Page last updated at 04:44 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

London's big Eye still turning at 10

By Debabani Majumdar
BBC News, London

London Eye being installed
London Eye was installed six years after the competition

It seemed doomed from the start, never to see the light of day, but then time turned and so did the 135m wheel on the South Bank.

More than 36m visitors have been on the London Eye in the past 10 years which, as its architects David Marks and Julia Barfield said, gave the capital its "truly public and accessible 360 degree vantage point".

The story began with an inconclusive millennium landmark competition in 1993, run by The Sunday Times and the Architecture Foundation.

More than 100 ideas were put forward which could be located anywhere in the UK.

Hugh Pearman, the editor of the RIBA Journal and one of the organisers, said: "Embarrassingly, though many entries were received of all kinds, in the end it was decided that nothing was good enough to be an overall winner, and no result was declared."

But husband and wife duo Mr Marks and Ms Barfield, who were among the entrants, were not deterred.

They pursued their idea and put in a planning application for the Eye's location.

Prof Maxwell Hutchinson on London Eye

"Julia and I couldn't let it go," said Mr Marks.

"It was London at your feet, symbol to celebrate the millennium, representing the time turning and the turn of the century, a very delicate object on the skyline of a rectilinear city, overhanging the river."

Funding was the biggest challenge faced by them as nearly 20 banks did not warm to the idea.

The design of the capsules was their second worry, and they set up consultations with glassmakers across Europe.

Ms Barfield said: "It was a Venetian glass company who came up with the double curvature of the glass because it hadn't been done to that scale before.

"They came up with steel moulds with a layer of glass in between the steel and the real piece of glass we would have had to use."

'Just a cycle'

But seven years later the Eye was finally opened, missing the start of the new millennium by just three months.

A decade later Mr Pearman, who had liked the wheel, said: "I've always supported it, particularly as the design was later refined and became very elegant.

"Today I still like to see it there - it's very prominent in central London, but sufficiently ethereal for that to be a good rather than bad thing."

In 2005 there was a "storm in a teacup" when its five-year planning permission was due to expire, but the Eye got an extension until 2025.

London skyline
135m (443ft) high
2,100 tonnes
32 capsules - one for each London borough
45,000 rotations
36 million visitors
3.8 million visitors a year
Jessica Alba rode it 31 times for a film
433 weddings
34 proposals this Valentine's Day

While the London landmark celebrates its 10th birthday, across the English Channel another global icon is turning 121 later this month.

The Eiffel Tower, which opened in 1889, also began life with a competition.

It was initially earmarked to stand for 20 years but its more than 6m-visitors-per-year ensured its survival into the 21st Century.

Business development manager for Societe d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (Sete), the company which runs the tower, Myriam Daudet, feels that although both structures are very different the Eiffel Tower is "not just a tourist attraction".

The 324m tower has 120 antennas, sending analogue and digital signals to 36 TV and 31 radio stations.

Ms Daudet said: "We are still the biggest antenna of France because on the Eiffel Tower you can find all networks of French TV and radio.

"But certainly may be the London Eye can have other uses."

The Eiffel Tower also provides more value for money, she said.

"London Eye is just as a cycle," she explained. "You can stay for only half-an-hour on the London Eye but on the Eiffel Tower you can have dinner and stay much longer."

Countering, David Sharpe, the managing director for the Eye - part of Merlin Entertainments - said: "As a commercial business we are probably far more commercial and secure than the Eiffel Tower, they certainly don't have the commercial demands on them like we do."

The Paris Ferris wheel
The Paris Ferris wheel which went up soon after London Eye

He agreed the "dwell time on the Eiffel Tower is longer" but said a new 4D theatre "adds another dimension" to the ride.

"The Eiffel Tower to me is a little bit like the Empire State Building," said Mr Sharpe.

"You kind of go to Paris so you have to do it, would you do it again? I'm not sure. The Eye has a 22% return factor."

Mr Marks also dismissed the criticism saying: "There's always been a tale of two cities between London and Paris.

"When we first announced that we were going to build a London Eye a French gentleman announced in a newspaper that he was going to build a wheel one metre higher in the middle of Paris.

"This went on until the Mayor of Paris had to tell him to cool it."

London Eye operators said they have been approached to replicate the wheel in New York, Hong Kong and in China.

The concept has also been replicated across the UK and in several cities in the world, including Singapore, Australia and China.

But Ms Barfield said: "Imitation is the highest form of flattery. But we will not create another London Eye."

Print Sponsor

London shunned in landmark survey
20 Dec 09 |  London
Record 25m profit for London Eye
09 Oct 09 |  London
London Eye's 12.5m refit begins
26 Jun 09 |  London
London Eye to be 'eco-friendly'
18 May 09 |  London
Mayor beckons overseas tourists
23 Mar 09 |  London
London scoops best UK city award
02 Sep 08 |  London
Paris wheel row rolls on
16 Jan 02 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific