One in the eye for Lord St John
The Millennium Wheel will provide what London conspicuously lacks, a good vantage point from which to survey the city. In my view, its size is a virtue
Saturday 10 June 1995
These days, those who set out to protect the chastity of the national heritage are a little more bureaucratic in their language. "Wholly unsuitable for this part of London," says Lord St John of Fawsley, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, responding to a proposal by architects David Marks and Julia Barfield to build a 500ft big wheel on the South Bank of the Thames. It would, he complains, have "a damaging visual impact on the Royal Parks, the neighbouring Grade I listed buildings and the world heritage site of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament". Not quite raped, then, but certainly affronted.
As it happens, Lord St John knows something about damaging Royal Parks. As chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, he gave his blessing to the Queen Elizabeth gates, a truly hideous confection of wrought iron and poster paint which now disgraces the south-eastern exit from Hyde Park. They are probably the most tawdry addition to London's landscape since the Elephant and Castle shopping centre was painted pink, but they escaped Lord St John's fastidious disdain for one overriding reason - they had royal connections, and Lord St John is a man who melts before pedigree.
The wheel, on the other hand, is unabashedly democratic in spirit, a structure that proposes to elevate any Tom, Dick or Harriet with the admission price (and quite a few without - concessions will be offered). You may feel, as I do, that that anything that gets up Lord St John's nose is worth building on those grounds alone. But the wheel will offer far more than that.
It will be vast - more than three times the height of Tower Bridge and 120 feet taller than St Paul's - thus providing what London conspicuously lacks, a good vantage point from which to survey the city. In my view its size is a virtue - a smack at the offend-nobody good manners of most urban planning. Sheer scale doesn't have a good name in architectural circles, being associated mostly with megalomaniacs - commercial or political. But Eiffel knew that it had its place in symbolic buildings. "There is an attraction and a charm inherent in the colossal," he wrote, "that is not subject to ordinary theories of art. Does anyone pretend that the Pyramids have so forcefully gripped the imagination of men through their artistic value? What are they after all but artificial hillocks?" In its height the wheel represents an unrestrained exuberance which has been sadly lacking in alternative millennium proposals. It is, in the best sense, a structure of refined vulgarity - an idea of obvious popular appeal carried out in the purest geometry. Eiffel dressed up his tower with decorative arches, to conceal the alarming novelty of his technology, but the wheel makes no such concessions to human vertigo, hanging over the river on a cantilevered bearing, an awesome testimony to modern British design.
If it is extravagant in imagination and flair, though, the wheel is quite the opposite in its operation. Sixty per cent of the energy needed to operate it will come from the river beneath, harnessed by turbines. It makes no claim on the Millennium Fund, having already secured a commercial sponsorship deal which will underwrite its construction costs (around pounds 9.5m) in return, presumably, for a cut in the wheel's revenue. It is engineered for symbolic performance, too, a literally revolutionary device provoking ideas of human time, universal orbits, the rise and fall of fortune. It will be the first high-rise structure that could not conceivably be dismissed as phallic.
The objectors to the Eiffel Tower described it as "useless and monstrous". So is the wheel, but in the most uplifting way imaginable. It is the perfect response to the timidity and aridity of spirit that Heritage worship has inflicted on us - a reminder we shouldn't go into the next century tugging our forelocks to the past but rather celebrating the possibilities of the future.
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 2 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 3 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
MOBO Awards 2014: Jess Glynne hits back at 'ridiculous' criticism of nominated white artists
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational and sensitive
The Apprentice 2014: Nurun Ahmed and Lindsay Booth fired in double elimination
MOBO Awards 2014: Sam Smith sweeps the board with four gongs
The Apprentice, episode 3 - review: Lord Sugar hacks away at the deadwood with double elimination
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters