Putting Mind over matter by kenneth powell. photographs by christian richters
Six months ago, Zaha Hadid was upbeat about the Millennium Dome. Nobody could predict its eventual success, she conceded, but 'exhibitions have a way of radicalising public taste'. Whether Hadid's Mind Zone will have this effect on visitors to the Dome is uncertain, but it is incontestably a significant and prominent work by an architect of world stature. For Jim Haverin, Hadid's project architect, the Mind Zone is 'unquestionably a building - and none the less so for being impermanent', though developing the idea of a folded structure from the earlier Blueprint pavilion at Interbuild.
Hadid was brought into the Dome's design team as a result of the competition held in 1997. Her practice was subsequently invited to bid for two zones, one of which, Mind, it secured. Design work started on the project early in 1998 and construction began last spring. The site was fixed, a slice out of the 'cake' of the Dome, with the Faith Zone (allotted to Eva Jiricna) on one side and a Rest Zone designed by Richard Rogers Partnership (rrp) on the other. 'We were never entirely happy about the overall masterplan,' says Haverin, 'but it wasn't up for discussion'. Other radical ideas, including a proposal that the zone burst through the outer wall of the Dome to embrace a specially designed external landscape, were not countenanced. At times, it seems, the relationship with the New Millennium Experience Company was fraught. Not so with British Aerospace and gec/Marconi, who sponsored the Mind Zone. 'They were good sponsors - prepared to take a back seat,' says Haverin.
The wedge-like form of the Mind Zone frankly acknowledges the fixed geometry of the Dome - other zones sit, often awkwardly, as freestanding objects in space. Its back tight against the perimeter, the zone thrusts forward towards the central performance space and is boldly cantilevered 25m across the 'highway' (the route for emergency vehicles which had to be kept clear). It consists, in essence, of a series of strips, linked by ramps, forming a visitor route which concludes on the elevated bridge, with its views across the vast space of the Dome. Hadid's concern to create memorable form is legendary and she was well served on this occasion by Colin Jackson of Ove Arup & Partners, whose steel structure, faithfully realised, like the main structure of the Dome, by contractor Watsons, has strength without excessive heaviness. (The client brief was to provide for up to 5000 visitors per hour - a figure which now seems pure fantasy.) The frame is clad in materials which are unashamedly economical - honeycomb floor panels, topped with non-slip beaded resin, and a cladding system of resin coated glass fibre panels. The architects sought, and secured, a clear contrast between the solidity of the steel structure and the opaque, folded, lightweight materials in which it is covered. Hadid's architecture could be seen as at odds with the High-Tech tent which forms its context (though Haverin reports that rrp's Mike Davies was a valuable ally when client disputes arose). rrp, for example, would never use lightweight materials - as Hadid has done - to create and define spaces.
The spaces are undoubtedly memorable throughout, of an 'inside/out' character appropriate to an exhibition pavilion and conceived as a truly architectural sequence, moving from compression to openness, through height and breadth to a confined stair - which finally brings you to the open space of the bridge.
A certain amount of crude detailing, imposed without the architects' approval, does not undermine the effect, though it is unfortunate that the opportunity to dramatise the exterior of the building with appropriate lighting was missed. It is easy to read the Mind Zone as a test-bed for the interaction of structure and materials to be seen, for instance, in Hadid's forthcoming Cincinnatti project. In this sense, the Mind Zone is more a microcosm of the city than an exercise in interior design.
It would be satisfying to record that the Mind Zone as a totality is a vivid expression of the theme it addresses. Alas, it is not. Hadid, assisted by Doris Saatchi, was responsible for an enterprising series of art commissions. Richard Deacon, the late Helen Chadwick, Ron Mueck, Langlands & Bell, Gavin Turk, Richard Brown and other artists are well represented, but too much in the zone is currently 'out of order' and there is little clear evidence of a consistent message, an incentive to rethink the way we think. Perhaps the zone's sponsors were, in the end, too laid-back - it was not the responsibility of the architects to give the Mind Zone a message. Non-operational robots and a dormant colony of imported ants - a particularly fatuous idea - do not help. (The ants are said to be infesting the floor spaces of the Dome.) Ironically, the Journey Zone, designed by Imagination, with Ford as sponsor, blatantly draws on the language of Hadid's architecture, making it more palatable for a broad public and filling it with a dense and striking mass of exhibits - all of which work - which are packing in such visitors as the Dome is attracting. When Hadid, Jiricna and Nigel Coates were recruited to work at the Dome, there was an anticipation that their innovative populism would set the dominant tone of the entire Millennium Experience. Unfortunately, this has not happened - only Coates manages to be populist (to frankly vulgar effect). Otherwise, the exhibition designers and events impresarios seem to have triumphed - if triumph is a word you can use of this rather strange 'experience'.