Midsummer madness packs in the punters at the Dome, but why?
Outside there is bright sunlight, but inside it is perpetually overcast. The Zones are crowded with school children, verging on being out of control.
The sweaty tunnels of the Body Zone are packed with people, the few older ones with the taut, trapped expressions of people in a busy underground train stopped in a tunnel. Movement here stops dead for agonising minutes. Not so in the Journey Zone which lives up to its name with a huge throughput of people jostling past thoughtful exhibits and challenging ideas as though they were on the run, unable to take in anything because of the crush behind them. It is not like this in the Work Zone whose interior boasts rows of benches in a ghastly parody of Fordist subjugation behind its clever revolving facade that clearly deserves something better. Away from this into the Faith Zone where screaming school children run wild. On into the great central space where a fragile inflatable monster has reared up and lurches forth propelled by one man in each leg, with a tiny windscreen in front of his face. The monster does not go far. Children run between its legs, kicking expertly at the operators as they do so, like stag hounds trying to bring down a deer. Desperately the crew of the monster struggle to escape, they reach shelter and crash nose down behind a screen, the operatives limping away. Out on the concourse more school children are massing in companies of a hundred or more, kicking each other's sports bags, growing impatient.
Of course this emphasis on youth is intended.
The New Millennium Experience Company spin doctors know that children are a great national reserve army that can be drafted in whenever there is a gap in the official line. Children are used to public transport. They don't own cars and therefore don't expect to be able to park them everywhere or moan about spending £50 filling them up. Ideal extras really. Long before the opening Tony Blair announced that the display would satisfy the curiosity of those under ten. For those older than that, who may not like their juniors' unruliness, the organisers set aside plentiful areas for prayer.
Curiously enough prayer does come to mind in the Dome at midsummer. Nothing wrong with the structure, it does more with less at an entirely reasonable cost, and has been designed with that unerring grasp of appropriate weight and proportion that the late Peter Rice always praised in the work of the Richard Rogers Partnership. Nor are the surrounding areas and the auxiliary buildings ill-sited or quality noticeably skimped on. Even the uncomfortable relationship of the Foster transport interchange and the main entrance to the Dome's 'High Street' is offset by sheer space and scale. Furthermore the whole project is not the failure it is generally held out to be. Not only is it still the most visited attraction in the country, but also one of the very few to be connected to a public transport system that really is capable of moving three million passengers a day. In this sense, despite the former isolation of its site, like the Tate Modern but unlike numerous other hastily commissioned millennial attractions, the Dome is immune to every non-apocalyptic hazard of access, up to and including petrol at £5 a litre and the total pedestrianisation of central London's Zone 1.
Why then the prayers? Because there is something purposeless at the heart of the Dome enterprise. Something epitomised by the Money Zone with its vacuous invitation from the City to spend a million pounds. For that is exactly what the great millennium experience ended up doing, spending millions and millions of pounds, as yet to no useful purpose.