London, 26 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has formally unveiled a project to mark the millennium with the construction of a $1.3 billion exhibition pavilion in east London, the biggest single building project in Europe.
The Millennium Dome, to open Dec. 31, 1999, will have a floor area the size of 13 soccer fields and will be higher than the Statue of Liberty. Expected to attract 12 million visitors in the year 2000, it is the most ambitious effort by any government to mark the turn of the century.
The Dome, which looks like a huge inverted saucer on top of 12 vast steel masts, is being built on the banks of the River Thames at the site of the former Royal Observatory (which gave the world Greenwich Mean Time). The Dome will house 13 separate exhibition zones focusing on educational and entertainment themes. The chief feature will be a 60-meter androgyonous figure, one of the largest reproductions of mankind ever sculpted, with an infant at its feet
In remarks yesterday, Blair claimed the Dome would be "the envy of the world," and would "bring the nation together in a common purpose." He dismissed what he called "the cynics and snipers" who have derided the project as a waste of money.
Critics say the Dome is an example of "gigantomania" and that the cash would be better spent on schools, hospitals and highways. One called it "an insane example of statist grandiloquence."
Opinion polls show that four out of five Britons regard the project as an extravagant irrelevance. A question being asked in newspaper editorials and TV chat shows is: What is the Dome for?
Blair said yesterday it would be "a symbol of British confidence, a monument to our creativity and a fantastic day out." And Peter Mandelson, the minister in charge of the project, said it was an opportunity "for the nation to come together and have some fun."
Mandelson recently visited a Disneyland theme park in the U.S. in a bid to gain some inspiration for what to put inside the Dome. His visit backfired when he was criticized for lack of imagination, and warned by Disney of legal action if he copied their ideas.
So what will be inside the dome? The structure, which is big enough to house 3,300 London buses, and 13 times the size of London's massive Albert Hall, will feature a central piazza at its core, with 12 separate exhibition zones fanning out from the center.
The seven zones unveiled yesterday reflect the design team's brief to combine learning, entertainment, technology, and spiritual themes. The chief feature will be the giant hollow figure which will house an exhibition on human biology and medical science.
Other features include an exhibition simulating the workplace in the 21st century (visitors will be able to try new jobs using "virtual reality" headsets); a so-called Dreamscape taking visitors on rides on a giant "bed" floating on a "river"; and a typical holiday resort, used to explain the importance of protecting the environment.
There will also be an exhibition exploring the classroom of the future; another featuring "oases of calm and reflection" and focusing on faith and belief; and a "millennium pavement walk", showing three-dimensional product ideas for the 21st century.
Blair, leader of the Labor Party who came to power last year, inherited the Dome project from the outgoing Conservatives, and stresses that it will be funded by admission charges, business sponsorship and the National Lottery, and not from taxation. He predicted yesterday the Dome will draw millions of visitors many of them from overseas, as, on Dec. 31, 1999, the Greenwich site -- on the meridian line -- "will be the most exciting place on earth." But his critics emphasize the $1.3 billion cost -- and say it is all a stunning waste of time, effort and resources.