The Dome: A visual feast for grown-ups
Much has been made of the entertainment and education aspects of the Dome, but it has been a unique opportunity for architects and artists
Sunday 26 December 1999
But what about the rest of us, those who might be a little older or, dare one say it, wiser? Is there anything in what Tony Blair has called "the greatest show on earth" that might interest us? Well, the critics have already given their verdict and, from the top toffs at the Daily Telegraph ("deathly dull") to the middlebrow mums at the Daily Mail ("words fail me"), they are unanimous in their condemnation. So does this thing really have no redeeming features?
The answer is yes, but they're few and far between. First, and most importantly, there is the Dome itself. Anybody who hasn't seen it in the flesh will be overwhelmed by its vast, impressive structure, all rippling with hi-tech engineering like a well-toned body. Combine this with its green credentials (that water flushing the loos is recycled rain from the roof) and it is everything you would expect from Richard Rogers, the architect who also brought us the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyds building.
Before you step inside the tent though, take time to search out the art at its perimeter. Leading artists were commissioned to make a series of "site-specific" works - there is Tacita Dean's sound installation composed of 24-hour recordings taken at five ports around the world, and a pair of wiggly neon tubes by Bill Culbert. Most impressively, there's a section of a cargo ship from Richard Wilson, a freshly painted fragment standing on the mud flats of the Thames, the stains on its hull marking the rise and fall of the tide. What does it mean? God knows, but at least it's quieter and more resonant than what goes on inside the Dome.
Close by is a huge and overrated sculpture by Antony "Angel of the North" Gormley. This pile of metal rods is sited on the pier where the Queen will arrive on New Year's Eve. Much more alluring is the landscaping of a second and now derelict pier, its crumbling timber structure newly planted with trees and grass - it's a beautiful and romantic celebration of decay that contrasts sharply with all the shiny newness nearby.
Now brace yourself. Inside the Dome most of the exhibits are of the headache-inducing interactive variety ("Anadin should have been a sponsor," suggested one critic). If you're the type who gets distressed by lengthy download times, then the best course of action is to take in the broader picture first by wondering around the Dome's rather camp pink ringroad. Most of the zones are much more impressive from the outside, and five in particular stand out.
The first is the Body Zone by the architect Nigel Coates, a tour de force of computer-aided design in which hundreds of lenticular tiles cover the sinuous shape of the abstracted hermaphrodite form. The exterior of the Work/Learning Zone, a building-sized image of trees, paper-making and books, which flicks like a massive advertising hoarding, is a refreshing low-tech triumph. The mirrored Orchard of Learning inside is exceptional in the Dome for being clever and surreal. What a shame it's also filled with computer screens.
Zaha Hadid, one of Britain's most celebrated avant-garde architects, designed the Mind Zone. The exhibits will almost certainly confound you. But it's still worth checking out the wonderful recoiling starfish, made by Richard Brown, and the oversized "boy" by Ron Mueck (the link between this piece and the subject of mind seems highly tenuous, but why turn away good art?) and then immersing yourself in the Acoustic Dislocation Chamber by Ryoji Ikeda. Outside, Hadid's big zig-zagging structure with its cladding of mirrors and light boxes lends some much-needed sparkle to it all.
Next door to Mind is the Faith Zone by the architect Eva Jiricna. The central space, designed for contemplation by the American artist James Turrell, is a refuge for the frazzled. A bigger bolthole is the Rest Zone, designed by Rogers: a giant, curvy, soft-lined structure painted in hippy rainbow colours and containing - oh bliss - nothing.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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