IN RECENT weeks, the pace of activity around the Millennium Dome site at Greenwich has stepped up a gear. As the countdown to 31 December 1999 enters the final months, the exhibition designers appointed to create the visitor zones which will fill Sir Richard Rogers' pounds 750m big top face the mother of all deadlines.
In all the sound and fury about the Dome - all the arguments about location, materials, cost and content - one thing has been consistently overlooked. That is the likelihood that, barring disaster, the biggest showcase for British exhibition and interior design skills since the 1951 Festival of Britain will reveal to the world a new generation of talent and create one or two stars in the process.
In the same way that the showcase creation of the TGV rail system in France made the skills of French railway engineers eminently exportable, so there is the prospect that the Dome will be an international advertisement for British designers to sell their services internationally.
This scenario depends, of course, on the project fleshing out the rather superficial schemes revealed to date with engaging content in spectacular spaces - so that the Dome is not, in the words of its former self-styled "creative director" Stephen Bayley, "crap".
But if the right steps are taken, who will be the real beneficiaries from all the attention the Dome will bring? So far, the New Millennium Experience Company, which is running the show, has signed up 10 design companies from more than 50 which replied to an advertisement placed in the European Journal.
The chosen names range from a trio of well-known architects (Zaha Hadid, Eva Jiricna and Nigel Coates of Branson Coates) through seasoned exhibition designers Work, Jasper Jacobs Associates and Land, to the heavyweight commercial production companies Park Avenue, Spectrum, Imagination and HP:ICM.
They won through from a shortlist of 27 design firms which pitched their ideas to the organisers. Today, women architects Jiricna and Hadid may have the highest creative profiles, but within a few months that could change; backroom boys from the worlds of interactive museums and Motor Show launches could be in the design vanguard.
Profiled here are four of the likeliest candidates for prominence, each from very different backgrounds. Tim Elliott of Spectrum and Jonathan Swabey of HP:ICM belong to the "producer" camp - they are experts in live business presentations and use a range of communication disciplines to create spectacular effects and environments. Tim Pyne of Work and Peter Higgins of Land belong to the "designer" camp - both trained architects who combine an understanding of interior space with an ability to tell stories.
In design terms, the Dome is where architecture meets advertising. Each of its 14 zones (some design teams are doing more than one zone, others are collaborating on one) has a production budget of around pounds 5m and explores different aspects of how we might work, learn, rest and play in the future. The larger zones on the Dome's outer ring have a footprint of just under an acre; the zones on the inner ring have a slightly smaller footprint, but of course have more space to build upwards, creating more levels.
Who will create the best zones? Who will combine style and substance most effectively? The one thing everyone agrees on is that the designers have a clean slate - the Dome zones have no real precedents. As one designer put it: "Is it Disney? Is it an exhibition? Is it a trade fair stand? It's none of these things. It's a hybrid, it's something new and you can't go and see it anywhere else in the world."
If you watched the Hong Kong handover ceremony at which Chris Patten wept, Prince Charles got soaked, fireworks lit the sky and the band played on, then you've already experienced the work of Tim Elliott (far right). As creative director of Spectrum, a company which specialises in "business theatre", Elliott has vast experience of designing exhibitions, conferences, and live events all over the world - from events for Coca- Cola and Mercedes to the launch of Microsoft Windows 95 using every visual medium available - from film, photography and computer simulation to illustration, lighting, actors and dancers. Among his credits is the launch of Viagra - "a potent event" he remarks, with a slow smile.
Lately, Spectrum has been busy in the political arena, orchestrating the look and style of events at the G8 summit in Birmingham and the EU Presidency get-together in Cardiff. But Elliott is under no illusions that the Dome, for which Spectrum is designing two zones, is of an altogether different magnitude. "Nothing has prepared me for this," he admits.
The subject of one of Elliott's zones is national identity, provisionally entitled UK@now and sponsored by Marks & Spencer; the other is about finance and banking, called Transaction, supported by the Corporation of London. In both cases, Elliott says his approach is to "take time to get the story right. Content is the main issue, not just design. You can't shoot the film until you've got the script." In that sense, at least, he feels his "business theatre" background gives him an advantage over pure design- trained architects, whose instincts are to provide the shell or setting but not the dramatic content.
The political sensitivity of the national identity zone, given New Labour's project to rebrand Britain, will doubtless be subject to intense scrutiny. "UK@now doesn't have the biggest or best position in the Dome but it does have enormous political resonance." Elliott draws on a recent Demos report about renewing Britain's identity. But he and co-creative director David Zolkwer (right) have also developed their own theme, which they term "andness"; this is about Britain as a nation of contradictions which absorbs new influences but doesn't homogenise its differences. "Britain as a patchwork quilt, not a melting pot," says Elliott. "We want to celebrate the familiar as well as the future."
Elliott also promises surprises in the Transaction zone, which on paper at least is one of the Dome's driest subjects. A "litmus group" of the good and the great is monitoring the work of each design team. "Every time you present to Richard Rogers, David Puttnam and Alan Yentob, it's unreal, like a dream," he says. "But while it's okay for the litmus group to ask difficult questions, the real success of the Dome will be decided by Joe Public."
Jonathan Swabey must be one of the very few Millennium Dome designers who can remember attending its predecessor, the Festival of Britain. Then he was a small boy staring up in awe at the Skylon. But this time around he will be the centre of attention - or rather the giant body he has created to dominate the Dome's interior will be.
Swabey, 48, a creative director with the London-based communications agency HP:ICM, is the designer of the controversial Body Zone. In its original incarnation this featured a seated mother and her crawling child, but has since gone through several changes of gender and position. Rampant press speculation has most recently centred on the rather disconcerting prospect of androgynous Siamese twins, but Swabey explains that the latest plans for two entwined bodies will take an abstracted form more akin to Rodin's "The Kiss".
"The idea of the body was included in our very first proposals, as a sculptural icon," says Swabey, "but we never thought of the visitors being able to go inside. Then we realised that we'd missed a trick. But we saw that a single seated figure would not give us the interior volumes we'd need to allow people inside. So then we began to experiment with abstract shapes."
When the body goes into construction on site at the end of this year, it will, Swabey promises, be "the most interesting organic steel structure in Europe". HP:ICM is working with structural engineers to build a framework eight storeys high which will eventually allow visitors to pass from one enormous, womb-like space to the next, sampling light, sound, music and high-tech special effects as they go. "People will never have seen anything like it," says Swabey. "The messages and the energy will be analogous to Piccadilly Circus, but it will be more like walking around inside a Henry Moore or a Gaudi cathedral space."
But what will those messages actually be about? "The story of the body will go beyond the medical to encompass the social and the ethical," says Swabey, whose best-known project prior to the Body Zone was Cadbury World at Bourneville, one of the very first successful commercial visitor centres, which now attracts 200,000 people each year.
Swabey trained as an interior and exhibition designer at Epsom College of Art in the late Sixties, and has spent the whole of his subsequent career in design practice, increasingly specialising in the field of live communications. HP:ICM is part of a global communications group, has 100 members of staff in London, and counts Nokia, Mars and Andersen Consulting among its high-profile clients. It is regarded as one of the New Millennium Experience Company's safest pairs of hands - so much so that it has just been given a second zone to design, this time on the subject of local identity, which will be created by a separate design team from the Body Zone.
"We regard ourselves as being most akin to film producers," says Swabey. "We have to develop the right storylines, choose the right photographers, and build the right environments." Two eminent medics are advising on the content of the Body Zone. But will the designer who unveils new cars through dramatic swathes of dry ice and builds branded visitor centres around chocolate bars really be able to communicate the biological miracle of the human race?
Swabey insists that the end product will be truly inspirational: "At HP:ICM we always aim for great stories told in interesting ways in fantastic spaces. And I know that this is the biggest job of my career. You certainly don't have Panorama filming in the studio when you're doing the trade shows. And as each month goes by, I get more positive."
As designer of the Serious Play Zone, Peter Higgins would appear to have been cast as the Dome's Mr Fun. But creating a vast visitor attraction which offers thoughtful analysis of how we spend our leisure time is actually a rather sobering experience. "Play has one of the longest descriptions in the OED," says Higgins. "It's so diverse. It means so many different things to different people - it can mean anything from tending flowers, to doing a sport, to performing on stage, so expectations just grow and grow."
Add a sponsor, BSkyB, which has its own pretty well-defined take on popular culture, and all the ingredients are there for creative confusion. But Higgins, 50, a partner in the London-based Land Design Studio, is well-versed in taking difficult and complex subjects and turning them into popular permanent galleries, usually for museums.
One of the four new Earth Galleries at the National History Museum, which opened this summer, is Land's work. So is the Secret War Gallery at the Imperial War Museum and the All Hands Gallery at the National Maritime Museum. All of them demonstrate Higgins' belief that architectural space and exhibition narrative need to be woven together through the design process in order both to entertain and educate visitors.
This philosophy owes much to Higgins' background. He trained as an architect at the Architectural Association and spent several years as a set designer in film, theatre and television (for the BBC) before joining the pioneering design company Imagination in 1984.
It was at Imagination that Higgins was reunited with his former AA tutor Ron Herron (a founder of Archigram) whose conceptual ideas on the disposable architecture of "walking cities" and "plug-in cities" were a profound influence. Higgins also met his future Land partners James Dibble and Shirley Walker there. Imagination projects have included car launches for Ford, Royal Britain at the Barbican and the massively popular Dinosaurs Gallery at the National History Museum.
Land Design Studio was set up in 1992. "It was reckless really, because we hadn't any clients," recalls Higgins. "Initially we worked for other production companies, but then the museum work began to come in." So did other projects, including a travelling show for Greenpeace about the dangers of Sellafield and the design of an interactive film for CD-Rom at Pinewood Studios. Today, Land is based in Chiswick and has a team of 14.
Higgins' initial ideas about the Serious Play Zone were given massive coverage at the Dome's first press launch earlier this year: his model showed a "bubblescape" filled with multimedia displays through which visitors would travel on the moving pavement of a Parallax Ride - at the top, visitors would abseil, slide or use "Spiderman suits" to climb down the knobbly walls.
Like the other exhibits given an early airing, the Serious Play Zone came in for its share of criticism for being superficial and banal. But Higgins takes a laid-back approach and insists it was no more than an outline sketch that was always going to be intensively developed. "In terms of interpretation, we've now pinned down the concept of play to three things: to discover, which focuses on learning; to express, which deals with communication; and to challenge, which covers sport.
"Our original view of the physical design was of an electronic playground, but now we're rationalising it architecturally. There's still a bubblescape and a Parallax Ride, but the experience will combine architectural language with strong communication. You can get carried away with the historic nature of the commission, but it's important to keep things in perspective. It's a job, after all and we'll get it right for ourselves as much as for anyone else."
Tim Pyne was determined not to be overlooked when designers were being chosen for the Dome. The young architect from Liverpool submitted his creative proposals in a bright inflatable portfolio "so they couldn't just leave it in the pile". The ploy paid off. Pyne's company, Work, is designing the Living Island, a zone which explores our relationship with the environment.
The commission itself is a triumph for an architect who is still in his 30s and who runs what must be the smallest design group working on the Dome. "Mandelson wanted to come round and tour the building and meet the staff," says Pyne. "We told him it would take two minutes." Work consists of just Pyne, 37, and a few colleagues in a small room in east London. But he's tackling one of the biggest issues of the Dome - Eco-Britain - and all the early signs are that he'll make a good show of it.
Pyne studied at Liverpool University in the Eighties. "They're very independent, creative thinkers there," he says. "Housing types fail more quickly in Liverpool than anywhere else because people just say bugger off, we're not having any of that." He qualified in 1988 and and rode out the recession, literally, as first mate on a yacht in Antigua, before starting to design the type of projects most architects avoid like the plague - trade shows at Earl's Court and the NEC. The experience was instructive. "Architects don't like to think they're in a service industry," says Pyne. "But trade shows, that's a service culture. If someone needs a sign making at midnight, it gets made."
As an architect, Pyne is an outsider who claims the book which most influenced him was one on creative ideas by Pentagram's Bob Gill: "If you can't tell a client your idea in one minute down the phone, forget it." But he's also a pragmatist who says a year on a building site introduced him to the trades. For all his in-your-face sloganeering, he has a reputation for delivering.
Pyne's recent brainchildren include the 100% Design show in London, now a popular fixture, and the Concept House at this year's Ideal Home Exhibition. He describes Work as an ideas company rather than a design firm, and is currently looking at ways to put juke-boxes into taxis and launch a Dateline "for urban modernists". "The thing that appeals is to take something completely naff and make it completely cool," says Pyne. Like the Dome, perhaps?
His concept for the Living Island was developed with typical disregard for formalities. "The brief was very open, university-style, so we got together a load of academics, artists, environmentalists and architects with several crates of wine. It got rowdy. But I came away with my big idea - that the British sea- side is an interesting place to highlight environmental threats."
Anxious to "avoid going down the standard museum route", Pyne visited Las Vegas as part of his research. "There's no intellectual content and no fear of context. You'll see a volcano coming out of a lake in the middle of a shopping centre." The parallels with Disney, as well as Las Vegas, are irresistible, but Pyne says that there isn't the budget to do a high- tech Disney ride. His solution has been low-tech - a series of interactives based on traditional pier games. Pyne's picture-postcard seaside zone will be full of fun, much of it utterly familiar, but the underlying messages will be serious. "We want to demonstrate to millions of people that small actions by individuals can make a big difference to our environment."
Nobody is keeping a closer eye on the development of Living Island than the environmental lobby (apart from the famous litmus group, which was serenaded by a seaside organist during one presentation). But Pyne seems to be relishing the pressure and attention. "We've cleared the decks for this," he says. "I think that when it opens, I'll close my practice. I can't see myself going back to trade show work."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies