The Millennium Dome has been successfully converted into the 02 Arena.

That was then, this is now

05.12.04. The Observer

It was a policy decision that split the cabinet, divided the population, ended up costing the British taxpayer millions and had no discernible get-out policy. Nearly five years since it opened, attention has largely shifted away from the ill-fated Millennium Dome, yet the building remains to remind us of New Labour’s first mistake.

The project had a difficult birth. In 1994, the Millennium Commission decided that it might want to fund various celebrations and mooted the notion of a national exhibition, as part of a wider scheme to regenerate many of the UK’s urban areas with iconic architecture. By the next summer, a location and design concept had been chosen. The Richard Rogers Partnership-designed dome, built for £43 million, would cover 20 acres of derelict land on the Greenwich Peninsular. So far, so good.

However, there was the small problem of a looming election that John Major's ailing Conservative government was certain to lose. Would a new administration, led by a young, dynamic Labour Prime Minister, be willing to bring an expensive, and somewhat hazy, Tory idea to fruition? According to Adam Nicolson’s detailed account, Regeneration: The Story of the Dome, by late 1996, the project had stalled and it took the intervention of the deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine finally to persuade Blair to get on board. The matter was still not properly resolved when New Labour came to power.

Chris Smith, then Secretary of State for the Department of National Heritage, ordered a review of the scheme before it was finally pushed through by the political might of Blair, Mandelson and Prescott in June 1997. Vital time had been wasted and the project was always fighting against the clock. As Gez Sagar, the New Millennium Exhibition Company’s former director of communications, says: ‘If John Major had announced his election a year earlier, we would have had a year longer to get it right and explain it to the public before it opened.’ 

Throughout its tortuous gestation, content – or the lack of it – was a problem. Thousands of ideas were thrown into the mix behind closed doors. What the paying public eventually got when the doors opened on 1 January 2000 was a mish-mash. Using a mix of exhibition designers, cutting-edge architects, even advertising agencies, the dome was split into 14 vaguely meaningful zones. At the middle of all this was an enormous theatre, seating 12,000 people, which hosted a circus show designed by architect Mark Fisher, with music by Peter Gabriel. In the final analysis, it was too worthy to be truly entertaining, yet too vacuous to be genuinely informative.

Many involved in the project admit mistakes were made. Peter Higgins, creative director of Land Design Studio, and designer of the popular Play Zone, is still savagely critical of the way the operation was run. ‘What we had was a team of very, very enthusiastic amateurs,’ he says scornfully. ‘We had [former chief executive] Jennie Page who got a team of content editors around her that had lots of ideas but had never done anything remotely like it. What we found was that we never had the right expertise. I really felt that we were on our own all the time. I never believed that there was anyone knitting together the bigger picture.’ 

Tim Pyne, whose old company designed more of the dome’s zones than anyone else, agrees: ‘The process of choosing people was quite haphazard. So you ended up with architects who were brilliant at building objects but not very good at telling stories, or museum designers who were very good at telling stories but not very good at working fast. And then you had big, flash people who did car launches who were very good at working fast but not very good at telling intellectual stories. Trying to put that lot together was a nightmare.’ 

Sagar blames the lack of visitors squarely on the dome’s opening-night fiasco. Some of the most important people in the country, including newspaper editors, TV executives and politicians, along with their families, were left kicking their heels at Stratford tube station for hours to get in. Today, Sagar confesses: ‘We were on course pretty well but that opening night was a disaster. We annoyed a lot of very important people on a very important night.’ 

By 2 January 2000, the government was embarrassed, and the Cool Britannia bandwagon that New Labour had jumped on with such glee was derailed.

For the record, the dome received more than 6.5 million visitors during its year of operation (in the same period, Alton Towers managed 2.65 million) but with costs rising to more than £793m, that was never going to be enough to balance the books. It took a critical mauling, both for its overblown finances and undercooked content, from which a number of people who worked on the project are still trying to recover.

While it cracked the varnish of New Labour’s glossy image, for some of the designers, editors and administrators it has had a more profound effect. Many are still wary of discussing it. Naturally enough, some got away with their reputations intact and have prospered. Lord Falconer, who succeeded Peter Mandelson as minister with responsibility for the project, has graduated to the cabinet and is currently Lord Chancellor. Meanwhile, PY Gerbeau, NMEC's second chief executive and the flamboyant ex-EuroDisney man, is head of X-Leisure, the company responsible for developments such as the Xscape entertainment centre in Milton Keynes. He’s unwilling to rake over old coals, describing the project simply as ‘passé’.

Richard Rogers, the architect behind the scheme, is another who has emerged largely unscathed, bar the odd barb from Stephen Bayley, the dome’s one-time creative director. Mike Davies, the project architect, says: ‘It must have had some effect on us. But we always believed in the dome and we still do. There have been many people who’ve knocked the project but they've been very careful to knock the content, not the structure.’ 

Bayley walked out on the project in a blaze of publicity in 1997 and subsequently became its greatest critic. Looking back, he has no regrets: ‘It’s given me an encyclopedia of insights and anecdotes,’ he tells me. ‘It’s only enhanced any reputation I might have for being a shrewd judge of matters relating to design. I always said it was going to be an intellectual, cultural and financial catastrophe. I have the world's most convincing “I told you so”, which is great.’ 

As far as he’s concerned, the dome’s problems had little to do with the shrinking timescale. ‘The management was crippled by fear of politicians, timorousness that is characteristic of civil servants. The political masters of it were fearful of doing anything excellent because it would be construed as what they called elitist, but what I call good.’ 

So what would Bayley’s dome have looked like? Here he becomes a little vague. ‘There are all sorts of things you could have done and all sorts of things I wanted to do. It should have been of the highest quality artistically and intellectually but the authorities refused. What you’ve got to emphasise is that I wanted to use the best and I was told, “No, you can’t do that.” It was official policy to make it crap.’ 

Andrew Watson, creative director of the acrobatic show, remembers it as ‘an incredible project. It wasn’t just about the dome. We also had the opportunity to bring a lot of young people together. It started a very interesting training programme that didn’t really exist before.’ He returned to Canada and freelanced for the likes of Cirque du Soleil.

Others haven’t recovered from the media lashing they received at the time; as one of the designers on the project told me: ‘The critique was shattering.’ Ben Evans, son of Baroness Blackstone, for instance, has refused to let the dome break his career. He was one of the contents editors and now runs the London Design Festival. When asked to be interviewed for this piece, he emailed back, politely refusing, writing: ‘I don’t think that the great British public or, indeed Observer readers, would have much sympathy. I have convinced myself that history will treat us kindly but it doesn't quite feel like history yet.’ 

Perhaps this reticence isn’t surprising. After all, this old toxic-waste dump claimed a few notable scalps, none bigger than Peter Mandelson’s, who was forced to resign from the cabinet over a bizarrely anaemic ‘cash for favours’ furore centering on the Hinduja brothers’ sponsorship of the Faith Zone. Then there’s the case of Jennie Page, a woman widely admired by former NMEC employees, but who has some claim to being the most unfortunate administrator in Britain. As well as running the dome, she also held non-executive positions on the board of Railtrack and Equitable Life, the current board of which is suing her and her fellow directors for £3.2 billion after a black hole was discovered in its finances.

The sense that a hex has been placed on anyone who touched the project is only reinforced when I catch up with Tim Pyne. When asked about his feelings on the project now, his response is blunt: ‘Well, I wish I hadn't done it.’ As we sit and talk in the living room of his sumptuously converted Shoreditch flat in east London, this seems slightly odd. As he points out: ‘At the time I decided to get involved in the dome, we were turning over more than £250,000 a year and we were all very happy and had a nice little business. What I did then was make a chunk of money really fast, which wasn't why I wanted into it, by the way. I did it because it was going to be an interesting project but then it fucked my career pretty much for five years. As a result financially, I would have been more or less in the same position. Also, I would have had work continually. Instead, I wandered around for ages like some guy who's just returned home from the First World War.’ 

Even now, it’s not difficult to detect a seam of anger running close to the surface as he speaks. ‘People didn't have an understanding of how difficult it was to deliver what was effectively a piece of three-dimensional Labour manifesto. Each of those zones was essentially a piece of Tony Blair’s speech when he got elected, but it was very vague.’ 

After landing the Environment Zone, he then took over on the Work and Learning Zones before finally agreeing to step in on Shared Ground. To get the job done, Pyne ended up renting a house overlooking the site. In his own words, by the deadline, he was ‘completely fucked’: ‘I was absolutely incapable of going out and getting a job.’ He closed his office and ‘just sat around, drank a lot and became aware of the fact that I was that boring twat who talked about the dome’.

This depression was compounded a few months after the scheme opened when he found himself on the front page of the Sunday Times over allegations of a ‘sex for zones’ scandal involving the project's head of production, Claire Sampson. There’s a big sigh before he says: ‘In very big projects, it normally happens that someone ends up having a relationship with someone else. She wasn't working on any of my projects but she did what she was supposed to do and tell Jennie Page. Jennie Page then made sure that Claire had absolutely nothing to do with any of my projects.’ 

Although never arrested, the Fraud Squad spent more than a year investigating before Pyne was exonerated. It still leaves a bitter taste. ‘Scotland Yard were quick to send out press releases when they brought me in for questioning. But they didn’t do it when they found out nothing had happened.’

Only now is he beginning to get his career back on track, this time with an idea on an altogether smaller scale.

M-house (or Mouse as it’s pronounced) is a cross between an upmarket caravan and a granny annexe that exploits a loophole in the UK's archaic planning laws. ‘Rather than send an elderly relative to a home or have to apply for a planning application to extend your property, an M-house can simply be installed at the bottom of the garden.’ Sales have yet to take off, but Pyne remains confident they will.

Speaking to former employees of the NMEC now, what’s really striking is the zeal many still have for the project. Nigel Wydymus, the exhibition’s production manager, is a case in point. For him, the dome was hardly a rung on his career ladder; in fact, it was quite the opposite. ‘I'd taken a decision very early on that the dome was going to be my exit from that industry. Therefore I was 100 per cent committed and I wasn't seeing it as feathering a bed for my next job.’ 

To prove the point, he now runs a restaurant/bar in St Margaret’s Bay just outside Dover that he first saw after travelling to the south coast on 1 January 2000. ‘We left the dome after the opening ceremony and came down here because the first place the sunrise of the new millennium would hit was the White Cliffs,’ he explains.

Even Sagar has chosen to downsize dramatically. A former Labour party press officer and a writer of the party’s 1997 election manifesto, for him working on the dome represented a new challenge. ‘I didn't want to carry on working for the party because I’d always just been interested in getting the Tories out. So when we did, I wanted to go and do something completely different and this wild millennium celebration involving lots of entertainers and designers looked very interesting to me.’ 

He was the twelfth person to join the fledgling company in 1997 and watched it grow into a behemoth, employing more than 5,000 people at its peak. After leaving in June 2001, he went freelance and now works for a handful of clients including the London Development Agency and the TUC. Had working on the dome affected his future chances of employment, I ask him? He looks a little wistful. ‘I probably do have fewer options because it wasn’t everything it was supposed to be,’ he replies, ‘but as it turns out it’s OK. In the last couple of years it has been very nice to have a lot of flexibility and take the kids to school.’ 

For a few though, the dome has proved a more fruitful experience. Peter Higgins is happy to admit that ‘it was actually very good for us’. The company has redefined its business around the digital technology it helped to pioneer in its zone and has just won a £132,000 award from Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) as a direct result of some of the work it did at Greenwich. A group of children from Chadsgrove special-needs school in Birmingham came to visit the project. Their teacher noticed how the kids were intrigued by one of the games in the Play Zone called Kaleidoscope. When the contents of the dome were auctioned, Chadsgrove found the cash from a benefactor to buy the game and created a new sensory room for its pupils. Higgins is now using the Nesta money to write a software programme that will eventually produce a system like the Kaleidoscope for special-needs schools across the country.

Half a decade on, stories such as this, while hardly justifying the shambolic nature of much of the organisation behind the exhibition nor its wild expense, at least make the pill a little easier to swallow. As does the fact that the dome is finally coming out of its enforced hibernation. After it closed, English Partnerships, which had taken control of the site, was obliged to rent it out for events such as the Ministry of Sound new year’s eve parties and the Nike Scorpion football festival. But now, the Anschutz Entertainment Group is redeveloping the structure into a 26,000- capacity venue that it promises will ‘provide international acts and sports teams with arena facilities of a standard currently unseen in Europe’ by 2007.

The arena is also part of London’s official bid for the Olympics in 2012, by which time developer Meridian Delta's regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula should be well and truly underway. And perhaps, by then, memories of New Labour’s monumental blunder will have faded. The building will be appreciated for the magnificent piece of engineering it represents, the public will have forgotten where its money went, and a few of those who worked on the project will have rediscovered their peace of mind.