The most elegant big wheel in the world, standing 443 feet high, . . .
Unlike old-style Ferris wheels, where the cars hang inside the structure as it rotates, here the pods are on the outside so as to obtain the best view. Their rotation is not dependent on gravity, but on electric motors synchronized by computerized radio signals sent from the hub. Finally, the whole wheel is hung from one side only, so as to hover over the river. This meant some nifty foundation work. Two separate forests of concrete piles — one taking the Eye’s weight, the other stopping it from toppling over sideways — plunge 108 feet into the ground. . . .
As with all the best engineering structures, building it became a public spectacle. It was floated up the Thames in segments on giant barges, complete with the world’s largest floating cranes in attendance. It was then assembled flat on pontoons in the river, its giant central spindle was attached to the perimeter by a skein of steel cables — the suspension-bridge variety, but acting like bicycle spokes — and then came an unforgettable week as the whole wheel, weighing 1,780 tons without its 32 capsules (each a further 10 tons), was hauled slowly from the horizontal to an acute angle. Where it stayed, leaning alarmingly, for several days while the final work was done to bring it to its vertical position.
. . .
Even more remarkably at a time when ambitious architectural projects funded by a national lottery were being built all over Britain, the London Eye — costing £85 million, or about $150 million at the time — was entirely commercially funded. Today it is a must-visit attraction in the British capital, carrying an average of 10,000 visitors a day. Each trip is one 30-minute revolution.
It opened in late 2000 and immediately became exactly the iconic object that the Millennium Dome downstream had tried and failed to be. That was perhaps unfair — the Dome was also a prodigious feat of engineering and architecture — but in the end what decides these things is the public response.
And the public has always responded to a buccaneering spirit in engineering, the idea that enormous risks are being taken, that enormous reward is the prize, but that total disaster is a looming possibility. That, in short, is the achievement of Mr. Marks and Ms. Barfield’s London Eye: The process of making it was every bit as compelling as the ride on the finished product. They are diffident people — the way they tell it, it was just a matter of A following B — but they surely fall into the category of designer as hero (and heroine). In this sense they are in the tradition of the great 19th-century British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who with his extraordinarily ambitious railways and steamships overcame obstacles with flair and style. . . .
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(Note: ellipses added.)