An Almighty challenge

December 25, 1998

Christopher Frayling and his students at the Royal College of Art wanted the Spirit Zone of the Millennium Dome to re-enchant the world. But then religion intruded. Kam Patel reports

If the Millennium Dome is the most controversial architectural project of recent times, then what is planned to go inside has attracted even bigger debate. And the biggest rumpus of all has been caused by the Spirit Zone, where visitors will be able to "explore the spiritual and moral dimensions of humankind".

The New Millennium Experience Company - the firm set up by the government to manage the dome's design or construction- has appointed high-profile "godfathers" to oversee the development of the 11 zones. The short straw has gone to Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, who is to supervise the Spirit Zone. "It's a bit like fighting the hundred years war every Tuesday evening," he says, jokingly, about the struggle of dealing with religious groups' conflicting demands over what should be included.

But it is not just the Spirit Zone that is controversial. Frayling says he has never known a design as political as the Pounds 760 million dome, with temperatures running high and everyone expecting news all the time. Usually, after a brief is drawn up for a project there is a period of relative calm while the design is executed, he says. The dome, however, has had to fight against public suspicion almost from the beginning.

"For some reason there is a lot of negative feeling that does not seem to be budging," says Frayling. "I would have thought that by now, with a year to go, this negativity might have dispersed. It hasn't, partly because the dome is a very expensive project."

Nonetheless, he is optimistic. "One thing the Brits are rather good at is having a huge thrash, gathering in large numbers ... We rather like it, whether it's the 1951 Festival of Britain, VE Day with everyone standing in the Mall, or Princess Diana's funeral. Sometimes it's a celebration, sometimes it's a wake but we are good at it and from that point of view the dome should be a happening thing."

Canvassing views about what the Spirit Zone should look like, Frayling wrote to the artist David Hockney. Hockney replied that the whole tent should be kept empty so people could have a space to escape the millennium.Frayling grins as he recounts this tale, but adds swiftly: "The zone certainly is remarkable as an empty space, the biggest interior space I have ever seen, but I think it will be even more remarkable when it is filled up."

But how is he going to handle all the arguments about which faiths the zone should feature? In multicultural Britain, how will the Muslims, the Hindus, the Christians, the Jews ... all be represented? Well, Frayling says slowly, the celebration of the millennium logically only makes sense if the big clock ticks off in AD1. This makes the Christian calendar central to the millennium experience. "That is the fundamentalist line, if you like. At the same time, we live in a multicultural society; we must not be exclusive or offensive to anybody."

At the heart of Frayling's approach to the Spirit Zone is his belief that the "concept of the spirit is a lot more embracing than the concept of religion". While religions are composed of a set of institutions, iconographies, hierarchies, buildings and specialist professionals and theologies, he argues that the spiritual is "a state of being, a part of being human ... it is that non-material side of human nature that is all-embracing". Very few people, he asserts, associate spirituality with institutionalised religion.

At the RCA, Frayling has been sounding art students out about spirituality:

"A lot of them talk about 're-enchanting the world' - it is a buzz phrase.And by that they mean wanting desperately to hook into the magic of everyday life, not magic in the mad sense, but enchantment. They want to put the enchantment back into everyday life. I think institutional religions have a problem in meshing with this huge thirst for spiritual guidance because they do seem rather forbidding."

Is he spiritual himself? "Yes, with a small 's', definitely," he says. "I am certainly not an atheist. And, being in the arts, I have to believe there is more to life than the purely material.

"The issue is how we can square the demands of institutionalised religions with the concept of the spiritual. If you take spirit as an all-embracing concept, there is probably more interest in that now than at any time during my lifetime. Everything about the non-material, from New Age thinking to mysticism ... is interesting to people. The more materialist a society gets, it seems, the more people are interested in its opposite. And I find that a fascinating conundrum."

Frayling's original inspiration for the theme of the spirit zone was Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with Thousand Faces, published in the 1940s. "It looks at the great quests for self-knowledge - Jesus, Buddha, and so on, and boils them down to one narrative. It is also the inspiration for the plot for Star Wars."

But Frayling's idea of echoing Campbell's concept in the Spirit Zone fell foul of the theologians who thought it would suggest all religions were equal, flattening them out so that they all had equal weight. For it had already been decided long before Frayling arrived on the scene that the zone would be a reflection of institutionalised religion. Major design developments are reported to the Lambeth Group, on which sit representatives of the major religions. The designs for the zone - the aim is to create a "gossamer light", parachute-like structure - are being finalised under the leadership of the designer Eva Jiricna.

Frayling's brother, a priest in Liverpool, anticipated the difficulties ahead. "I phoned him (about the job) and he said I should not touch it with a barge-pole," Frayling chuckles. "His deep theological advice was that I should keep away, that it was so complicated, so politicised that I was on a hiding to nothing."

Nonetheless he persisted and now feels progress is being made. At present,Frayling says, the concept for the zone revolves around "life's journey", . The exhibition inside will look at the rites of passage as marked in different religious traditions: "birthing, growing up, marrying, making grown-up decisions and endings". The Lambeth Group is keen on this, seeing it as a way of making spirituality and religion relevant to most people.

"We hope to pull the zone away from all the razzmatazz, huckstering and shouting, somewhere different that is going to concentrate minds. I am making it sound like going to church but it really is not that at all, although there are very important issues involved and I do not want to trivialise them."

There will be a meditation space, and Frayling is keen to have some means by which visitors can leave a mark. His original idea of each visitor generating a star in a planetarium-like galaxy is, he says, probably not feasible.

The Conservatives originally proposed the idea of the dome in 1997 as part of the millennium celebration. Many of the essential decisions about its content were made before Frayling's appointment in the wake of the new Labour government. How might he have reacted if asked for his views when the idea of the Millennium Dome was being first mooted? "I believe in these huge festivals, but whether I would have gone for something on this scale I am not so sure," he says carefully.

When he was five he visited the 1951 exhibition. He remembers being photographed for newspapers wearing a school blazer, in NHS spectacles, shaking hands with the robot in the dome of discovery. At that exhibition, the education and entertainment were separate. The educational element was located on the South Bank - the fun-fair was in Battersea. "I would definitely have said do not have them in two separate boxes like that, let us make the educational experience fun."

But in 1951 life was relatively unsophisticated. "You saw things that blew your mind ... you thought, 'my God this is science fiction'. No one had telly ... but there was the Festival Hall - we were quite easily pleased." Now rival attractions - video, satellite, digital TV, computer games, DisneyWorld - proliferate and it is much more difficult to thrill. In such a world, there is no point trying to compete. You are never going to be as good as, say, DisneyWorld. The dome has to be different and that lies in serious themes being done in a fun way, which is not what Disney does at all - there it is all fun, fun, fun."

In retrospect, Frayling is not surprised at the turnover of creative directors for the dome, culminating in the acrimonious departure of design guru Stephen Bayley last year. "With Stephen you had a champion of design who tried to hold the whole experience together and it didn't work because it is too big, too complicated, too bureaucratic for one person. I think the "godfather" idea, a champion for each zone rather than one overall, is a good move - although I think they got to that decision very late in the day. It is like project managing the biggest building scheme ever with lots and lots of strong personalities each building a separate room - it is a hell of a job."

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