GREENWICH, England -- In the place where time has long been measured, they're scurrying to beat the last great deadline of the 20th century.
Ready or not, on Dec. 31, 1999, the planners and dreamers behind Britain's Millennium Experience will throw open the doors to a yearlong, high-technology extravaganza beneath a gigantic dome.
The organizers haven't yet revealed exactly what's going to be inside the space that is twice as big as Atlanta's Georgia Dome. And the price tag of more than $1 billion seems a bit high to some around here.
But the exhibition organizers are confident that they can pull off the party of the century -- and beyond.
After all, the British, steeped with centuries of royal pomp and ceremony, are renowned for throwing a bash. The 1851 Great Exhibition paid tribute to Queen Victoria's British Empire, which then embraced almost a quarter of Earth's surface. And 100 years later, throwing off the misery of World War II, the country staged a successful Festival of Britain.
"The British have a natural excellence in organizing audacious exhibitions," says Stephen Bayley, a design consultant and key player for the project. "We're quite good at manufacturing ideas."
And the idea behind this exhibit is huge, to provide a window on the future.
"Nobody has ever really done this before, celebrated a millennium," Bayley says. "One is aware of the absurdities of counting history in thousands of years."
But count it they will.
"Everyone is under pressure," he says. "You'd have to say that here is one of the most obvious deadlines of all time."
Right now, though, the project appears to be mired in the kind of mud that is being churned at the 300-acre construction site on the peninsula that juts into the Thames River six miles east of the Tower of London.
Organizers have been criticized by some in Parliament for being far too secretive. Britain's skeptical news media has also heaped scorn on the project, labeling it "Mandelson's Folly," after Peter Mandelson, the government minister who is running the show.
But the organizers counter that they don't want to give away the grand surprises that await the public.
"When you mount a musical you don't tell everyone what is going to go on in act three, two years before the opening," says Jennie Page, the project's executive director. "It's not fair to the designers or the performers. People have to be given space to make the project brilliant."
There are also other kinks to work out. Tens of thousands of visitors will arrive daily by subway, by train, by foot, even by boat.
But coming to the exhibition by car will be difficult because there won't be any on-site parking.
By almost any measure, the British plans for the millennium are big. They're spending billions of dollars in government and private sector funds to build new museums, concert halls, bridges, even a giant Ferris wheel along the Thames in London.
Ground zero for the millennium celebrations is Greenwich, home to the prime meridian (the zero degree line of the world's longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time.
The British figure that the millennium begins here.
And they're trying to convince at least 12 million people to join a celebration that lasts through 2000.
The project was first unveiled by the then-ruling Conservative Party in 1994. But after the Labor Party won power in May, there were concerns the new government would pull the plug on the costly enterprise, to be financed by the National Lottery, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.
But in June, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the final go-ahead.
Builders have already cleaned upthe site, which once housed a gasworks. They have also sunk 8,000 supporting pylons and erected a dozen 330-foot masts that resemble a clock face.
If all runs on schedule, by next summer, more than 40 miles of cables will support a Teflon-coated, fiberglass roof that is 165 feet high and 1,050 feet across.
Then comes the really hard part -- loading the dome with stuff the public will want to see.
"We're trying to make a unique hybrid," Bayley says. "We're not a museum. We're not a world's fair. We're not a theme park."
So, what is it?
"An event about ideas," Bayley says.
He envisions a space called "Future Time," circular streets filled with high-technology gadgets and theatrical elements that examine global issues and human pursuits.
And its effect may be sobering, according to Page, the executive director.
"What I would like people to feel after they have been through it is that this is the beginning of a fantastic period when people can make a real difference to the world," Page says.
"So it should encourage them to see the opportunities to take part in life rather than observe life. It should send people into the 21st century feeling hopeful but realistic about their responsibilities."
Pub Date: 12/31/97