Can the Millennium Dome defy the critics and stun the punters? Body Zone architect Nigel Coates, and official photographer Mark Power, take us on an exclusive tour
When the New Millennium Experience team announced plans to commission a 200ft hermaphrodite figure as the centrepiece of the Millennium Dome's Body Zone, the nastier sort of critic remarked that it would be a fitting symbol for a project which suffered from a sad lack of balls. Getting Nigel Coates to take over the Body Zone project was a masterly riposte. Coates' work has often referred to the human body. One of his armchairs is called "Legover", a 1992 submission for a habitable bridge over the river Thames, part of the Ecstacity project, took the form of a 500ft, aluminium-clad penis.

"Getting the Body Zone commission was an amazing piece of serendipity for us," says Coates. "We'd spent a lot of time tracking the links between the city and the human body in Ecstacity, and now there was a chance to create a human body that would function as a kind of city-in-miniature." But anyone hoping for tumescence on a grand scale in the Dome will be disappointed. Coates' Body Zone figure - an embracing man and woman based on an Etruscan funerary monument - gets around the whole problem of embarrassment by blurring the edges.

A cop-out? Not really: Coates' view is that the Dome is an expression of a particular moment. Given millennial anxiety, it is thus less a venue for hard-edged answers than for uncertainty, blurring, ambivalence. Disorientation is part of what the whole thing is about. Nigel Coates spoke to Charles Darwent

Interior of Dome

"The thing that really intrigues me, maybe scares me, is what kind of image is going to remain in the popular imagination when it's over. If you think of the Festival of Britain, the image that has survived is of people waltzing in the rain. That's what the Festival of Britain has become for us. What image will we remember from this? People are saying that The Body may be the Skylon of our day, the single object that comes to represent the show. I'm more interested in seeing how it's going to work within the context of all the other things: how it fits into what I like to see as a kind of temporary city, an urban condition."

Interior of Dome

"I first went inside the Dome last November, the day before the press event to launch our taking over the Body Zone project. Like most people, I'd only ever seen it from the motorway, where it just looks like a big thing, maybe a hill. In fact, it was a stunning, huge space in a way you can't imagine from the outside. When I went back inside the last time, a couple of weeks ago, it struck me that this was literally a colossal work, on the scale of Egyptian temples or something from Ancient Rome. There are even bits for the animals to go in and out, just like the Colosseum. You can't take it in at first: you have to look at something like workers on gantries or Caterpillar trucks to get its measure."

Electrical cable trays waiting to be installed

Vacuum pump to take out dust before painting

"Is the Dome frightening? Just look at these images. Of course it's frightening. I can't really compare it with anything else I've ever experienced. Nobody knows whether there's going to be a kind of snowball effect when it opens or whether the whole thing will fall flat; whether there are going to be 40 visitors or four million. Until it all comes together, we won't even know which of its messages is going to be foregrounded. When people first talked about "the message of the Dome", it was all about time: now, it's about minds, bodies, the spirit. This can't be like the Festival of Britain, a proclamation of nationalistic confidence. We live in a time of shifting identities, and that should be reflected in the whole experience. What I want to see is a kind of rawness. The Dome isn't about answers. It's about questions."

Men's lavatories

"I find that there is a certain Terry Gilliam quality to some aspects of the Dome's design. There's a very Brazil mood sometimes, such as with these loos. It's great, a flavour of alienation can be very exciting."

Interior of Dome

I know it still looks like chaos but I actually like the fact that the project has kept changing. Originally there were meant to be nine zones, for example; now there are 14. I see that willingness to change the rules less as dithering than as the sign of a kind of contemporary maturity. From an architect's point of view, what interests me as well is that so many of the new zones aren't being created so much by architects as by people in media and software designers. The Dome shows how architects have to start thinking of themselves primarily as communicators, to begin to broaden our definition of just what it is that architecture is seen to be. It's not about bricks and mortar any more, and we should be out there celebrating that fact. The communications revolution isn't a threat to architecture: it's an enrichment of it."

Exterior, rainwater recycling lagoon

"I like this picture because it reminds me of World Fairs. World Fairs and Great Exhibitions have always been an opportunity to focus on the place of architecture in the zeitgeist. I remember as a child being fascinated by a little glass model of a tower built for a fair in Liverpool or Blackpool or somewhere like that in the Thirties. My aunt had it. I was just struck by the bizarreness of something so ambitious being so impermanent, an object which was so ingenious and sophisticated being built to last for such a short time. The Dome is a structure that has to work as a kind of abstract map, telling us where we are now and where we are going." n