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Millennium Dome – What’s up with that?

September 1st, 2010 / By: / Exteriors, Feature

London rang in the new century under the Millennium Dome’s fabric roof. Ten years later, how is the roof holding up?

Editor’s note: The iconic Millennium Dome—designed and built in time for the United Kingdom to celebrate the turn of the millennium at New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1999—has thrived as a major fabric structure on the London waterfront for more than 10 years. Originally conceived as a temporary venue, a change in government backed the engineers and designers’ recommendation that it be built of more durable materials, including high specification fabric and long-lasting galvanized cables and fittings. The architects for the Dome were Richard Rogers Partnership, London, and the engineers Buro Happold, Bath. Tanya Ross was project coordinator for the Buro Happold design team on the Millennium Dome. Here are her thoughts and observations of the building as it stands today. Fabric Architecture published a critique of the new building by Robert Kronenburg in the Jan/Feb 1999 issue.

It has been more than 10 years since the Millennium Dome was opened to the public, and in that time the building has been reviled and abused by the press, suffered an attempted multimillion pound theft, been featured in a James Bond film, sheltered gargantuan New Year’s Eve raves, contained one of London’s largest demolition projects, hidden a huge building site and most recently housed an award-winning concert venue. Phew! Not bad for 10 years!

For the duration of the exhibition, the Dome was regarded as simply the background to the show, the convenient umbrella that meant that Lycra®-clad acrobats didn’t have to worry about the rain or that the cardboard exhibition showcasing recycling didn’t turn unpleasantly soggy. The exhibition itself attracted 6.5 million visitors—less than originally hoped, but more, perhaps, than the cynics expected. Once the year 2000 was over, the exhibits were dismantled, some to find a new life elsewhere, and the Dome remained for two years as a largely empty space available for hire, with several advertising campaigns making the most of its unusual dimensions. During 2002 and 2003, Buro Happold worked with the new owners, the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to develop a plan to build a new arena within the cartilage of the Dome. Over the next three years, this plan grew to include a possible casino space, a multiplex cinema, a smaller concert venue and supporting food and beverage offers. The construction and civil engineering giant Sir Robert McAlpine was commissioned to build the venue, and in June 2007, the new arena, now named The O2, was open for business and was subsequently voted Best Live Music Venue in the World.

I’ve been back to The O2 a few times, and have seen how the building has evolved. The fabric structure has generally held up well, although during the construction of the significant elements within the volume of the space it was almost inevitable that the roof would be punctured by telescopic cranes. There were four significant tears by telescopic cranes puncturing the roof despite the use of helium balloons attached to crane jibs that were intended to alert the operator to the proximity of the roof fabric. Each tear was patched within days to limit any propagation of the damage, but these are easy to see—if you know what you are looking for! However, throughout The O2, an inner liner hangs below each structural panel, and there is sporadic damage to this liner. The liner has been something of an issue. Because it was a simple, untreated fabric, there was no ability to repel dirt as with the main structural fabric (whose PTFE coating allows rain-collected dirt to slide off). Throughout the demolition phase, and then through the construction of the arena and the associated facilities, this liner has picked up dust and fumes and has discolored to an off-gray. In the entrance to the facility, the client has replaced the liner panels with new, clean panels that give a much brighter feel. Despite the discoloration of the liner panels, the overall impact of the space is not lessened: overall translucency remains good and, with the introduction of all the new facilities inside The O2, the fabric is hidden from view for much of the volume. AEG retains a contractor to carry out maintenance and repair work on the fabric where necessary and this is sufficient to keep the fabric in good condition.

Tanya Ross is an associate director with Buro Happold engineers. She was project coordinator for the design of the Millennium Dome.

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