As a frequent visitor to London, I am asked what sights to visit in the great city. My advice this year: Not The Dome.
When we arrived in London after the Cannes festival, the papers were roiling with outrage over the vast millennial mushroom on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich. The government had been asked for an infusion of another $45 million on top of the Dome's billion-dollar price tag; opposition spokesmen were calling for the resignation of anyone involved in the fiasco, and its architect, Sir Richard Rogers, was distancing himself as fast as he could. The fault, he said, was not with his building but with its contents.
In that he is half right. The fault is in the building and its contents, or rather, lack of contents. His Dome resembles the upturned soup plate that is the model for sports stadiums all over the world, pierced by cranes that stick up like chopsticks and give the impression of a balding porcupine. No surprise that the building is of startling ugliness; to a visitor instructed by the architectural greatness of Chicago, postwar buildings in London are hideously ill-formed.
But The Dome is only a container for what is inside. Its contents resemble a junior high school science fair on a gargantuan scale. The centerpiece is something called The Body, a huge bloated figure awkwardly reclining to conceal its lack of a crotch. Our tickets promised us admission to this monstrosity in another two hours, but the guard cheerfully said we could walk right in low attendance meant no waiting.
At Disney World there is a virtual-reality ride that straps you into a chair and shakes and swoops as it seems to send you careening through the blood vessels of the human body. It's an amazing ride. Here we entered a backlit plastic cave with painted blood vessels on its walls, and took an escalator into a room where a large heart was noisily pumping to itself. Another passageway, and we entered a chamber with a video screen on the ceiling showing sperm fighting to fertilize an egg. An escalator ride, and we were at the brain which, since it involves a journey from the heart to the sperm and beyond, must be in the big toe.
The centerpiece of the brain room was a lump of gray matter wearing a red fez. It bobbed up and down and said: "Hear the one about the parrot crossed with the crocodile? When it talks, you listen." We waited for the next joke, but the brain knew only one joke. Down a flight of stairs, and we were outside again. That was the "educational" experience of The Body.
Elsewhere in The Dome we found a central arena featuring contortionists on pedestals, an "operating room of the 21st century," which consisted of robot arms poised above a dummy under a sheet, and a McDonald's. What I enjoyed most was filling out a questionnaire about my Dome Experience.
Admission to The Dome is an extortionate $36, but the papers say thousands of tickets have been given away. One reason for low attendance may be the location, on the site of a former gasworks in Greenwich. From central London it is a $30 taxi ride, but the new Jubilee line of the underground has a Dome station, only 20 minutes from Piccadilly Circus. The best way to arrive is by boat from Westminster Pier.
We landed at Greenwich Pier, where the Cutty Sark and Sir Francis Chichester's Gypsy Moth are on display, wandered through the streets of Greenwich, and had fish and chips in a little cafe. While we sat at our window table, an old gent wandered past outside wearing a red topcoat decorated with rows of medals. He had bushy gray sideburns and a handlebar moustache.
"Thinks he's the Mayor of Greenwich," said our waiter. Even if he wasn't, he was more entertaining than anything inside The Dome.