt Kaufman to such an enthusiastic utterance it must have quite a lot going for it. Needless to say, the committee's conclusions did not stop there, nor should they have done. Rightly, it goes on to say: 'Nevertheless, it must not be seen purely as an exercise in monumental architecture. Its success will depend crucially upon its contents during the Millennium Experience and ultimately upon its use thereafter'.
I cannot see that the current huffing and puffing over the secrecy surrounding the anticipated contents is justified. The exhibition, even the experience, is still two years away. Meantime, dozens of bright young persons are busying themselves in studios all over the country, guided by some of our most imaginative architects, producing schemes. The fact that many of them are designers is disquieting but not ground for despair. When the circus comes to town we will see what is in it. That will be time enough.
Nonetheless, I have a preference for at least part of the content. Giving evidence to the committee, Michael Heseltine said the exhibition should promote 'the image of this country at the forefront of cultural, artistic, engineering, scientific activity and attainment'. And Michael Grade thought it would demonstrate that Britain 'is in the forefront of all creative industries'.
Two words in these statements struck me, 'engineering' and 'industries'. I hope that they
also caught the fancy of the exhibition's overlord Stephen Bayley and his team of designers. It is slightly alarming to note that Bayley has said his aim is to consolidate Britain's position as the 'design and media capital of the planet'. I am not sure that that is quite what is wanted.
I have a suggestion. Last summer, the Pompidou Centre in Paris mounted a great exhibition called 'L'art de l'ingenieur, constructeur, entrepreneur, inventour'. Why not pick up the idea wholesale and put it into the dome? The Royal Academy of Engineering, the Engineering Council and the Civils might get together to promote it. The man to ask is Bill Addis of Reading University: he knows all about it.