Coming Soon On The Thames: A Giant Whoopee Cushio

AS A TOURIST ATTRACTION, the prime meridian, passing within a few miles of central London, is one of the world's great unexploited natural resources. Rich in historical associations and scientific significance, offering people the unique experience of standing with one foot in each hemisphere, it still somehow fails to make most visitors' "must see" lists. Tourists, perhaps, are put off going to see something whose description invariably begins: "An imaginary line..." But it is precisely the imaginary nature of the meridian that gives it marketing synergy with another great abstraction, the millennium. Jan. 1, 2000, will arrive locally at dozens of instants around the globe, but by agreement of the 1884 International Meridian Conference it becomes official for the entire world "at the moment of mean midnight" in the London suburb of Greenwich. More or less in the same spirit in which Columbus, Ohio, welcomed tourists commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, London has begun styling itself as "the millennial city."

To turn the thousands who now visit the old Royal Observatory at Greenwich into the hoped-for millions, Britain has an audacious plan: to redevelop a desolate 130-acre site where the meridian crosses the Thames for a yearlong festival commemorating Time itself. The centerpiece, designed by honored British architect Richard Rogers, is a net of translucent plastic supported by a dozen steel masts, loosely referred to as the world's biggest dome. Unawed British journalists described it as "a giant saucepan lid" or "a whoopee cushion run through with cocktail sticks." The cost of around o600 million ($1 billion) is to be funded in part from national lottery profits, which are being parceled out for millennial projects around the country--among them cycling paths, village halls and a new home for the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. "This is a thundering great birthday for civilization," says Simon Jenkins, a member of the Millennium Commission. "We wanted something hyperbolic."

Characteristically, the British public has greeted the Greenwich project with the suspicion it lavishes on all new ideas. It hasn't helped that no one has been able to describe its precise purpose or nature, beyond serving as a catch basin for the flood of tourists expected to be unleashed by the millennium. Millennium Central chief executive Jennifer Page assures reporters that the dome's contents will "inform, entertain and uplift... over and above an ordinary theme park or world's fair." Pressed for details, she says there will be "a unique blend of entertainment... a whole new range of activity that can be accommodated in an entertaining and stimulating way." "No one has said what's inside," says a bemused Michael Manser, a former president of the Royal Institute of Architects. "Here we are, just two years away from the exhibition, and no one knows."

Yet is it not the nature of Time to reveal all things in due course? The project's Conservative Party backers, such as Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, see the project in grand terms, a "bold, defining statement" of "our pride and confidence in this country." Its detractors question whether British pride for the next thousand years ought to be so closely identified with the establishment, in the 19th century, of Greenwich mean time as the world standard for steamships and railroads. "There is a total lack of interest," declares Labour M.P. Austin Mitchell. "To celebrate Time is barmy." If it takes power in the May 1 election, Labour may have other plans for the money, in which case the honor of ceremonially ushering humanity into the next century may fall to some other city on or near the meridian: Madrid, Accra or perhaps Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Or maybe the world's tourists will decide, for one blessed day, to honor the millennium by staying home.