Then Christian Bouvier, from French cable car builder Groupe POMA, told me about a “très spécial” observation tower rising from the shoreline of this seaside town since the summer of 2014.
A slight steel tower 3.9 metres in diameter piercing 162 metres into the sky. Around it, a huge glass viewing pod will ascend to a height of 138 metres.
The British Airways i360 is one unique piece of structural engineering, and, in my opinion, an object of strange beauty too.
With something of the sci-fi about it, the design is futuristic. Disruptive, its verticality contrasts sharply to the horizontal ‘calm’ of the coastal location. And then there’s the finesse of the engineering…
Inspired by all of the above, and of course aware that this piece of architecture also qualifies as a hybrid mode of mobility – cable car meets the lift – Passion4Transport met with Julia Barfield and David Marks (pictured above) to find out more about this needle of the London Eye.
Because yes, Marks Barfield Architects are the team behind that landmark wheel on London’s South Bank.
Where do Mr Bouvier and Groupe POMA fit into the picture? Read on…
P4T: What were the origins and inspiration behind the i360?
Mr Marks: The back story begins virtually the day after the London Eye opened [to the paying public on March 9, 2000], when we started receiving calls from cities and developers worldwide asking “can we have one just the same?” So we started doing studies and, together with the same team employed for the London Eye market assessment, visited various cities.
Yet it soon became apparent that there were few cities in the world where a London Eye-type structure would make sense – either because they lacked a great location to enjoy spectacular views, or because there wasn’t good accessibility or enough visitors to make it viable [St Petersburg amongst other hopefuls was thus disappointed]. Because if you want to build a model of this wheel, there’s no point doing a cheap version.
This lack of a location gave rise to the idea of proposing an alternative structure. However it’s fair to say that the team already had this idea for a vertically ascending pod before our many location scouting visits to U.K. cities, including Brighton, for a replica London Eye.
Designed and engineered by Eugenius Birch, Brighton’s West Pier has a history of highs and lows.
From its most beginnings as a simple promenade pier in 1866, the attraction enjoyed a heyday from the late 1920s with a theatre, concert hall and other forms of entertainment.
It eventually closed to the public in 1975, then succumbed to fire and collapse in 2002/2003. Today the ruins are owned by the West Pier Trust
P4T: Why did you choose the West Pier location and what were the challenges of making the project happen?
Mr Marks: We walked around various parts of the town, but for me the West Pier was the obvious perfect spot. However despite being in ruin and a 2004 report by English Heritage declaring restoration to be no longer feasible, the site is Grade I listed and consequently highly senstive.
Fortunately Brighton and Hove City Council was looking for a project. So despite the complications, the politics involved, Marks Barfield managed to make a ‘marriage’ work with the West Pier Trust and the project moved forward, winning unanimous planning permission from all parties supporting it.
Then there was the question of funding. Yes it was tricky, but pre-2008 less so; we succeeded in finding venture capital and bank money. The problem was we didn’t seal the deal before the Lehmans collapse, which meant it took five years before a new funding package could be put together.
In March 2014, the complete funding package for the i360 was agreed. The total project cost of £46 million (€58m) is covered by:
- a £36m (€45.5m) 27-year loan from Brighton & Hove City Council via the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB)
- a £4m (€5m) 7-year loan from the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership (C2C); and
- £6m (€7.6m) from Marks Barfield Architects and other shareholders
P4T: Could you explain one particular highlight of the construction process?
Mr Marks: Building the tower by ‘stacking’ 17 steel cans [sections of tubing, each weighing between 45 and 85 tonnes] from the top down was quite innovative.
Imagine these cans being numbered 1 at the bottom and 17 at the top. We put down the cans numbered 1, 2 and 3, then put cans 14, 15, 16 and 17 on top of them. A 60-metre tall, temporary jacking tower was built around them and lifted all the cans from 14 up, took out can number 3, then added can number 13, repeating the process with cans 12, 11, 10, etc, until the tower was complete by re-inserting can number 3.
During the final lift almost one thousand tonnes were raised!
This technique has been employed before, although I’m not sure it’s been used to lift something quite so heavy. It was an incredible engineering feat and fantastic to see happen.
P4T: What about the construction materials used?
Mr Marks: The tower is protected by perforated aluminium cladding designed to disrupt the pattern of the wind – the holes allow some of the air to go through so it doesn’t flow in a laminar fashion. Aluminium is the best material for a marine environment, plus it’s anodised.
“Visually this cladding is quite pleasing. It has a kind of veil-like quality.”
Sea air is obviously extremely corrosive. Hence the reason we carefully selected materials that don’t corrode or are well protected.
With a slenderness ratio of 41.15, the British Airways i360 has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most slender tower.
Ms Barfield: The glass for the pod, tailor-made by the Italian manufacturer Sunglass, is unique. It’s double curved, i.e. like the section of a sphere curved in both directions, double glazed and double laminated. This means the whole effectively comprises four sheets of glass – two bonded together – an air space in between – two bonded together.
- Weighing in at 94 tonnes, POMA’s custom-built pod is entirely covered in glass panes, with 24 segments each made up of 5 different pieces of glass
- It has a total surface area of 180 square metres
- The floor is packed with technical equipment
- The underside is mirrored.
Glass technology has come on hugely in the space of 15 years – the London Eye glass is just single glazed. Another noteworthy project by Sunglass is the Louis Vuitton Foundation [building designed by Frank Gehry] in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, where each of its curved elements is different.
For the pod, the glass technology incorporates a metal coating that is invisible to the eye, yet provides engineers and architects with a shading coefficient. It reduces the amount of solar energy that can penetrate. This coating is included on the overhead glass but not on the side glass panels because it might hinder the visual quality, the views, which after all is the whole purpose of the pod!
The glass also has a hydrophilic coating so water flows off. But of course given the salty climate, there will still be a big window cleaning contract!
The pod can carry a maximum of 200 ‘passengers’ and takes 20 minutes per ride during the day and 30 minutes in the evenings.
P4T: A French pod, Italian glass, Dutch cans, Spanish flanges, German steel bolts, and U.K. cladding… the component parts of the i360 have a strong international flavour…
Mr Marks: We really wanted to work with the same firms as for the London Eye quite simply because it all went so well. Yes we could have tendered to other suppliers, but providing you know you’re getting value for money, why not continue with a team that has already proved successful?
P4T: Given the size, weight and shape of the pod, plus its European origins, how did this ‘flying saucer’ finally land in Brighton?
Mr Marks: The 24 glass segments were manufactured by Sunglass in Italy then shipped to Sigma’s [subsidiary of Groupe POMA] plant near Grenoble in France [note: Groupe POMA built the 32 London Eye capsules]. Here, using a substitute chassis, the team carried out a trial assembly of the pod to ensure everything fitted together properly before dispatch to the U.K.
In Brighton, the real chassis was lifted onto can number 2 near the base of the tower before assembling the cans. Since this chassis weighs 20 tonnes, lifting it over the top of the tower at a later stage was out of the question.
P4T: The original plans included wind turbines atop the tower. Why have they been abandoned?
Mr Marks: The wind turbines are sadly not going to happen because the engineers said they wouldn’t work very well and would interfere with the damping mechanism.
However, POMA very cleverly redesigned the drive system controlling how the pod descends – since the latter is heavier than the counterweight, energy regeneration is possible. It turns out that this alternative will save more energy than the wind turbines!
Ms Barfield: Electricity will be the only energy source used in operating British Airways i360, and over time it will come entirely from renewable energy sources – an offshore wind farm is currently under construction [by E.On] just eight miles off the Sussex coast [the 116 turbines will be visible from Brighton’s beaches].
Generally speaking, Brighton & Hove City Council has positive green policies, and in any case these days the sustainability criteria for planning applications in the U.K. are likewise very good. But regardless of such factors, we would have definitely have insisted on these environmental details for the project.
“Sustainability in the sense ‘environment, energy, and economics’ is very much part of what Marks Barfield does.”
P4T: How is Brighton reacting to such a unique piece of architecture in its midst?
Mr Marks: Almost everyone’s been supportive of the project in Brighton because they can see the enormous value it will bring to the town.
Ms Barfield: There are a lot of people who are emotionally attached to the remains of the West Pier, which by coincidence will be 150-years old in October 2016 [the i360 is due to open in the second half of 2016]. So you could see the i360 as taking up the baton – a vertical C21st structure succeeding its horizontal C19th predecessor. This is quite a positive image.
‘This brilliant new attraction is a worthy successor in design and engineering terms to the West Pier,’ says the West Pier Trust. ‘It will be a new landmark for Brighton and re-establish the city’s reputation for innovative world class architecture. Without the i360 the West Pier site had no future. The i360 will regenerate the site, boost the city’s economy and makes a future new West Pier more, not less, likely.’
Great feats of engineering
The public and media interest in the ongoing construction of the i360 shows that even in a world dominated by downsizing (phones, computers, homes), great feats of enginering still have the power to move and enthuse us.
On this topic Ms Barfield talks about the couple’s discovery of the Viaduc de Millau in southern France, which clearly greatly impressed them. Designed by French engineer Michel Virlogeux and British architect Norman Foster, this cable-stayed road bridge is currently the world’s tallest – the top of one of the masts is 343 metres above the base.
“We wanted the piers to look as if they had barely alighted on the landscape, light and delicate – like butterflies’ legs.” Norman Foster, 2011
Built by Eiffage and opened in 2004, the primary function of the viaduc is to alleviate traffic on the route between Paris and Spain. Yet the awesome structure in itself has since proved a hugely popular tourist attraction.
Ms Barfield: The i360 certainly fits into the ‘great feats of engineering’ category. As well as stacking the 17 steel cans, their delivery [in June 2015] was another milestone.
They were loaded onto two barges in the Netherlands and landed on Brighton beach at high tide. Both the press and the town thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of this so-called ‘C’Day’!
Mr Marks: For sure the i360 is a huge feat of engineering. Some of the bolts are three metres long and the whole – pod and tower – weighs over 1,000 tonnes.
P4T: Do you think other cities worldwide might be interested in commissioning their own i360?
Mr Marks: Once it opens we suspect people will approach us about building something similar elsewhere. Yet unlike the London Eye this is a design that doesn’t require so many visitors, doesn’t cost so much, doesn’t require so many people to operate, involves a smaller footprint, and like the Lopndon Eye, has a gentle presence on the skyline.
Ms Barfield: The London Eye is actually the most visually transparent building on London’s skyline.
Rising 135 metres over the city, the 120-metre diameter London Eye is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the U.K.
Home to the West Pier and the Royal Pavilion, Brighton has a history of extraordinary architecture, as well as being widely rated Britain’s ‘coolest place to be’. So what better place for the unique British Airways i360 to land?
The London Eye might be a hard act to follow, but all eyes are sure to be on this new addition to Britain’s skyline later this year…
In May 2016, Marks Barfield revealed plans for a urban cable car in Chicago.
Together with New York architectural firm Davis Brody Bond, the team suggests their Chicago Skyline system operating between the city’s key tourist attracts could deliver the same positive impacts as that of the London Eye.
If it gets the green light, the pods are likely to be built by… Groupe POMA!
All photos from Marks Barfield Architects, or by Passion4Transport