Learning to love the dome

February 27, 1998

What is it about the Millennium Dome that makes hearts sink, instead of rising as Peter Mandelson would wish? It has its humorous aspects, like the fact that a part of the structure for spiritual reflection is called the Spirit Level. There is even a lifelong learning component, by the equally groan-inducing name of Licensed to Skill.

One objection to the dome is that nobody seems to like it who is not paid to do so. Far from being launched on a tide of enthusiasm, the dome will need a big marketing drive to get people to turn up. There probably needs to be a central millennium project, but a series of smaller schemes that connected it to the rest of the country should have been a priority too. The Angel of the North should have been the first of a series of millennium artworks scattered about the land. A second objection to the dome is its uncertain future. It is meant to last, but nobody knows in what capacity. Something designed to celebrate one of the great waymarks of the centuries - and costing Pounds 800 million - should look as marvellous and last as long as the cathedrals built across Europe after ad1000. And even in a largely secular Britain, it should have something of their sense of purpose.

As a landmark of the first Blair administration, the dome is safe from cancellation. But can we not think of a clutch of other projects that would add more to Britain? One of the dome sponsors, BT, has the right idea - giving everyone their own email address - even if the Swedish post office got there first.

The Pounds 800 million could pay for universities whose science departments had up-to-date research equipment and roofs that kept out the rain. Or, like the Great Exhibition of 1851, it could create a trust to push academic excellence down the centuries. Or what about adding to the aid budget to allow a burst of development in Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana - the developing world countries crossed by the line of zero longitude?

And if Lord Irvine can play Wolsey, perhaps Mandelson and Blair might imitate Prince Albert. The legacy of 1851 is still with us on the site of Imperial College and the other glories of South Kensington. But in southeast London, Greenwich University is having little luck in moving to the old naval site upriver. Perhaps after 2000, it could move to the meridian campus, with a building so distinctive that every potential student would know where to find it.

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