Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Few architects can claim to have brought such true pleasure to the people as David Marks and Julia Barfield. As the inventors and designers of the London Eye they have brought delight to millions, creating a fresh landmark for the capital’s skyline but also offering an original building that provides an experience in itself within a circular journey skywards lifted by the thrilling vista. The design of the London Eye was a masterful combination of architecture and engineering, driven forward by the husband and wife architects themselves within a spirit of self-generated entrepreneurial passion. It was a miracle of sorts, given the scale of the challenges and obstacles that the architects faced to get the Eye built.

Now Marks and Barfield are offering their audience a second miracle, founded on exactly the same pleasure principles, but in a very different location and with a very different solution. Marks Barfield have, quite literally, reinvented the wheel and have created the i360, a vertical cable car with a sculpted viewing pod, perching lightly upon Brighton’s seafront.

‘A few years ago we went on a balloon flight over the River Dordogne in France for my daughter’s birthday,’ says Marks, ‘and it was just stunning to be floating in the air and taken along by the wind. There’s just something about that feeling of floating above the earth that is so calming but so exciting at the same time. I suppose the idea of being above everything is inherent in us all. How many of us have never dreamt of flying?’

Like the London Eye, Brighton’s i360 offers a unique perspective upon the world below. It takes the form of a slender mast 173 metres high, which supports a sculpted, doughnut shaped pod, with glass windows and a reflective mirrored underside. The pod takes two hundred people at a time skyward over a flight time of twenty (day) or thirty minutes (evening) while the views from the top, in clear conditions, stretch for 26 miles, taking in the sea, the coastline and the Sussex Downs.

‘After the London Eye we did have lots of people phoning us up saying we’ll have one of those,’ says Julia Barfield. ‘But what people didn’t think about was that you can’t just replicate it anywhere. The Eye cost £86m back in 2000 and so you need the right circumstances, the right number of visitors, the right location and a fantastic view to look at it to make it work and there’s very few places in the world that have all those things.

‘But there is something wonderful about the experience of being so high up, so we decided to redesign the experience with a completely different architectural solution and with something that would be a lot cheaper to build and run. That’s where i360 came from and Brighton seemed the perfect place for it because it has the footfall, the setting, the tourism and a history of daring projects.’

The new landmark is a slight and slender presence upon Brighton’s seafront, yet i360 is already having a big impact. It sits within the context of a gradual but marked revival in seaside resorts, which has also seen the arrival of David Chipperfield’s Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate and HAT Projects’ Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, which has also just celebrated the reopening of its pier, all but destroyed by fire back in 2010. The i360 itself has been described as a ‘vertical pier’, which sits on the landward side of Brighton’s derelict West Pier, designed by the masterful Victorian architect-engineer Eugenius Birch.

The West Pier opened exactly 150 years ago, in 1866. At the opening ceremony – as David Marks tells me - it was poetically described as a ‘kind of butterfly upon the ocean to carry visitors upon its wings’. It was one of many elegant Victorian pleasure piers designed by Birch and his contemporaries that fed the growing appetite for seaside pleasure trips, encouraged by the growth of the railways. During its heyday it was attracting as many as two million visitors a year, but began to spiral into decline in the 1950s and ‘60s and could not compete with the Palace Pier close by. Despite its beauty, Grade I listed status and numerous attempts to save it by the West Pier Trust, it began to collapse into the sea and its death sentence was written in fire after two arson attacks in 2003. Today, just a fragmented ghost shell remains, floating out to sea.

‘It would be really wonderful if we could just freeze what was left, but that’s not possible – it’s just too precarious,’ says Barfield. ‘What happened to the West Pier is so sad, but the fact that we are building on the heritage of the original pier is very fitting, along with the idea of a 21st century vertical pier. The parallels with Eugenius Birch are certainly there with the use of innovative technology and engineering.’

There is a sense in which Barfield and Marks themselves fit into the tradition of the great Victorian architect-engineers, such as Birch, and the Victorian obsession with architectural pleasure mongering. As well as the great seaside piers, the Victorians offered a proud series of coastal funiculars that carried passengers up the hills and cliffs at places like Hastings and Bournemouth, offering a journey with a view. One of Marks and Barfield’s architectural heroes is Decimus Burton, the Victorian architect and designer who built – with Richard Turner – the sublime glass and iron Palm House at Kew, completed in 1948, and – at the time – the largest greenhouse in the world. Marks and Barfield built their own addition to Kew in the form of a treehouse walkway, which winds its way through an illustrious tree canopy at a height of eighteen metres above the ground.

A parallel might also be made with Gustav Eifell, another of the great 19th century engineer-architect pioneers, famous for his bridges, the iron skeleton of the Statue of Liberty and – of course – his famous Parisian viewing tower. David Marks talks of architecture and engineering as two sides of the same coin, while Barfield references another design hero of theirs, Richard Buckminster Fuller. The entrepreneurial 20th century American architect-engineer was the inventor of the geodesic dome and also the prefabricated Dyxmaxion House; the rounded pod of the i360 is engagingly reminiscent of the Dyxmaxion.

‘Buckminster Fuller is a reference point for everything, really,’ Barfield suggests. He’s definitely been a hero of ours since David and I were at architecture school together. He is another designer who seemed to think that anything was possible. It’s the engineering chutzpah that generates the excitement – doing something that hasn’t been done before and getting around all the problems - and people like Birch and Fuller were brilliant engineers.’

Julia Barfield and David Marks first met at the Architectural Association (AA) in London, where one of their most inspirational tutors, Keith Critchlow, had been a student of Fuller’s. Barfield was born in Buckinghamshire, although her father – an agricultural economist – and her mother, a teacher, moved the family to London when she was four; she has thought of herself as a Londoner ever since. A friend of the family was an architect and sparked her interest, while her parents were also great travellers and took their daughter all over Europe and beyond, encouraging her interest in art, culture and design.

David Marks’s father, Melville Marks, was another inspirational figure; his motto ‘never take no for an answer’ forms a front piece to a book on the history of the London Eye. Along the way Melville Marks helped Holocaust survivors find their way to Palestine in the wake of World War Two, served as a Mossad agent in Turkey, was a journalist at the United Nations and invented the Montreux Rose d’Or television awards along with a few magazines and his own press relations agency.

David was born in Sweden but grew up in Switzerland, attending an International School. He developed an early love of the mountains and skiing, a pursuit rekindled after visiting Poma, the Swiss company best known for its cable car expertise, which made the pods for the London Eye and also the new super pod for i360; the family now go skiing every year.

Marks moved to London to attend the AA and never left. Marks and Barfield spent their working year out from the AA together in South America, helping to design a community centre and housing systems for a squatter settlement in Lima, Peru. Back at the AA they helped build a few Fuller-style domes and other lightweight structures as part of the school’s Lightweight Structures Research Unit.

When the two of them graduated, Marks and Barfield found that there wasn’t much real work to be had. They offered themselves out as architectural model makers and eventually found themselves making models for Richard Rogers. After a while, they were invited to join the architecture team and Marks began working on the Lloyds Building, while Barfield served in the unit working on the design of the Inmos Microprocessor Factory in Wales. In all, Marks worked with Rogers for seven years and Barfield for five, along with two years in Norman Foster’s office.

‘They were really formative years,’ says Barfield. ‘When we joined Rogers it was quite a small practice and we were there at a time of phenomenal growth and innovation and it was a great time; Richard and Ruthie Rogers were so generous and constantly inviting people over to dinner.

‘There are many things that we learnt at Rogers: the importance of working as a team and working with consultants at an early stage; the importance of analysis and really thinking through problems and solving them with minimum of means and resources. It’s about touching the ground lightly and minimizing the environmental impact while maximizing the benefits of a building for the user.’

Marks and Barfield married while they were still at Richard Rogers’ office. They have lived in Stockwell ever since they were students and now have three grown up children: Mia, who is currently working at Kew Gardens; Sarah, who is working at the Natural History Museum before taking a masters degree at Imperial College, and Ben, who is an architect with a couple of buildings to his name already; he is helping out in the office while the practice completes i360, but given his ambitious and independent nature his parents expect him to go out on his own sooner or later.

The story of Marks and Barfield’s own practice, rather like the London Eye and i360, has been a roller coaster story of ups and downs. They started the company in 1989, starting small with a home office and house extensions. A few years later they won a major competition for a £35m technology centre and were encouraged to set up a full professional office, with all of its overheads, only to watch the client and the project become victims of recession.

‘Architecture is like that – ups and downs,’ says Barfield. ‘We went into a competition to design a London landmark for the millennium as a way of cheering us up. There was a definite feeling that we were in a deep hole and that we needed to get out of it somehow. We had mortgaged the house and yes, it was tough.’

The London Eye emerged from a newspaper competition, which was a call for ideas for a millennial building. When the competition folded without a winner or a site, Marks and Barfield refused to shelve the design and pushed on with their 21st century reinterpretation of the Ferris Wheel, which eventually became the London Eye. It was a self seeded project, driven forward by their own infectious enthusiasm and commitment. With the support of Bob Ayling, then head of British Airways, they managed to pull off the miracle, forming a company to build and manage the London Eye.

The i360 project has also been a tale of ups and downs. The project began back in 2006 after Marks and Barfield sold their own stake in the London Eye, which is now owned and run by The Tussauds Group. They decided to reinvest much of their profits from the London Eye into i360 – a total of around £6m in real money and practice time – yet still needed to secure funding for the rest of the £46m budget in the face of a new recession. Eventually, Brighton & Hove City Council – seeing the catalytic potential of the project for tourism – agreed to facilitate a loan for the bulk of the budget. The West Pier Trust agreed to lease i360 their site on the beachfront. Marks Barfield reassembled many key players in the team that brought the London Eye to life, including Poma the pod makers, Hollandia the engineers and Eleanor Harris, the CEO of i360; British Airways also came on board as a sponsor.

Construction began in 2014 and i360 opens this summer. Hollandia landed a series of seventeen steel cans on the beach by barge and jacked them up one by one to create the slender mast. A counterweight and winding cables support the pod, which is protected by a whole series of safety measures. The base building holds a 400 cover restaurant, while two booths from the original West Pier have been reconstructed to serve as a ticket office and a café.

Along with the catalytic effects on tourism and local development, both Marks Barfield and the West Pier Trust hope that i360 could help make the idea of a new 21st century sea pier more likely one day in the future. ‘It is a lovely idea,’ says Marks. ‘The challenge is how to make it viable. If there is a way of creating something light and delicate, floating above the waves, then that would be a wonderful thing to do.’

For Marks Barfield there are also many other projects to attend to. There’s a £13m new mosque in Cambridge underway, as well as the University of Cambridge Primary School – a flagship university training facility and fully functioning free school. Then there are fresh plans for a new Aerial Cable Car in Chicago, offering another variant on the notion of experiential architecture with a skyborne perspective. In the city that played host to the very first Ferris Wheel back in 1893 – designed by another architect-engineer, George Ferris – the Aerial Cable Car would connect the city’s Navy Pier to downtown Chicago via a rote alongside the Chicago River.

For the future, there could also be other i360s in other parts of the world, if the circumstances are right. Marks Barfield have been careful, this time around, to patent the design of the i360, although they promise that there won’t be ‘a cookie cutter approach’. Theirs is a uniquely entrepreneurial approach, full of considered and educated risks, that has now resulted in two of Britain’s most innovative and delightful buildings. They are both modest about the level of courage involved to generate such projects, but surely there is a degree of bravery to the model combined with the possibility of extraordinary rewards. 

‘They are calculated risks that we take, not silly risks,’ says Marks. ‘We work with a lot of very skilled professionals in a whole range of different fields on these projects. If it means that we can add to the environment and create something that people enjoy – getting back to the pleasure principle – then why not? What else would we do with the money? Buy a chateau in the South of France or a yacht? That’s not us. We were lucky enough to benefit from the London Eye and now we are ploughing it back and the time does feel right for i360.

‘There have been plenty of times over the last ten years where people have said, don’t you think you should walk away? But we stuck with it and every time we thought about it and looked at all the people who have supported us and who were looking forward to it happening, then there was no way that we were going to let them down. Every time we looked at it, then it still made sense, so we never let it go.’