Architecture: Oh what a circus, oh what a show

An architect has been selected as the ringmaster in charge of The Millennium Experience.
Click to follow
Exactly one year ago, Tony Blair gave the go-ahead for the Millennium Dome at Greenwich. After 12 months of bickering, backbiting - and building - it is taking shape. As big as Trafalgar Square, and as tall as Nelson's Column the dome looks remarkably like a circus tent. No surprise then, that the New Millennium Experience will employ young jugglers, acrobats, contortionists and trapeze artists to star in the show inside when the dome throws its flaps open to the public.

The show's creative director is the 52-year-old architect Mark Fisher, best known for his sets for bands such as U2 and The Rolling Stones. To celebrate the anniversary, the New Millennium Experience is looking for 16-year-olds who want to run away and join its circus. Gymnasts, trampoline enthusiasts, dancers, rock climbers and divers, are being asked to apply. Fisher says he's looking for young people with the "stamina and that athleticism you see in raves". Auditions will be held all over the country this summer to find 180 youngsters to take a certified course in circus skills at Circus Space, a training school in east London. Toss aside all notions of Billy Smart."No sawdust because animals are definitely out," Fisher explains. "No silly clowns in funny trousers."

Run by Mick Jagger's one-time personal dance trainer, Micha Bergese, who will choreograph the dome show, Circus Space is housed inside a gargantuan former factory for electricity transformers. Inside cavernous brick halls bathed in light, workshops are in progress to find role models for the new recruits. Contortionists tie themselves in knots and acrobats tumble head over heels. Trapeze artists with calloused hands swoosh across the high wires to the catcher swinging at the other end - and miss.

Does this at all unsettle Fisher, who stole the show from showbiz impresario Cameron Macintosh when he landed the deal for the dome? Not a bit. As luminous rings, batons, hoops and bunches of flowers fly through the air, he explains how he wants the performers to tell a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end, "the usual, love, hate, conflict and dilemmas" that are universal. "The language is the language of emotion." The plot, however, he is keeping secret until the opening night.

Before performances, his troupe will be stewards, gently ushering the crowds six times a day into the 15,000-seat amphitheatre in the centre dome for the 20-minute show - though Fisher expects to play to about 5,000. Powerful coloured lights will change mood in time to music by rock star Peter Gabriel, who, like the architect, has a lot of experience in playing to big crowds. Tonight in London, Janet Jackson will step out of a video screen which opens like a book to jump into a vigorous dance techno show Fisher designed, and in the autumn Simply Red will take over the Lyceum in a theatrical show also conceived by the architect.

A graduate from the Architectural Association in London 25 years ago, Fisher moved swiftly into show business, reviving an eighteenth century architectural tradition, when Inigo Jones and Nash designed theatre.

"In Britain, modern architects became involved in the seedy world of office blocks, while the entertainment business ran showbiz.They took away all the fun from architects. That's why I moved back." The intervening centuries have had a bad effect on the craft of architecture generally, he says. "Architects just think of form, the building, not the narrative that accompanies it. That's one of the things that the exhibition stands within the dome have highlighted. Architects have to think like exhibition designers of the story they are telling. Film-makers understand this narrative action but architects today don't see space in a temporal way."

When he presented the narrative ideas for the show to the New Millennium Experience panel, Simon Jenkins exclaimed: "It's like a Greek tragedy." Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, who became nervous about the show coming from a rock 'n' roll background when their cool Britannia branding went cold, were relieved to discover it was entertaining. Comments about the dome turning into the circus must be ringing in their ears, however. It was only February this year when Michael Grade of the New Millennium Experience panel categorically denied that the dome was becoming a circus. As the warm-up act for Blair's announcement of some of the contents, Grade was asked about creative director Stephen Bayley's disappearing act from the project. "There is no need for a ringmaster. The dome is not a circus," was the reply.

But the very mention of the word "circus" triggered a Pavlovian response in Mark Fisher, who had just been appointed. Rave reviews for the Cirque Du Soleil, magic realists of the big top, at the Albert Hall at the time also helped his decision to get a training programme for live performers under way. At least we know the show will be spectacular, and that it won't be dwarfed by the immensity of the space inside the dome.

It is so big that it managed to swallow one of the outsize ventilation shafts from the Blackwall Tunnel that was sitting on the site. This incredible hulk, designed in the Sixties by Terry Farrell to bring clean air into the tunnel, couldn't be moved so they just Tefloned over it to make it a feature of of the dome. Mark Fisher is determined not to let it dwarf his show. "The scale is difficult to grasp. Think of a city to get a sense of the dome's true scale. Shops and exhibits scaled like street fronts, walkways like avenues, open theatre like a piazza."

Eleven design teams who have zones in the twenty acres around the outer rim of the doughnut-like dome will be watching Fisher like a hawk to see what he does with acoustics and lights. The spiritual zone which Eva Jiricna conceives as meditative space for reflection and contemplation would be ruined by a rock spectacular and high wire acts going on around. But news that an exhibit on female circumcision is to be one of its attractions may well make many of us glad of the chance to go to the circus.