Richard Rogers, architect
The opening night was the nightmare of nightmares. It was the eve of the new millennium, but nobody had thought about security until the last minute. Everyone was coming by tube, and suddenly we had all the most important people in the UK shivering on the station platform, queuing for ages to be searched. Furious VIPs were marching up and down saying: “Don’t you know who I am? I’ll be writing about this catastrophe in the paper tomorrow!” And boy, how they did.
The Millennium Dome couldn’t have had a worse reception if you’d worked hard to deliberately upset everybody. The press were violently against it, mainly because of the cost. The total was £789m, but only 7% of that was actually spent on the dome – which was a super-cheap structure, the same price per square metre as a supermarket shed. But we were gagged from talking about our budget. We received nasty letters for a long time. I suppose we’re used to it: we specialise in disastrous openings, from the Pompidou to Terminal 5 at Heathrow.
The design process was a great adventure, because we had no idea what we were doing. No one did. The Tory government came up with the idea for a business pavilion, then Labour came in and decided it should be about entertainment and culture, with 12 pavilions clustered in a circle. We were already working on a masterplan for the Greenwich peninsula when it was chosen to be the site in 1996. It had to be simple and quick to build – we had just six months to design the whole thing – so we came up with what is basically an umbrella. Mike Davies had been working on lightweight structures for years before he joined me on the Pompidou in 1971, so he took the lead, with the great engineer Ted Happold. Frei Otto was also a great influence – he had designed the stadium for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which was the most virtuoso lightweight cable structure in the world.
Once the Dome was on site, things went incredibly smoothly. In fact, I can’t think of a project that went better. Seeing the structure go up was a beautiful sight: erected by 60 professional climbers, 12 columns being tied together and the whole thing gradually lifted up. It took my breath away. And the speed had a great advantage: we couldn’t deliver the millennium a day late.
Mike Davies, project architect
When we first got involved, the exhibition designer Gary Withers was leading the project, but he had a problem: how to deliver 12 buildings in an impossible timescale, to open in freezing conditions on midwinter’s day. He asked my advice, and I said we should reverse the process: build some sort of cheap shelter and turn the buildings into stage-sets inside. We could start building tomorrow.
I went home that night, cleared the kitchen table, and sketched out a 400 metre-diameter tent. The site had an incredible 270-degree sweep of the river, so a circle made sense. It got reduced to 365 metres, which was no accident: I’m a keen astronomer. I drew 12 masts for the 12 months, 24 scallops for the hours in the day, and if you look up inside the structure, you’ll find the celestial lines of latitude and longitude. We were also looking for a symbol of people coming together and domes kept recurring. From the Pantheon in Rome to the Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul, still one of my favourite buildings, the dome emerged as a neutral, non-denominational form. And the masts are like people throwing their arms up in celebration.
I was also inspired by my first architectural memory, of visiting The Festival of Britain aged nine. The Skylon was pure magic, the most elegant structure ever built. I still don’t think it’s been beaten. And the props on the Dome of Discovery had an exciting, space-age feel too. That was my generation: we were all reading the Eagle, it was a futures-oriented world. We wanted our own Dome to capture some of that optimism.
But it was an enormous challenge. The site was in a state: acres of absolutely deadly stuff, highly poisonous soil, full of unexploded bombs, arsenic and mercury. Then they discovered a vast tar-pit that took two years to dig out. We also had to design around a 50 metre-wide ventilation shaft for the Blackwall tunnel, which pokes up through the roof.
The choice of fabric was a breakthrough. We’d been looking at PVC, but then a decision was made that it should last 25 years, not the six or eight previously imagined, so we went for PTFE-coated glass-fibre fabric. I remember taking a square metre home to test it. I lit the kitchen hob and threw it on, opening the back door, but nothing happened. Then I emptied every noxious sauce I had in my cupboard on to it, including beetroot and all sorts of oils that make big stains. I left it there for an hour or two, then hosed it down. There wasn’t a single mark on it. It still looks as good as the day it opened.
I did have concerns about what went on inside the Dome, which we didn’t have any control over. I thought some exhibits were great, but others were awful. We were proud that it got the highest score for disability access – one of many successes that was never written about. We’re all delighted with how the building has been used since. It gets 6.5 million visitors a year now, to see everything from the Rolling Stones and the Eagles to tennis and Tutankhamun. The auditorium is fantastic, and they’ve built a series of stage sets around the edge that seem to work – though the plastic palm trees aren’t really our thing.
Originally known as The Millennium Dome, it was constructed to contain an exhibition celebrating the beginning of the third millennium in 2001. The structure, which sits on the Meridian Line (The Prime Meridian of the World) along the Greenwich peninsula, is now a 20,000 seat arena which will play host to gymnastics and basketball competition during the 2012 Olympic Games.
Protruding from the dome are twelve 100-meter towers representing the total months of the year. Similarly, the circumference of the Millennium Dome is 365 meters in diameter, one meter for each day of the year. As large as the canopy appears, it actually weighs less than the air contained within the building.
After the 12 structural steel masts (312 feet tall) and extensive cable net were erected, access gantries were created for commencement of fabric installation. Two construction crews were organized to begin installation of the PTFE fabric membrane panel at the upper cable rings. The durable and weather-resistant material was then unfurled and laid out across a rope cable net for tensioning to radial cable connectors. All told, the roof consists of approximately 617,800 square feet of exterior membrane and interior liner and was installed in 12 weeks. As a testament to the strength of Birdair’s steel structure capabilities, it can hold 55 tons of equipment suspended from the roof.