Architecture- The Millennium Wheel

Architecture- The Millennium Wheel.

The London Eye is now as familiar a part of London architecture as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. But the wheel has only been in place since 1999. It’s now the UK’s biggest tourist attraction attracting 10,000 visitors a day. The Millennium Wheel as it was originally called is a stunning example of engineering and architecture. Passengers in its capsules can see as far as 40 kilometres away. That’s as far as Windsor Castle. At the end of the 1990’s there was considerable debate as to what temporary or permanent or examples of architecture should be put in place to  celebrate the millennium. David Marks and Julia Barfield came up with what turned put to be exactly the right idea. They combined a unique feat of architecture with an interactive experience which would last long into the future. At the time all eyes were focussed on the Millennium Dome which was then seen as the central example of celebratory architecture to mark the turn of the millennium. The wheel itself was thought of as a temporary fairground ride by the few who had heard of it at all.   Yet it was constructed at lower cost, than the Millennium Dome and had greater and more permanent impact. Who now regards the Millennium Dome as a valuable feature of London’s architecture? A wheel is a universally recognised symbol of time and regeneration and is a metaphor for the turning of the century. The Eye took seven years to build and engineers, technicians and specialists in various disciplines of architecture from five countries participated. Its design is similar to an enormous bicycle wheel. The 80 spokes if laid out end to end would stretch six kilometres. The spindle which holds the wheel structure in place is 23 metres long and weighs 330 tonnes. The structure contains 1700 tonnes of British Steel. The Eye had to be shipped up the Thames in sections by the barge. It took a week using the same lifting technique used with North Sea Oil Rigs to lift the Eye into place. The motorised capsules are completely enclosed, and are positioned outside the wheel’s mechanical architecture.

images-3The architecture of the wheel itself is supported by an ‘A Frame’ on one side only making it the world’s biggest cantilevered observation wheel. Nowadays the Eye is not just a tourist attraction and indispensable feature of the architecture of London, it’s also an event venue, It hosts 60 weddings a year. Even it’s website has a reputation for being visually stunning. The Eye now runs a circular Thames cruise on the ‘Silver Bonito’ which carries 180 passengers. The boat departs from the Millennium Pier and returns 40 minutes later having taken in some of the prime examples of London architecture. It goes via Tower Bridge, the Westminster and Millennium Bridge, Shakespears Globe, the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament.  The Eye is now a feature of London architecture used in many Hollywood movies and is the focal point for the New Year fireworks displays. It makes a long term commitment to the regeneration of the South Bank by donating 1% of its takings back into the local community. In August 2009 the London Eye introduced a revolutionary 4D Film system which brought a new dimension to the film experience allowing for a ‘new vision of the city’ and its architecture. The film focuses on the journey of a little girl and her father during their visit to the London Eye. The movie is essentially 3D and the so called ‘further dimension’ consist of sensory effects.

Wheel of Fortune

Unlikely as it may seem considering its high revenues and relatively low operating costs the Eye has been in financial difficulties, leaving its prominent position in the architecture of London (theoretically at least) in doubt. In 2005 the South Bank Centre,  itself being an example of what is known as ‘brutalist architecture’ and owner of the land on which the struts of the wheel are located served a notice to quit unless a demand for an increase in annual rent from £64,000 to £2.5 Million was agreed. This amounted to a 3800% increase in rent. It is not clear what alternative tenant the South Bank Centre had in mind to occupy the strut holes at a rent of £64,000 let alone £2.5 Million. Neither is it clear how the South Bank Centre would have replaced the lost spin off goodwill and revenues from the then, 3 million or so visitors who attend annually. The Mayor of London threatened to compulsorily purchase the land unless the South Bank Centre relented. Some observers suggested demolishing the ‘brutalist architecture’ of the South Bank Centre itself and giving the land to Eye operators. To add insult to injury the land itself comprised part of a much larger plot of land, the entirety of which had been sold to the South Bank Centre for £1 when the Greater London Council was dissolved in the 1980s, and the South Bank Centre is itself a publicly funded charity. Following legal intervention a 25 year lease was signed at an annual rent of £500,000 a year and Tussauds acquired the entirety of British Airways’ and the Barfield Family’s stakes giving it 100% ownership. Tussauds also took over the remaining £150, million outstanding construction costs loan, which it was able to finance much more cheaply. Given its massive visitor numbers however, its secure lease and its now permanent place in the skyline architecture of the London, the Eye must be assumed to be a permanent feature of London architecture

The wheel has already lasted  longer than its forerunner ‘The Great Wheel’. Although smaller (at 308 feet tall), ‘The Great Wheel’ was if anything an even more imposing contributor to the architecture of London then the Eye itself. It opened to the public in July 1895 but had fewer competitors at its height. It was built for the Empire of India Exhibition at Earl’s Court and was modelled on the original Chicago Ferris Wheel. ‘The Great Wheel’ remained in service until 1906 by which time it had carried 2.5 Million passengers. It was finally demolished in 1907 following its final outing is service of the Imperial Austrian Exhibition

Architecture and Construction

images-2Its operators describe the Eye as a ‘cantilevered observation wheel’. It was designed by Nic Bailey, Malcolm Cook, Steve Chilton, Frank Anatole, Mark Sparrowhawk and husband and wife David Marks and Julia Barfield. Other examples of Marks and Barfield architecture are proposals for the Severn Barrage, The new Cambridge Mosque, and Victoria Embankment. They’ve also submitted proposals for the China Railway Group HQ whole would be a dominant feature of the architecture of Shenzhen in Guangdong China. Mace Group specialists in architecture and engineering were the construction managers and Hollandia a company responsible for much of the modern architecture of Saudi Arabia was the principle steelworks contractor. Tilbury Douglas experts in architecture and engineering  were the civil contractors. The rim of the Eye is supported by steel tensioned cables and resembles a giant bicycle wheel. The original fluorescent lighting was replaced in 2006 by digital LED. The wheel had to be constructed in sections which were floated up the Thames on barges, and assembled on site. When the wheel was assembled it was lifted into place as would an oil rig using a ‘strand jack’ system. The capsules were made in France and the electrical components came from the UK. The wheel has 32, ten ton sealed ‘ovoidal’ air conditioned capsules each holding 25 passengers which are attached to the external circumference of the wheel which is itself rotated by electric motors.  Seating is provided in the capsules but passengers are free to walk around. The wheel rarely stops for passengers. It rotates at (10 inches per second which is slow enough to allow people to walk on and off. It only stops for disabled or elderly passengers or if some mishaps occurs during embarkation of disembarkation. Each rotation takes 30 minutes.