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17 January 2000

What the Dome could have been like

An actress dreamed of a Fun Palace. But do we really want artistic dreams?

By Jude Kelly

How do you organise spontaneous fun? In 1959, Joan Littlewood, the actress and director, dreamt of a flexible education and entertainment centre situated on the Isle of Dogs overlooking the “Sweet Thames”.

“Fun,” according to Littlewood, is “seeking the unfamiliar and ultimately transcending it.” She saw the essence of her vision as “informality – nothing obligatory – anything goes. There will be no permanent structures. Nothing is to last more than ten years, some things not even ten days: no concrete stadia, stained and cracking, no legacy of noble architecture quickly dating . . . The ‘areas’ will not be segregated enclosures. The whole place is open but on many levels. So, the great pleasure of traditional parks is preserved – the pleasure of strolling casually, looking at one or other of these areas or settling down to several areas of work/play.”

In 1961 Cedric Price, the now legendary architect, created an inspired reaction to Littlewood’s vision: Filigree Towers. His design showed varied areas at different levels, galleries, gantries and escalators. It encapsulated his ideas of “anticipatory architecture”.

Price does not believe that specific spaces should be built for particular functions. He asked us to think about a built environment that anticipates unexpected social needs, rather than accommodates those we know; an environment that relishes the possibility for re-use and obsolescence and which explores the ways space can be constructed to participate in movement.

“I can see it,” said Littlewood, “on festival nights – fireworks, water jousts, riverboats coming and going.”

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Years of planning, lobbying, fund- raising and committee trawling were to follow. “Innovation and hope were our passwords,” said Price. When his designs were published, Phillip Johnson, the American architect, pronounced them “a new step in the world”.

Supporters in New York (“They’d give you your head”) suggested Littlewood move the idea to America, believing it stood more chance there. “It’s for my own country first,” she said.

The original plan for the Isle of Dogs eventually got scuppered in 1963. Despite enthusiasm from all the mayors involved in the boroughs around the Lee Valley who had recommended a feasibility study, the London County Council considered the legal and planning difficulties to be too great. The chairmen were, however, impressed by the imaginativeness and potentialities of the project, and the possibility of finding another site was being explored.

Littlewood and Price had formed an impressive committee of luminaries from the fields of science, community, technology, research, philosophy and politics. They understood that, although the initial dream was to create a riverside work/play zone for a local, static, urban, largely underprivileged society, the provocation that the fun palace offered was as an international “laboratory” examining social interaction and people learning through pleasure.

Enthusiasm, belief, imagination, commitment to the future, plus architectural genius were not sufficient to persuade “Joan’s country” ever to build the Fun Palace.

Twenty-three acres of Mill Meads were explored, until it was decided that storm sewerage tanks and a pumping station were required more urgently than a palace devoted to amusement. (In 2000, there was still no sign of tanks, pumps or any other structure so urgently needed 35 years ago.)

Camden residents rejected the plans for the structure and Littlewood went out looking at docks, dumps and disused allotments. She persuaded the Thames harbour master to take her on a trip up and down the river.

“Why can’t governments understand the crying need for such schemes?” she asked.

Even though it failed to impress Camden, the unbuilt Fun Palace directly influenced Richard Rogers and Zenzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre. Littlewood’s ideas and beliefs should have influenced the Dome. But she was an artist prepared to stand or fall by her beliefs and ready to sink her teeth into the less courageous. In short, the last kind of person politicians wanted around when Dome compromises were being hatched. Only those with blunted canines were received cordially.

The next time two great thinkers such as Littlewood and Price offer such vistas to us, will we participate? Will we lobby? Or will we wait and see what the politicians do and then speak of our impotence and disappointment?

Everyone’s found great glee in damning the Dome – but would those newspaper editors have backed an artist-led scheme instead? Any radical grappling with the social, environmental, economic and artistic status quo has to suffer the indignities and pains of derision, mainly due to our own fear of change. The millennium was a chance to overcome that English temerity – and we didn’t.

“You see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else you must run at least twice as fast,” said the White Queen, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. One hundred years later, we planned the Dome – and, fast as we ran, it just wasn’t fast enough. Which is a shame.

Cedric Price currently has an exhibition in Canada. It’s called “Mean Time” and explores the relationship between time, movement and space and its influence on the built environment. Maybe to achieve the mix of risk, science and serendipity proposed by the Fun Palace, we need to create “Generous Time”. And let artists have their head.

The author is director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse

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