Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
David Marks and his wife Julia Barfield are the architects behind the London Eye, which opened on December 31, 1999, and quickly became a popular tourist attraction. It was visited by more than 3.5 million people last year.
(Photo: Courtesy of Marks Barfield Architects)
A giant wheel on New York’s Staten Island. What do you make of this idea?
Well, I think potentially it’s a fantastic asset for New York. Why shouldn’t New York have a big observation wheel like London? In fact, there’s two going up in Las Vegas at the moment. It’s a bit like London buses: you wait for ages, and then they all come along at the same time.
It must feel like a compliment to your idea for the Eye?
Creating an observation experience is nothing new. What we did with the London Eye is bring the concept into the 21st century. We took the gondolas, we renamed them capsules and stuck them on the outside of the wheel, and they rotate mechanically so there’s no wobble in the wheel. We put dampers in it, we suspended it over the river and of course we made it very high.
But the experience is what it’s all about which is taking people out of the humdrum of their ordinary lives and taking them very gently, very slowly, very safely, comfortably, to a very great height to enjoy a spectacular view.
Can you quantify the London Eye’s success?
It’s not only the most visited paid-for attraction in London, but in the whole of the UK. And the third in Europe after the Eifel Tower and Euro Disney. It’s doing great.
What advice do you have for the backers of this project?
I would advise them to go to a tried and tested team who’s done this before. There have been many projects proposed that have come to nothing and some projects that have been built that have had problems, some of them quite significant.
I know there have been difficulties at the Singapore Flyer - they’ve had some problems attracting visitors to the particular location. The Southern Star in Melbourne had to be entirely dismantled when they discovered cracks in the steel that the engineers could put their hands into.
And there’s been a number of people trotting around the globe promoting wheels in Berlin and Florida and Beijing, which have really come to nothing.
What did it take to get the financing together for the Eye?
I’m often asked what was the most difficult thing about getting the London Eye up. And it was the financing. Getting the money for any project is always a challenge.
The major backer was British Airways and they came on early on in the process and provided the seed funding that allowed us to get all the permissions and contractors on board. They also stood behind the project when we were raising the bank debt.
I spent a lot of time going around the city here in London trying to attract a British Bank. We got a German bank and a Japanese bank to back the London Eye. They were paid ahead of schedule and everybody did extremely well out of the process.
New York and London sometimes compete on the world stage. Do you think Londoners will see us in New York as copycats? Can we expect some nasty headlines in your tabloid press?
You wouldn’t get that from me. I wish it well, and I love New York. I love London, of course. They’re great cities. I wouldn’t say that at all.