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Dome-bashing: A favourite British pastime
LONDON, England (CNN) -- December 31 will see not only the end of the year 2000 but also of a national British pastime.
On that day, at 6 p.m., London's Millennium Dome will close it doors to the paying public for the last time, thereby bringing to an end what has, over the past year, become one of Britain's most popular and widely played sports: Dome-bashing.
Since it was first opened by the Queen on December 31, 1999, the giant mushroom-shaped structure -- based in Greenwich, southeast London, and large enough to house 18,000 double-decker buses -- has been the subject of relentless and often vituperative criticism from public, press and politicians alike.
Intended as a symbol of national pride and optimism, it has been attacked for its location, its contents, its management and above all its immense cost.
Originally estimated at £758 million ($1.12 billion), this has steadily ballooned so that by the time it eventually closes it will have swallowed over £1 billion ($1.47 billion) in funding -- £628 million ($925.6 million) in the form of grants from the National Lottery.
"The whole thing has been an unequivocal failure," says Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative Party's spokesman on culture and one of the Dome's fiercest critics. "It has been an aesthetic failure, a political failure and above all a financial failure.
"The amount of money that has been spent on it is scandalous, and the public are very, very angry."
The chorus of disapproval reached a crescendo in November when a report by Britain's National Audit Office seriously criticised the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), the organisation responsible for running the Dome, accusing it of "serious weaknesses in financial management and control."
Even Lord Falconer, the government minister responsible for the Dome and one of its staunchest defenders, was forced to concede that "mistakes have been made during the Millennium Experience project."
The Dome project was initiated by John Major's Conservative government in 1994 and was continued, against the advice of Treasury experts, by Tony Blair's Labour administration after the 1997 election.
It has been dogged with controversy almost from the word go.
Long before it even opened there were bitter arguments over, among things, the material chosen for its covering (a PVC-type fabric that "green" groups claimed was environmentally damaging).
The government struggled to find sponsors for the 14 themed zones into which the Dome's interior was divided, while its opening night was a public relations disaster, with thousands of guests, including some of the country's most powerful newspaper editors, forced to queue for hours in the freezing cold.
Since then visitor figures have failed to live up to predictions -- the original estimate of 12 million visitors during the course of the year was downgraded to half that number -- with the result that the government has twice had to step in with extra lottery funding to save the project from going bankrupt.
The attraction's original chief executive, Jennie Page, was forced to quit within a month of its opening -- followed not long afterwards by its chairman Bob Ayling -- while efforts to find a buyer for the structure at the end of its allotted one-year life span were frustrated by the bad publicity the Dome has attracted.
Only last week the government had to ask for a further £200 million ($295 million) of lottery money to bankroll the ailing project.
"This is a fiasco," said conservative peer Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, "that is rapidly becoming a scandal."
Although a buyer appears to have been found for the Dome -- Legacy plc wants to turn it into a high-tech business park -- criticism of the original project looks set to continue until the day it closes and beyond.
Bad feng shui?
The irony is that the Dome is among the most popular tourist attractions in Britain with more than 6 million visitors.
"We are in a situation where we are always being judged against our initial target of 12 million," says Angeline Burton, spokeswoman for the NMEC. "We hold our hands up and say that original estimate was completely unrealistic, but 6 million is still an impressive total."
Opinions are divided as to where the ultimate blame for the Dome's problems lie. According to feng shui expert Harrison Kyng, however, the project was doomed from the moment planners first chose to base it around its particular shape.
"A dome is symbolic of an upturned rice bowl," he says, "which is a very inauspicious image because all the food drops out.
"From a feng shui point of view, it is one of the biggest architectural mistakes ever made."
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The Millennium Dome
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