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January 16, 2009

Well, the London Eye has done it: Singapore has its own giant Ferris wheel, as does Nanchang and as of December 20th of last year Melbourne Australia has one too. Beijing and Berlin have observation wheels under construction and Baghdad, Dubai and, er, Orlando, Florida, all have them on the boards. Is this the death knell for starchitect-designed signature buildings rebranding cities? Are the days of swooping museums and glittering symphony halls behind us? Does the future belong to, gulp, engineers, or worse, carnival barkers?

MG 9884

I had coffee with Tim Holding and Andrew Dyer yesterday, a pair of gents who represent the State of Victoria Australia--Holding is an MP and Minister for Tourism among other things--and we got to chatting about one of Melbourne's newest architectural wonders, the rather grandly-named Souther Star Observation Wheel by ING Real Estate Development Australia. Its observation cars offer stunning views of downtown Melbourne from its location in the Docklands Precinct, though more scintillating views, according to Holding and this news piece, can occasionally be had in other cars: a pair of lovers recently "christened" the wheel. Someone had to be first, I suppose.

The London Eye on the banks of the Thames.

What strikes me as so strange in all this is that the London Eye, the first of these high-profile observation wheels, seems to have sparked a trend. Many called the London Eye tacky, considering its location near Big Ben and all, and I can rightly see how the exercise in outlandish carnival architecture rubbed the bien pensants the wrong way. But its popularity, and that of observation wheels the world over, has proved that little is more powerful than "a really nice view." 

Holding is an advocate for the Southern Star Observation Wheel, citing the dynamism of the view as its main appeal. "At sunset it's just unbelievable," he told me. "You're in a glass cocoon, and though the ride lasts only maybe 24 minutes, time flies as you see the city revolving in front of you."

Could this be an instance of us demanding more fun from our existing buildings, or rather, different ways of seeing them? Like from 150 feet in the air encased in a slowly revolving car? Have we come to demand buildings that are quite explicitly oriented toward fun?

My colleague Miyoko Ohtake posted earlier this week about a Dutch dormitory that doubles as a climbing wall, and it brought to mind the uneven, though truly unbelievable, documentary Man on Wire. In it, wirewalker Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope strung between the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, had this ineffable sense that architecture has a duty to our enjoyment, not on a cerebral level, though it can afford that, but to the very intuitive sense of play. It seems to me that the Southern Star offers a less dangerous brand of that, a chance for architecture to suggest more architecture, as designers must invariably start to ask themselves, what will my new condo tower look like to those in the observation wheel? Will citizens start to demand better architecture now that that can easily view it at greater remove than street level?

The Star of Nanchang is China's biggest observation wheel. For now, anyway.

You could certainly call this spate of observation wheels a craven tourist trap and a garish addition to any skyline, giving each city its own permanent nod to the County Fair. But they do certainly offer us glimpses of our world that we rarely get, and most assuredly change the aesthetics of cities. The real trick will be to see if we get any sort of real architectural variation amongst the wheels. Melbourne's internal frame takes the shape of a seven-pointed star, an echo of those on the Australian flag, a charming detail, but hardly a wholesale rethink of the structure.

We'll see how far other world capitols get with their plans, but at the very least, the wheels are in motion. Out with the Bilbao Effect, this is the London Eye Effect, a term I'm coining here and now. Lexicographers and architecture buffs, take note.

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