Business-led practice triumphs at the Millennium Dome
'Without such an approach, architects cannot maintain the authority in design development or project delivery that they crave'
'Sir. As it nears completion, the Millennium Dome looks more and more like a flying saucer. May we be allowed to hope that it will soon take off and vanish into outer space.'
Lady Bowman's letter, published recently by The Times, reveals simultaneously two contrasting strengths and weaknesses in British culture: the commendable ability, as in Dad's Army, never to take ourselves too seriously, combined with a disturbingly cynical attitude towards design achievement.
Delighting in the alleged failure of projects such as the Channel Tunnel or British Library to meet constraints of budget and programme, and taking predictable pleasure in technical hiccups, such cynicism is more indicative of ignorance than insight.
It is an ignorance of both the process and product of design - an inability to understand the conditions essential to the delivery of a successful project, and make any measured assessment of the developed work. It is an ignorance that threatens our profession's very ability to deliver work of high calibre.
Look at the appalling recent abuses of our best architects - be it Zaha at Cardiff, Will Alsop at Swansea, or a dozen others that we know of but must not mention.
Architectural projects all too often follow that well-trodden path from competition win, or lottery success, to convoluted design stage as project managers, devoid of empathy and sympathy, inject pain and misery into the gestation process.
But not so the Dome. A triumph of logistics, this project confirms a sharp new edge within British architectural practice which underlines the growing supremacy of 'business-led practice' over 'practice-led business' - the latter having, in the unsympathetic climate of recent patronage, fallen ever shorter of the demands of the commercial market place. An early example of this changing professional culture was evident with Foster's HongKong and Shanghai Bank and we've seen it with increasing frequency ever since.
Now evident in the Dome, the achievement is breathtaking.
Piling began on 29 July 1997, a mere three weeks after orders were placed. Some 8,000 piles were installed in 12 weeks - that is 95 a day! On 13 October 1997 the first of 12 100m-high masts were erected - all were up 11 days later. Abseilers - an assembled mix of North Sea oil riggers, cavers, and climbers - then began installing the 72km of cable netting that would support the fabric roof.
The project required the largest free-standing scaffold tower ever constructed. Over a matter of weeks, 93,000m2 of 1.5mm-thick fabric roof was supplied and erected to form a roof that encloses 2.1 million m3 of space which ventilates naturally at 1 air change per hour.
Already heralded as the eighth wonder of the world, it is an extraordinary achievement by a construction industry which has been consistently misused, misunderstood, and abused. Here, in double quick time, hundreds of teams comprising thousands of individuals have been led by the Richard Rogers Partnership with Buro Happold, and by Laing with Sir Robert McAlpine. And of course, David Trench, rare among project managers as an enabler rather than a strangler, has made his mark on this very special project.
So, it is a marvellous example of design management, construction programming, of strategy, and of logistics - clear demonstration of the extraordinary capabilities of one of our profession's leading practices.
And when the real assessment begins, such efforts deserve a more considered criticism than Lady Bowman's trite and glib remarks.
But if we are to keep the cynics at bay it is essential that our profession - at practice and education level - realises the need to achieve the sophisticated 'business-led' skills that the design team has shown on this project.
Without such an approach architects cannot maintain the authority in the design-development or project-delivery processes that they crave. Without such authority the product of architecture is increasingly open to misinterpretation and abuse.
That, ultimately, is the lesson of The Dome for our schools of architecture.