A big wheel for London

Peter Popham welcomes a bit of vulgarity on the river
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The Independent Online
It is easy to imagine what will go wrong. It will break down on the first day. Stunned by the view, a little old lady will have a heart attack at the top. A small IRA bomb will go off in one of the gondolas, after which it will remain, standing but unmoving and unusable, a monument to futility - like the rotating cafe in the Telecom Tower, which closed permanently soon after it opened, following a bomb attack, and has remained stubbornly shut ever since.

Some such eventualities are all too likely - and it is partly the chance of defying them that makes the giant South Bank Ferris wheel such an attractive proposal. It is also a welcome opportunity to frustrate entrenched interests who have set their faces against London's propensity to change.

Lord St John of Fawsley, arch-fogey, recently appointed to a second term as chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, is dead against it. The 20th Century Society wants to freeze the South Bank Art Centre's concrete brutalism just the way it is; they will be gnashing their teeth over the marmalade this morning. All that's required is for the Prince of Wales to liken it to something grotesque - an old bicycle wheel hauled up from the riverbed by some unfortunate angler - and the grounds for pressing ahead will be overwhelming.

But the grounds are in any case very strong. As the architect Piers Gough has pointed out, there has always been a dichotomy between the dignitas of the Thames's North Bank - Parliament, Big Ben, Somerset House and so on - and the frivolity of the South Bank, with its art and theatre, its television studios and Oxo Tower. For centuries the contrast was much more stark than it is today, from the bear baiting of the Globe and the flirtation and drunkenness at Vauxhall Gardens to the roller coasters of Battersea Fun Fair.

In recent times, the contrast has become blurred: the bears, the gardens and the fun fair are all gone, the brutalism, so daring in its day, has become respectable; the new Tate planned for Bankside Power Station promises an infusion of high Modernist worthiness, never a recipe for fun and games. The only dollop of frivolity, confusingly, is Terry Farrell's tumescent Charing Cross station, on the north side.

The giant wheel will help to restore this interesting and meaningful contrast between the two sides of the river. It will grant Londoners and others the best imaginable views of the city - views previously available only to those with access to helicopters. It will bring visitors flocking back to a quarter that, for all its centrality, too often threatens to slide into decrepitude and irrelevance.

One cavil: is the form of the latest version of the wheel not a little too refined, a little too High Modernist? We don't want BA logos (corporate flag-waving should be confined to the inflight magazine and the sick bags) but a little more pizazz, a little more vulgarity would be in order. It's an exaggeration to say that the wheel will restore London to its citizens: no mere structure can do that. But its presence will give a lift to the new millennium and a view of the task before us.

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