20 years, one London Eye

20 years, one London Eye

18 January 2020 Off By Facto Edizioni

/ The London observation wheel turns 20 /

2020 is an important year for the London Eye: it marks the landmark’s 20th anniversary. Not bad for something that was supposed to be temporary, only on site to celebrate the new millennium.

At 135m high, it sits proud on the banks of the River Thames and offers 360-degree, breathtaking views across London. From the top you can see around 40km out, as far as Windsor Castle on a clear day. The wheel features 32 completely enclosed and climate-controlled capsules, to represent the 32 boroughs of London (although the pods are numbered 1 to 12 and 14 to 33, for good luck), it can carry 800 guests (equivalent to 11 London red double-decker buses) and takes approximately 30 minutes per rotation. 

Fully accessible, the London Eye receives more visitors annually than ancient wonders of the world like the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and even the Great Pyramids of Giza. Since it officially opened to the public on March 9th, 2000, it has also been the location of over 5,000 marriage proposals and hundreds of weddings. Currently operated by Merlin Entertainments, it has featured in many international movies and it even has its own award-winning 40-minute sightseeing cruise on the River Thames, with live commentary that brings the city to life. For over a decade the London Eye has been the focal point of the Mayor of London’s famous New Year’s Eve firework celebrations which sees hundreds of thousands of people congregate in the heart of London each year.

All of this is even more remarkable when you think that, originally, it was intended as a temporary structure, it had planning permission for just 5 years and it was supposed to be dismantled and transported to a new location afterwards. A remarkable feat of design and engineering, the wheel was imagined by architects David Marks and Julia Barfield, who participated in a 1993 design competition to create a landmark to celebrate the new millennium in London. They chose to represent London with a wheel, an age-old symbol of time and change and, therefore, the perfect structure with which to mark the dawn of a new millennium in a city that never stands still.

Teenage skier Amelia Hempleman-Adams ascended to the top of the London Eye and climbed out of a pod carrying the Olympic torch 135m up in the sky. Moreover, during the Games the London Eye lit up in gold, silver or bronze colour every time a British atlete won a medal. All in all, it lit up 65 times.

Curiously, the husband-and-wife team’s idea didn’t win the competition (nobody did, no project was selected); but they founded their own company and moved on anyways with the project for what at the time was called the Millennium Wheel. “I am very proud that we’ve achieved this,” commented Julia Barfiels, interviewed by the BBC recently. “It’s incredible to think that we did this 20 years ago. We had no idea that it would last so long.”

Throughout planning and construction, the wheel was met with a lot of opposition, and while it was ready to star in the New Year’s fireworks spectacular on January 1st, 2000, it only opened to the public on March 9th of the same year. And yet it was met with immediate, huge success from the public. “We’ve had over 76 million visitors over the past 2 decades here at the London Eye, absolutely incredible number,” commented George Paige, a spokesperson for the London Eye. In fact, the observation wheel has become the UK’s most popular paid-for visitor attraction, as well as an iconic landmark on par with the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. 

“The London Eye has done for London what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, which was to give it a symbolic structure to recognize the incredible city,” Paige added, quoting award-winning architect Richard Rogers; and indeed, just like the Eiffel Tower which was also supposed to be dismantled after the Expo, the Millennium Wheel immediately gained such popularity as to prompt its lease to be extended. 

Today it is a permanent fixture on the London skyline and a beautiful symbol of modern London. “The whole point of the wheel was to see London from a new perspective. And I think what it does to London is that it shows that this is a 21st century city. And it’s a city that is alive and continuously changes and develops,” Barfield concluded.

Taken from Games&Parks Industry January 2020, page 24