I finally made it to the Milliennium Dome

Posted October 28, 2013 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

I finally went to the Millennium Dome yesterday.

I didn’t want to. The plan was to head east with our toddler and cross the Thames on the Emirates cable car. A bit of wind was blowing, however, so the cable cars had been mothballed by the time we arrived. The resulting toddler rage meant we needed to go somewhere else to mollify him, and as he’d shown an interest in the Dome upon passing it earlier, we decided to go there.

The Dome

The Dome. A building once so synonymous with costly failure that it could have been rebranded as “The White Elephant” and few would have noticed. In fact it exemplified that idiom so much that many people, when talking about wasteful follies, referred not to white elephants but to the Dome instead. Despite doing better as a metaphor than as a tourist attraction, I had lots of friends who popped down there to see the Millennium Experience exhibition even though their expectations were rock-bottom. I thought about going too – this was the Age of Irony after all – but while an afternoon of cringing at high-budget naffness sounded appealing, it was never quite appealing enough, so I didn’t bother.

Eventually the exhibition shut down and the Dome spent years in planning limbo. Would it become a sports arena? A cinema? A metaphor? No-one knew. The uncertainty dragged on for so long that the whole story became boring and everyone forgot about it. Then the Dome popped up again, rebranded as the O2 Arena. If Bruce Springsteen or Cher were going to play in London there was a good chance they’d play there. There were restaurants and bars in there too. That’s all I ever picked up about it though – like nearly everybody else, I’d lost interest. And I still thought of it as the Dome, not the O2, whenever I thought of it at all.

So back to today, and to our unscheduled visit to the Dome. We didn’t have a clue what we’d find in there. And while our toddler seemed keen enough when it was a distant spectacle on the horizon, his enthusiasm faded as we reached the door, shouting “other way!” as he tried to run back outside. After some cajoling, he finally entered.

I could understand his reluctance: it’s a bleak space. The curved walkways around its inner walls are lined with the sorts of tourist-trap bars and restaurants that are rarely seen concentrated together so densely. If Angus Steak House applied for a slot here I imagine they’d be turned down for being “too authentic”.

Dome Couture

Makes Leicester Square seem like a foody-bohemian paradise

Another thing that struck me about the Dome was how confused and disjointed it was. The interior and exterior are not reconciled at all. Yes, you can see the ceiling and that gives you the sense of being inside the Dome, but most other things inside it look like they were designed for somewhere else and ended up here by accident. It was how I imagine a big film studio, a vast warehouse-like space cluttered up with unrelated bits of fake buildings and props and scenery. All of the interior objects looked out of place. Although the wall in the photo below would look daft anywhere.

Stupid wall

I really don’t like this stupid bit of wall. What’s it trying to be?

But most of all, the Dome feels like an earlier, failed, version of the experiments that would eventually produce that whole wave of shiny, branded spaces that make up the new east London: Westfield Stratford, the Olympic site, the new Overground stations, and so on. When you visit Westfield you might not enjoy yourself but you have to acknowledge it succeeds on its own terms, and it also makes those terms quite clear, with visitors being left in no doubt what Westfield Stratford was created to do.

It’s the opposite with the Dome. Even though it’s now a functioning music & comedy venue, the sense of purposeless it was so notorious for in the early 2000s still lingers in the air beneath its canopy, and will probably never dissipate. Next time I visit that area I really hope the cable car is running.

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