Making a big deal for the millennium

Big-top: Almost beyond definition -- it'll have exhibitions, entertainment and allegory -- Britain's Dome is rising to splendiferous heights.

October 20, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GREENWICH, England -- It's another frantic day under the tent by the Thames River as workers race against the century's time clock.

They're crafting a giant pictorial mosaic, creating a massive body and testing mechanical birds on a 20-acre set that looks like an enormous, half-finished playground. But the serious stuff is taking place overhead, as acrobats in harnesses dive-bomb from the 164-foot-high roof, rehearsing aerial moves bound to thrill millions.

This is life at the Millennium Dome, Britain's $1.2 billion big top and centerpiece of a yearlong, multimedia extravaganza designed to appeal to kids and grown-ups.

The millennium buzz may be turning to jitters and yawns in other parts of the world, but not in Britain. The country is heading full steam into the 21st century, trying to rebrand itself as technologically savvy, intellectually vibrant and artistically hip.

From a New Year's Eve fireworks show that includes a bolt of fire streaking over the Thames to a giant Ferris wheel rising opposite Parliament, Britain is preparing for a bash of a century -- and beyond.

But it's the Dome -- a colossal building that takes the breath away -- that will make or break the millennium magic.

It's twice as large as the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, wide enough to house the Eiffel Tower laid on its side and big enough to hold water from 1,100 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Once derided by critics as a money-gushing white elephant, the Dome has risen majestically on a patch of reclaimed industrial land, six miles southeast of central London.

With its 12 330-foot masts and a white fabric roof shaped like a round bowl turned upside down, the Dome is already casting an eerie glow on the country's landscape.

But when it's fully built, will the people come?

That is the question hanging over the project, which will open with a gala Dec. 31 inaugural presided over by Queen Elizabeth II. On New Year's Day, the paying public will get its first peek, with organizers counting on 12 million people streaming through the site during 2000.

Ticket sales began last month, with day prices ranging from $33 for adults to $94 for a family of five. Besides ticket sales, the project is funded by corporate sponsorships and lottery proceeds.

Conceived in the mid-1990s by the then-ruling Conservatives, the project received a final go-ahead after Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party came to power in 1997.

But the Dome was literally unstoppable because it was one piece of an intricate development puzzle for southeast London and the burgeoning financial center of Canary Wharf. While the Dome was rising above ground, workers were burrowing underground, completing a 10-mile extension of London's subway system and bringing hundreds of thousands of people closer to the city center. Not surprisingly, housing prices shot up along the new route.

Three years late and billions of dollars over budget, the Jubilee Line extension is nearly finished. And the results are spectacular. Eleven new stations glisten like soaring cathedrals to transportation, with sparkling subway cars whisking riders miles in minutes.

When the thousands reach the Dome -- emerging from the world's largest subway station -- they'll be embarking on a daylong adventure that is difficult to define.

It's easier to describe the Millennium exhibition by what it isn't -- a theme park, world's fair or trade show.

"This is an exhibition of ideas," says Martin Newman, content editor for the New Millennium Experience, the company running the enterprise. "It's different than a museum, which is a collection of objects. What we've got here is people encountering the future."

The Dome will be divided into 14 exhibition zones, dealing with subjects as diverse as faith, money and play. Patrons will journey through the home planet, scoot through the body and wander around a school corridor in the learning zone.

Right now, the zones look like toy models, with workers assembling the final pieces. Yet amid the scaffolding and din of hammers and saws, there are tantalizing glimpses of what's to come.

The pictorial of Britain includes images of food, movies and pop stars. Shared ground, a look at British interior scenes, is housed in a recycled building made of cardboard strips sent in by the country's schoolchildren. Mechanical birds chirp above towers built of light bulbs at the living island, which promises a trip through a typical British seaside resort.

Meanwhile, in the center of the dome, rehearsals continue for a high-flying show that will take place as many as five times daily. In the allegorical piece, nature will battle technology high above a 12,000-seat area, with music by Peter Gabriel.

Jennie Page, the exhibition's chief executive, has said of the piece, "this is the greatest show on Earth. It sets out to tell the story of humanity through the story of three generations of the same family."

That's a tall order for any production. But in Britain, the millennium is a time for big ideas, hopes and dreams.

The Millennium Dome Web site is www.dome2000.co.uk

Pub Date: 10/20/99

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