Architecture: Tyger tyger, burning brighter

The secret of the Dome is out: William Blake's fearful symmetry is to be framed by a spectacular light show.
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The Independent Culture
William Blake (1757-1827) believed in eternity. Appropriate really, as he is now making a spectacular comeback as the star of the show to be staged in the Millennium Dome by the architect Mark Fisher. Eight times a day, every day next year, William Blake's truly startling vision, in which he must have seen the whole world explode and all of its history and all the accumulations fly up into the air and descend in a primeval mud, is going to be re-created with special effects inside the dome.

Blake's passions provide a cracking cast list of tigers, demons and serpents, mythical characters (he gave them sci-fi names of Orc, Urizen and Urthana), Cherubim and Seraphim.

Even God made an appearance in Blake's life, popping in through one of the upstairs windows in his first house in Broad Street. "In the visionary image of William Blake," Peter Ackroyd writes in the first line of his biography of the poet, "there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time towards eternity..."

But they won't be asking Peter Ackroyd to write the script. Blake, represented as a bloke with relevance to an international audience, is action man with sound by Peter Gabriel.

Gabriel's "Real World" sound mixes music from all over the world - the former Genesis star has Scottish bagpipes playing reggae, for instance - to pound out "Jerusalem", Blake's hymn to the first factory closure in 1802, a fitting finale to today's post-industrial age.

The "Dark Satanic Mills" of "Jerusalem" were the Albion flour mills, the first to be powered by steam, which were close to Blake's house in the Lambeth marsh.

Peter Gabriel is more than a songwriter. His interactive CD rom Eve, created with artists and scientists, landed him the commission for the dome show. Eve is an allegory for our times, every bit as powerful as Blake's and equally biblical in content. Paradise in a bluebell wood is lost as the pair trudge through mud flats towards a factory lying on its side. The world becomes polluted. They separate. Epic problems (which can be solved at the click of a mouse) confront them. Paintings and sculptures by the late Helen Chadwick, Yayoi Jusama, Cathy de Monchaux and Nils Udo can be manipulated to get the modern-day Adam and Eve out of their alien world. You can write your own score by using the sounds made by Peter Gabriel and dubbing and mixing them.

Deeper into the program, the player gets insights into human relationships. Behavioural scientists, vicars, celebrity psychotherapist Robyn Skinner (who co-wrote Families and How to Survive Them with John Cleese) talk about staying in love.

Now Mark Fisher, the British architect who stages shows for such rock acts as the Rolling Stones and U2, will stage the Gabriel version of Blake's life, visions, poetry and paintings. The lighting designer, Patrick Woodruffe, will throw thunderbolts and lightening at the core of the dome, burning arrows and bolts from the blue. Tigers will burn brightly. The world can be seen in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower. Constellations, cosmic energy, the sun and the moon and the stars will be created there. Maybe even the Big Bang.

Aged eight, Blake saw his first angel near Dulwich Hill, its "bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars". And there will be a high wire act of an angelic chorus in Fisher's extravaganza. Blake's vertiginous verticals, which he liked to paint or etch, suit the scale and proportion of the dome. A lot of the action takes place overhead. Auditioning for a part in the dome show, performers were asked to bungee jump. Anyone too scared to make a jump didn't get a part. Now the Canadian director of performance theatre, Robert Le Page, will coach them in fire walking, sword swallowing, acrobatics and contortion. He managed all of these circus acts - apart from the sword swallowing - in a play about that crusty old American architect Frank Lloyd Wright at the National Theatre, which illustrated how you don't need a script to keep the narrative going.

Two years ago Tony Blair gave the go-ahead to the dome, and since then the New Millennium Experience has marked the anniversary by staging a press show to throw out a few titbits of information while keeping everything in the big tent under wraps. Everyone has been sworn to secrecy about the show, and there is enough paranoia around to rival Blake's. Today the New Millennium Experience will release photographs of the steel ribs, 35 metres high, that make the armature for the giant androids in the part of the dome assigned to the Body Zone. People will enter these figures through the elbow and exit via the knee. This penetration of the Body Zone caused such hilarity when it was revealed last year that the New Millennium Experience has decided not to release images to national newspapers but to use the trade press only.

The architect of the Body Zone experience, Nigel Coates, has designed some extraordinary souvenirs. As a plaster caster for the London store Liberty, Coates once deconstructed Michelangelo's David to make vases in the form of hands, ears and lips. Now he has designed body parts from Dartington glass to be worn as jewellery.

The Design Council, which has filled the dome with millennium products, hasn't come up with anything remotely like a souvenir. Its products, which celebrate British ingenuity and inventiveness, include so many deep freezers and food storage systems that they give cool Britannia a whole new image. Kilns, JCB diggers and Rolls Royce titanium turbine engines are neither sexy nor desirable.

However, history will judge the selection committee harshly if it misses a radical new invention that has had an impact on industry. Imagine if a selection committee in Blake's time had ignored Harrison's heavyweight brass chronometer, which measured longitude for the first time and revolutionised charting a course at sea. It is still on display at the Greenwich Observatory down the river from the dome (and was the subject of a best- selling book, Longitude, by Daya Sobell).

It's not just the contents of the dome that celebrate British ingenuity. The dome itself is in the best tradition of British engineering and architectural inventiveness. One of the largest free-standing structures on the planet, it is already running up records - not least for being on time and budget. The facade is deliberately curved, like tent flaps in polycarbonate panels, to avoid any impression that the dome roof is supported by walls. The shiny white dome has 12 yellow masts designed to resemble hands thrown up into the air - waving, not drowning - to support the cable net and fabric of the roof. Weighing in at 22 kilos per square metre, it is the largest free-standing scaffold structure on the planet. And the lightest.

Architect Michael Davies, in his hard hat and red coat looking like something out of the film Don't Look Now rather than the architect of the dome, road-tested the fabric for safety. "I took home a large sample of the fabric the dome is made of, threw jam on it, superglued it and chopped it in half. Then I threw it on the naked flame on the gas stove and it didn't burst into flames, just went slightly brown. It's incombustible and self-cleaning."

How long the fabric will last is still debatable. The earliest example of a building to use the Teflon-based fabric, in Indianapolis, now has 25 years of proven life.

What will happen to the dome once the millennium spectacular closes in 2001? Nobody will say but Davies would like to see it turned in to a campus for the Open University. A more popular use might be as a stadium. But, as Davies says, his invention is "only the overcoat for what is going to be the most spectacular show on the planet in the beginning of the year 2000".