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learning from the dome

people; Peter Higgins, whose struggle to produce the Millennium Dome's Play Zone was well documented on TV's 'Trouble at the Big Top', thinks that, post Jennie Page, the time is right for a new approach to designing exhibition buildings. by david taylor.

That chap lurking beneath the big neon arrow believes that we should all stop moaning about the Dome and start trying to learn from it.

Peter Higgins, whose practice of 'interpretative architects' (his 'poncey' term) Land Design Studio took charge of designing and building the Play Zone in just 350 days, thinks it's time there was a serious look at the failings - and successes - of the infamous Greenwich tent. 'I think it's a wonderful piece of research we've got here,' he says.

First in the dock on the negatives has been the continued absence of an overarching creative director at the Dome, resulting in a disparate feel. Higgins says a creative guru 'would have helped orchestrate the whole'. Okay, there were many 'content editors' in train, but none had 'solid' backgrounds in design.

'It was just very strange to me that nobody ever thought it was necessary to have art direction at the highest possible level because everybody thought they were capable of art-directing it,' says Higgins. 'And it is now very eclectic'. Someone should have been in charge of that eclecticism who was clever and subtle enough to allow a 'looseness' to pervade, maybe a la World Expos. And, he adds, a decent brief should have been written, rather than simply asking architects to 'go off and do something on the mind'.

The second major Dome error was that those left in charge decided not to tell zone designers what exactly was going to be built right next door. In Play's case, no one knew about a Costa Coffee outlet within 3m of the entrance or could stop a huge piece of signage saying 'Market Place' directly beneath the zone, confusing the message and the visitors.

There is also, directly opposite Play, 'Timekeepers' - a large, noisy, Terry Gilliam-esque physical play area imported from the States which is completely at odds with the playfully educative and often cerebral exhibits Higgins picked from around the world for his zone. Aghast, Land saw this piece of 'hedonistic mumbo jumbo' for the first time only when it went up.

'With the best will in the world,' says Higgins, 'Lara Croft is a sexual fantasy who beats people up. You think, hang on, where is that getting us, actually? For a kid to play that two hours of an evening or to come here, I wonder which people would prefer. That's why I was irritated by Timekeepers, because it's completely opposite to what we're doing here.' Higgins' other gripes concern the Dome's poor signage - hence the arrow, hammering home where Play's own entrance is - orientation, and even the treatment of surfaces. Some of the zones, furthermore, elicit a 'muddled' visitor experience.

What he's learned from it, on the positive side, is to appreciate a sense of collaborative working where the architect should get involved with the interior designer at an early stage. At Play this has been easy, since Land did both; but with other projects, such as with David Chipperfield at the Henley River and Rowing Museum, it has been problematic. Higgins says the relationship was not good - the interior exhibition had to be adapted to what Higgins sees as the fundamental failings of the building to hold such features.

'We've shown how the exterior and the interior should match and do something for one another in these sort of visitor experiences - that you shouldn't just build a heroic, landmark building and then hand it over to someone else down the line to put something into. You should do the two things together, and we've been allowed to do it here. We're saying this is a model.'

The collaborative approach of architect and exhibition designer is working well at Falmouth, where Land is working 'side-by-side' with Long and Kentish on a maritime museum (with 'real inside-outness'), and a 'simple' interpretation centre at Kew's Seedbank project by Stanton Williams. It's also doing an environmental centre with Belfast architect Taggarts in Ballymena, where the designs were scrapped and started again as a result of Land's input. Land is also involved with Manchester outfit omi in a new football museum taking shape under two stands at Preston fc's Deepdale stadium in Lancashire. And with Will Alsop at c/plex, although Land pulled out of Sheffield's pop museum and Wilford's Lowry Centre.

The other Dome lessons, Higgins says, are the importance of a simple message and the extent to which the technology which Land has garnered from around the world and developed itself can take the practice further in its lottery work with museums and interactive exhibits. It's also borne fruit in that, having seen Play, the organisers of Chris Wilkinson's Magma scheme in Rotherham have asked Land to get involved.

Higgins is keen on his 'truly multi-disciplinary' practice and emphasises that both he and his staff are from a host of different backgrounds. Four of the staff working at Land's offices in Chiswick have come from the Royal College of Art. Higgins himself trained as an architect at the aa, then worked as a set designer for nine years at the bbc and at various theatres in the West End. Then he left for Imagination, stayed five years, and after a spot of freelancing set up Land Design Studio with partners and fellow Imagination emigres Shirley Walker - an interior designer who was project director of Play - and James Dibble. He is trying to move forward with this passion for real crossover disciplines through his teaching at Kingston and in America. And, all the while, he's preaching: 'We're trying to develop a real synergy of working with architect and to get them to work in a much more collaborative way so we're more involved in the front end of the architectural envelope.' This is perhaps Higgins' biggest Dome lesson.

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