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Friday, 19 June, 1998, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Why do we build to celebrate the millennium?
The Dome
The 748m Dome is rising beside the Thames at Greenwich, home of the meridian.
What is it about the millennium that has made Britain go construction crazy?

Domes, towers, giant Ferris wheels and huge glasshouses will spring up all over Britain in the next couple of years.

Peter Mandelson
Peter Mandelson's grandfather, Herbert Morrison, was the force behind the 1951 Festival of Britain
Few of Britain's European neighbours feel the need to build to celebrate the turn of the century, and in North America the reaction has been unusually low-key.

The Dome at Greenwich in south London, and the nearby Baby Dome, are the most grandiose projects and will cost 748m ($1,232m).

The Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, is in charge of the project, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who organised the Festival of Britain half a century ago.

More than a music hall joke?

The Dome has many critics. Francis Maude, the Shadow Culture Secretary, has described the Dome as a "music hall joke".

But the Dome is only one of a number of projects being built to coincide with the year 2000.

Most are being heavily funded by the Millennium Commission, but some, such as the giant Ferris wheel planned for the south bank of the Thames, are entirely private adventures.

This Millennium Wheel, sponsored by British Airways, is to be built opposite the Houses of Parliament at Jubilee Gardens.

The Millennium Wheel
The British Airways Millennium Wheel (image Nick Wood/Hayes Davidson)
It will be the largest Observation Wheel in the world.

John Gummer, the former Secretary of State for the Environment, who approved the 500ft (150m) project, said: "The Wheel is an inspired idea and an imaginative way to mark the millennium, providing unparalleled, once-in-a-lifetime views of the heart of the capital.

"It has caught people's imaginations and created a sense of excitement about the millennium, not least among children."

It is scheduled to be opened by late summer 1999 and will remain in Jubilee Gardens for five years, after which it will be dismantled and moved to an as yet undecided site.

Affinity with the millennium

Ben Ruse, Millennium Commission spokesman, says: "Britain is leading the way in millennium architecture. Nobody is doing anything on the scale that we are."

spinnaker tower
This "spinnaker" design is set to be chosen for a tower being built in Portsmouth
Asked to explain why other countries do not seem to share Britain's enthusiasm for the millennium, he says: "Half the world (who do not follow the Christian calendar) do not regard the millennium with the same importance as we do.

"Britain feels a particular affinity with the millennium because of the meridian which runs through Greenwich and through England."

Michael Manser, one of Britain's leading architects, says: "We have always had a tradition of putting up buildings to coincide with major events, just look at the Crystal Palace and the Festival Hall."

He believes the millennium would have been celebrated even if there had not been the extra money around from the National Lottery, and says: "You can always raise money if you really want to, but it wouldn't have been as all-encompassing as it is."

Best of British architecture

Mr Manser praises most of the projects and says the Commission has chosen some of Britain's best architects to design buildings which are futuristic as well as flexible.

But he says the plans for inside the Greenwich Dome were "obscure and not co-ordinated" and it would be a lottery whether it would attract visitors.

The Globe Tower
The "globe" design is supposed to symbolise Portsmouth's seafaring heritage
He is also criticical of the Gunwharf development in Portsmouth, which includes a giant millennium tower. He thinks it is "second rate and a bit crummy."

Mr Manser says most of the buildings hark back to the past rather than looking to the future, and he says this is an attitude which is too common in Britain.

He says: "There is tremendous resistance to the new. When St Paul's Cathedral was built people criticised it. Its style was foreign, the materials used were unusual and the shape and scale of it were extraordinary.

"But now people concede it is one of the finest buildings in Europe."

Not ambitious enough

Architecture journalist Martin Pauley feels Britain has not been ambitious enough with its millennium architecture.

He says: "There is not really a monument on the scale that we could have had if we had taken it seriously."

Mr Pauley says the Dome will be virtually invisible from the rest of London, and says he favoured the proposal for a Millennium Tower in London, which would have been the world's tallest building.

The triple tower
Portsmouth's third option: The "triple" tower, representing the bridge of a ship
Mr Pauley says: "There is a lot of propaganda which is exaggerating the effort we are putting into it. If we consider how big it could have been, what we're doing is not really so special."

He says some of the architecture -- such as the Eden Project and the Earth Centre in Doncaster -- was "beautiful" but he suggested many of the buildings would not look as good as the computer-generated designs which had been used to publicise them.

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