Once known as the Millennium Dome, the O2 Arena (or simply “The O2”), the building instantly became an instantly distinguishable part of the London Skyline. The original idea for the dome was conceived under the Conservative government of John Major in 1994 by the Millennium Commission, with its purpose being to celebrate the beginning of the third millennia with a World’s Fair-like exhibition building. However, the idea met with resistance and the dome project was scrapped for two years until the Commission revived it under Tony Blair’s New Labour government. The government opted to use funds from the National Lottery to help fund the dome and the Millennium Central Ltd. Was established to administer the project.
The Millennium Dome’s designer was Richard Rogers, who was known for his functional, semi-modernist architectural style, having also designed the Lloyd’s Building and the Court of Human Rights. Construction began in 1997 and the dome was built with a steel skeleton and tensioned Teflon fabric stretched over it. It has twelve supports that poke out from the dome, giving it a crown-like appearance. These supports are meant to represent both the hours on a clock as well as the months of the year, which is fitting given the dome’s location so close to the Prime Meridian. While the Conservatives had wanted a business pavilion, Labour decided to make the dome about entertainment with twelve pavilions forming a circle.
By the time the Millennium Dome opened in 1999, it had garnered quite a reputation amongst the press, politicians, and activists for its cost of £789 million, a reported 7% of which was actually spent on the dome itself. Nearly everything about the project was criticized from projected attendance to the quality of the exhibits in the Millennium Exhibition. The attractions were organised into fourteen zones, each with different corporate sponsors: Body, Mind, Faith, Self-Portrait, Work, Learning, Money, Play, Talk, Rest, Journey, Shared Ground, Living Island, and Home Planet. Many felt the zones were lacking in content. The dome was also surrounded by a number of other performance areas and exhibits such as showings of the specially commissioned Blackadder: Back and Forth, the Millennium Dome Show (with music by Peter Gabriel), and the display of the Millennium Star Jewels, which were the subject of a notoriously failed attempted theft on 7 November 2000.
While the exhibition was enjoyed by many, it was ultimately deemed a flop by the press, especially as the government was unsure of how to dispose of the dome following the exhibition. In 2001, government agency English Partnerships took control of the building and ultimately sold it to Meridian Delta for development into a 26,000 capacity arena and 10,000 homes on the surrounding property. The Millennium Dome was officially rebranded as the O2 Arena in 2005, with telecommunications company O2 paying £6 million per year for the naming rights. The interior was developed by Anschultz Entertainment Group at a cost of £600 million. The venue opened to the public on 24 June 2007 with a concert by American band Bon Jovi, the last group to play in Wembley Stadium.
The O2 Arena, with a seating capacity of 20,000, is at the centre of the complex and was the first American-style arena to open in the UK and only the second largest in Europe behind the Manchester Arena. Additionally, the O2 features a small venue known as “indigo at O2”, an exhibition space called the O2 Bubble, Brooklyn Bowl (a bowling alley and concert hall), a Cineworld Cinema, and Up at O2, a fun opportunity for visitors to climb to the top of the dome, as well as other activities. Where the Millennium Dome was largely seen as a failure, the O2 has been much more successful and continues to be a major part of London.