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The Story of the London Eye

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The London Eye.

Updated 9 March 2010

... Someday I must climb to the very top;
Look down on all of the little mountains at once.

- Du Fu, from Gazing at Mount Tai

In the ticking minute between 11.59pm on New Year's Eve 1999 to midnight 2000, several 'Millennium projects' were opened, to celebrate the arrival of the new Millennium in London. The most famous of these was the unfortunate Millennium Dome in Greenwich1, which proved to be not nearly as popular as it was meant to be. Then in May 2000 the Millennium Bridge - the 'Blade of Light', opened, providing the River Thames with its first new footbridge for quite some time, and providing those who walked on it a wobbly walk, without the hassle or the expense of getting inebriated. However, due to the swaying, it was closed, during which time groups of builders and engineers would jump on the bridge in time to check the severity of the wobble.

However, there was one other Millennium project, which, despite it having its critics, not only provided the world with its biggest observational wheel, but provided its visitors with a spectacular view of the whole of London, from Alexandra Palace to Crystal Palace, from Earl's Court to Greenwich.

Ironically, one of the rare few London Millennium projects which has been a great success, the London Eye or Millennium Wheel, as it was known back in 2000, which celebrates its tenth anniversary in March 2010, almost nearly didn't get built.

The Times and the Kitchen Table

From the early 1990s onwards, even while recovering from the excesses of the 1980s, many were already looking ahead to do as the singer Prince so aptly put it - 'party like it's 1999'. Many projects were helped along by the Millennium Commission. Since this was going to be a once-in-a-Millennium date, good burghers across the land sought to decorate their towns and cities with new buildings, which would mark the occasion, and would also, hopefully, bring in tourists to marvel at the new architecture.

London was no different, and since as the capital city, it was generally assumed that it should have capital projects to match. So The Sunday Times newspaper and the Architecture Foundation threw open an 'open ideas' competition for a new structure to grace the London skyline at the dawn of the year 2000. Many ideas were submitted, including one set of drawings born from a brainstorming session on a kitchen table.

David Marks and Julia Barfield, two architects (who are incidentally, husband and wife), had an idea for a publicly-accessible viewpoint over the capital, which would, on a clear day, provide a view of London stretching out for a 25-mile radius. What they came up with was a design for something like a super-lightweight steel Ferris wheel - only much, much bigger. Instead of the 'gondolas', suspended from the wheel and kept upright by virtue of gravity, there would be 'pods', which would be fixed to the outer rim of the wheel, rotating mechanically, giving the passenger an unbroken view of the whole city without making them run around the pod like a hamster to stay upright. To take advantage of a possible next-to-Thames siting, bearing in mind dwindling non-renewable energy resources, the wheel would be wave-powered, and, optimistically considering the British weather, solar-powered.

However, despite some people being more than enthusiastic about the date rolling over from 1999 to 2000, some others were having a bout of pre-millennial cynicism. Did London really need a new structure among its sprawling urban wasteland and defunct dockyards? Did anyone really care enough about the Millennium to want to go to yet another tourist attraction in the Capital? And more importantly, were the ideas just too 'modern' for the judges to cope with?

Whatever the reasons, The Sunday Times threw out all suggestions and closed the competition.

Standard Petitioning and Plane Sailing

However, not all was lost for the Eye. David and Julia may have been set back with the closure of the competition, but they continued doggedly forward - setting up the company Marks Barfield to back their idea, using their own cash to fund it. Additionally, although it may have seemed that no one was interested, it became apparent that the idea was growing on Londoners. The Evening Standard2 picked up on the scent, and started appealing for partners to help with the project, publicising and campaigning for its installation.

Then, just as most people were thinking that it would fall down because of lack of funds, it seemed that the media publicity was, in the end, fruitful. British Airways stepped in, formed a partnership with Marks Barfield, and managed to provide the loans needed to kick-start the project.

A European Union

Known as the Millennium Wheel with the official name of the British Airways London Eye, there were plans to site it on the South Bank's Jubilee Gardens. This location was a stone's throw from the parliamentarian corridors of power in Westminster, and was given temporary planning permission by Lambeth Council. In effect, the Eye could only remain there for a maximum of five years, before being dismantled. This meant that the wheel had to be built so that it could be assembled quickly, and disassembled just as fast, should permanent planning permission not be granted.

The next problem was getting it to the site itself. Despite London being a forward-looking modern metropolis, its network of tiny streets and awkward roads means it is more Industrial Age than Information Superhighway. As a result, the only way of getting all the parts to the right place was by river. Even then, the planned diameter of the wheel was 135 metres - which was far wider than the river itself. This meant that there was no other option but to attempt to build it over the river in the horizontal position, and then once the circle was complete, raise it to the vertical.

And there was one final problem - the year 2000 was coming ever closer.

Despite an occasionally lukewarm attitude of the British to mainland Europe, a cornucopia of engineers from the Continent built bespoke parts for the Eye, led by the UK design team. The wheel itself was developed and constructed in The Netherlands. The parts in cast-iron were made in the Skoda factory3 in the Czech Republic. The pods (or capsules) were manufactured by cable-car specialists in the French Alps. The double-curved laminated glass for the pods was made in Venice.

Forged in Fire, Carried by Water

Then came the difficult job of transporting the whole lot to the London site.

The River Thames is a tidal river, so its depth varies greatly depending on those pesky tides. To some extent the level can be controlled by the Thames Barrier and small river-going traffic are able to get under bridges easily - however, getting large bits of wheel under a bridge meant that the timing had to be co-ordinated with the Thames.

Also, the bridges that link the North to the South Bank weren't built with the intention of getting large bits of metal through, so some careful barge navigation was required to squeeze the parts through without causing structural damage to either the parts, or the bridges. The tightest squeeze was under Southwark Bridge, where there was clearance of only 40cm.

Then, once the main wheel parts were all safely in Jubilee Gardens, or to be more accurate, lifted onto temporary platforms in the river it overlooks, there was the unique task of building it over a river. Once it was completed, in September 1999, the fully-built wheel was ready to be raised from the horizontal to the vertical, onto its A-frame on the South Bank. So temporary cables were attached to the wheel, and the 16-hour job began.

Or at least, 16 hours was the time it would have taken if everything had gone to plan. As with all the Millennium projects, it suffered a major setback. One of the cables had worked itself loose, and the raise had to be halted, leaving the wheel at a seemingly precarious angle of 35° over the river (for pictures, click here). The media were unsurprisingly scathing, lazily dubbing it the 'Wheel of Misfortune'.

Undeterred, and probably breathing a sigh of relief that the other cables didn't go and the whole lot didn't come tumbling down, the design team planned for another attempt at raising it to the vertical four weeks later. On the day of the lift, commuters, curious Londoners, confused tourists and the media critics packed the north bank opposite the Wheel, and Westminster Bridge, to watch the lift. Finally, to the delight of many and the relief of the team, it was raised gradually, but purposefully over the course of a weekend. For an insight as to just how enormous the lifing operation actually was, click here to see 10 days of work fly past in a time lasped video of the operation4.

The capsules were the last to arrive, and proved to be the easiest parts to transport, having been deliberately made to a width of four metres so that they could be driven through France as unescorted if rather oeuf-like 'convoi exceptionnel'.

Now a month over schedule, work quickly began to have the Eye finished by 31 December.

Pre-Millennial Tension

The grand opening was all set. Come 31 December, the Millennium Wheel would be gently turning, with the Prime Minister, the great and the good, and members of the local community on the first 'flights' on the Eye. The 32 capsules were fitted, and all seemed good to go.

That was until one of the capsules didn't pass a safety check, and so, the opening was put back a month for repairs. It was, however, safe enough to turn without carrying passengers, and so, on New Millennium's Eve, with Prime Minister Tony Blair pushing a button, a laser was beamed from the British Telecom (BT) Tower and a Concorde fly-past5, the London Eye was brought into the year 2000.

Opening the Eye

It wasn't until 1 February, 2000, that the Eye was finally opened to the media and public. Promising a grand view over London, it became apparent that the British weather would frequently live up to its foggy reputation. Despite that, the public gave it a huge thumbs up, and most initial media reviews of the view were very positive, but it still had its critics:

The team behind the London Eye cannot be blamed for the glum British weather, the capital's general ugliness or even the general downer the press is accused of having on great millennium projects.
It can be blamed for building an eye you cannot see out of particularly well6.
- BBC News Online
Those who caught a first glimpse of what the Eye can see were held in awe.
- The Daily Telegraph
In a silent cry of delight you wish: Again! Again!7
- The Guardian
[Passengers] were almost uniformly disappointed with the experience.
- The Times
The wheel is entirely open and democratic, lighter and airier than any other structure in the land.
- The Observer

As 2000 rolled ever on, it became apparent that the critics were wrong. It quickly became the success story of the London Millennium Projects, unlike the ill-fated Millennium Dome, whom it seemed, even James Bond couldn't save8.

People actually genuinely liked it, and its popularity with caused it to have unusual and unexpected side effects.

Eye Protests

People have been chaining themselves to various monuments as a sign of protest throughout history. The Suffragettes were one such group, chaining themselves to the gates of Downing Street and Buckingham Palace to champion votes for women in the period between the First and Second World Wars. In 2000, there were three incidences in which protestors chose the Eye as a place of protest from. For more details, check out BBC News.

It's in Your Eye

British Airways has always had its fair share of members of the 'Mile High Club', and it was only a matter of time before the Eye became a new host to its members. Two teenagers, both said to be about 17, booked a private capsule and decided not to enjoy the spectacular view of London, but engaged in a far more tricky navigation exercise in their own southern regions, as it were. With CCTV in all pods, and a 'flight' taking just under 30 minutes, the amorous couple made a hasty exit after their ride on the Eye.

And throughout all this, the Eye's popularity grew and grew. In two years it ranked not only as one of London's top attractions, but also one of Britain's top attractions. People even tied the knot up in the Eye. It's harshest critics, including Ken Livingstone, who was to become London's Mayor, replaced the criticism with praise. Not bad for something which quite literally and metaphorically, nearly didn't get off the ground.

Despite this, it still only had temporary planning permission. In 2005, if there was no change in its planning status, it would be dismantled.

View to a Licence... a Permanent Licence

Those who dubbed the Eye the 'Wheel of Misfortune' now lazily dubbed it with a painful pun - 'Eyeful Tower', in reference of the famous Parisian landmark, the Eiffel Tower, which was also only meant to be temporary. The hope was that Lambeth Council and the mayor would look at the London Eye and see it as a permanent landmark on the London cityscape. In July 2002, Lambeth Council granted the Eye a permanent licence. At the time of writing, the final decision rests with the Mayor and the Environment Secretary, to rubber-stamp its permanence.

I, Eye

Leaving its troubled past behind it, its future is more or less guaranteed, and its permanent status assured, the London Eye is a graceful, unobtrusive structure, sitting neatly on the South Bank, next to Westminster Bridge, casting a delicate shadow over the Houses of Parliament. After being built in the short timespan of 16 months, an almost non-project has provided London with its fourth tallest structure and a brand new landmark, which has been, to the surprise and delight of many, accepted by the public.

A Personal Viewpoint

For those who want to know what it's like up there, here is one Researcher's experience of a 'flight' on the Eye:

Like many, I thought that British Airways was taking its partnership too far, by naming a ride on the wheel as a 'flight', and even having 'boarding gates' for your 'departure'. You 'embark', 'check-in' and 'disembark' as you would a flight on its more usual fleet of planes, and security was just as tight - bags are searched and you get brushed with the metal detector before you get on. However, in the light of people using the Eye as a means of protest, and in the post-September 11 climate, all of London's popular attractions have been understandably jumpy about security.

Boarding a capsule is much like jumping onto a moving bus - however, if you have mobility issues or require wheelchair access, as it moves so slowly, the wheel can be stopped to give you as much time as you need for boarding.

Once on, your slow ascent begins. And this was where I realised that BA weren't just being eccentric when they called it a 'flight' rather than a 'ride'. As you are gently carried up to heights that only a helicopter or light aircraft could reach with much larger windows and less noise, in a way, you do feel as if you are flying, gently and silently navigating a circular thermal over the river.

The Hungerford Bridges and Waterloo Bridge then start to shrink beneath your feet and the Houses of Parliament starts to seem inconsequential. People become scuttling ants. Canary Wharf's 1 Canada Square pokes its needle-head out from the Docklands to the South, the viridian topped Queens Tower pops out from the West. What strikes me most is that London doesn't rise, but by virtue of an absence of true high-rise buildings, it sprawls, Victorian fashion. British weather was kind to us that day - the clouds broke rank to let loose a shaft of afternoon sun, sprinkling gold crests over the river, and silhouetting the corridors of governmental power.

Where most people would denounce London's urban sprawl as ugly, personally, the London as a whole makes much more sense than just taking in pretty parts. After all, Montmartre, Paris, is not all Amelie-style whimsy, and Brooklyn is not all New York cool. So London is not all Mary Poppins charm - it is just as Dickensian in its structure, and Izzardian in its moments of oddness. Buckingham Palace, for instance, looks very strange indeed, as if someone had taken a large country house plus gardens and plonked it down for a bit. At the time of writing, to the south-east, you can see Lord Foster's new addition to the skyline, affectionately known as the 'Erotic Gherkin', which should provide great pleasure to the 400 foot woman should she ever be in town...

Then the view from the top is truly spectacular - you look down on everything - and no amount of hoarding can hide the Eye from the constant building work - as one fellow passenger remarked in his astonishment, London is constantly being built, demolished, altered and modified - it's dynamic and constantly moving, unlike the glue of traffic.

Then comes the gentle descent. Only the popping of ears gives away how high you actually have been. Admittedly, it's no adrenaline rush, but if you're seeking thrills and spills, then the London IMAX cinema is not too far away. If you want more extravagant modern art, then the Tate Modern is a short walk away. If you don't like heights, then it's probably best to avoid the Eye. For simple pleasures, then it's worth the entrance fee alone.

How to Get there

Nearest Tubes:

  • Embankment - then a short walk south across the Hungerford Footbridge
  • Westminster - then a short walk across Westminster Bridge
  • Waterloo - then a five-minute walk

A Nice Thing To Do Post-Eye

After your flight, if you have the time, take the Thames Walk - this is clearly signposted, and enables you to take in most of the attractions of the South Bank - The National Theatre, The Golden Hinde, the gastronomics' heaven that is Borough Market, the egg-shaped City Hall up to Tower Bridge. It is a long walk, but it is worth it if you have four hours to kill. Even if you don't have four hours to kill, it is worth taking a trip from the Eye to City Hall (closest Tube Stations are London Bridge and Tower Hill), as in the basement, there is a scale model of the whole of Greater London, which shows every building, including the Eye, which is surprisingly small compared to its viewing distance.

If you are thinking of upping the London Eye by trying to go up any one of the three structures in London which are taller than it, then you'll be sorely disappointed. Neither 1 Canada Square, the BT Tower or Tower 429 (formerly the Natwest Tower) have floors above ground level that are open to the general public for viewing purposes only. Tower 42 does have restaurant-bars on the 24th and 42nd floor called twentyfour and vertigo42 respectively. Both require advance booking, and it is also advisable to have a large disposible income, as both eateries are very expensive.

1Now the rather more successful music venue, the 02 Arena.2The London equivalent of a local newspaper, but with such a huge circulation, it has about the same significance as a national tabloid.3Any jokes about the quality of Skoda manufacturing have largely been quashed since an industry report put it at the top of the car charts for reliability, with Jaguar bringing up the rear. Skoda's British advertising campaign reflects this in their tag line 'You won't believe it's a Skoda'.4You'll need RealPlayer to view the video, if you don't have it, then click here for more information.5Unfortunately, the weather at that time was being stubbornly British, and although Concorde was heard, it could not be seen due to the cloud cover.6This is a reference to the fact that the pod's glass is curved, which does distort things slightly, but to counter that, the best advice is look out of the bits which have the most gentle curves thus minimising the distortion of the view.7Probably a reference to the cry of the Teletubbies.8The Dome was featured in the opening sequence of The World Is Not Enough, breaking Mr Bond's fall from a hot-air balloon.9Any similarities to philosophical theorums or literary references past and present are purely coincidental.

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