Architect of the Year shortlist: a doughnut-shaped travelling glass belvedere hits new heights in Brighton
Architects who design unexpectedly original or striking buildings early in their careers risk being pigeonholed, and expected to default to sensational variations. Frank Gehry is an obvious example: his 1978 Santa Monica house was the brilliantly conceived blue touch-paper for increasingly remarkable, and controversial, architectural discombobulations. Ditto Jean Nouvel, following the Institut du Monde Arabe in 1987. These two designers have effectively become branded as producers of extraordinary architecture.
Following the creation of the highly successful London Eye observation wheel in 1999, the temptation is to classify Marks Barfield Architects as virtuoso purveyors of iconic city-branding structures. This easy classification overshadows the actual breadth of the practice’s architecture, and Julia Barfield’s strong interest in community and placemaking projects. I’ll return to these other aspects of her work.
Since the Eye, Barfield has been centrally involved in completed or proposed schemes including the Chicago Skyline cable car, Kew Gardens Treetop Walkway, and the Hong Kong Ocean Terminal. The DNA of these ambitious headline projects originated in the practice’s speculative 1980 proposal for the World Sea Centre and Aquasphere on an 80ha ex-naval dockyard in Toulon.
In the case of the Eye, the practice contributed what Barfield calls ‘sweat-equity’ to set up the Millennium Wheel Company and develop the scheme. British Airways then paid the practice £600,000 for control of the company and a design with planning approval, plus a subsequent buyout payment.
In Brighton, Barfield has taken this project identification approach a big step further with the British Airways i360 structure on Brighton’s seafront. Its gleaming glass belvedere travels, at a Regency bath-chair’s pace, up and down what the Guinness Book of Records says is the world’s slenderest tall tower; energy-capture equipment ensures that the pod’s descent generates half the electricity needed for a complete 25-minute ‘flight’.
The project is defined by deliberately innovative design and construction techniques interlocked with an unusual public-private funding model. After examining several potential sites in cities including Manchester and Leeds, Barfield proposed the tower and pod to Brighton & Hove City Council: the site was central and highly visible, there was already significant local and touristic footfall, and the vistas from it would be unique.
‘How many large practices have sunk millions into a speculative scheme that wouldn’t produce any return on equity for several years, or might fail to do so entirely?’
She was so convinced that the scheme was ideal for the site and the city as a whole that in 2008, of all years, her practice paid £6m for the 660 tonnes of steel required to make the stack of 17 ‘cans’ that form the tower; and she and David Marks signed that cheque before the £48m scheme’s official approval – a bravura decision for a practice with 20-odd staff. How many large practices have sunk millions into a speculative scheme that wouldn’t produce any return on equity for several years, or might fail to do so entirely?
Apart from Marks Barfield’s substantial start-up funding and controlling equity stake, the construction of the BAi360 was paid for with cash from the Coast to Coast local enterprise partnership and £36.2m from the Public Works Loan Board. The predicted ripple-effects of the architecture are specific and beneficial: the city council will make about £1m a year from the BAi360’s tickets, shop, restaurant and events; and the structure is expected to attract 350,000 more visitors to the city annually, create about 400 new local jobs, and add £25m to its economy.
The BAi360 is the ultimate techno-stick of Brighton Rock. Its refined, precisely resolved formal, material and functional qualities epitomise the city’s increasingly fashionable vibe since about 1990, when it began to morph from a loosely creative, edgy-grungy collage of characterful purlieus into a place that could now be subtitled Clerkenwell-on-Sea.
It’s a seismic change, historically. In a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1799, Jane Austen wrote: ‘I assure you that I dread the idea of going to Brighton as much as you do, but I am not without hopes that something may happen to prevent it’. Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton’s 20th-century novels, Brighton Rock and The West Pier, portrayed the city as a malevolent and amoral mise-en-scène. The sardonic Daily Mirror columnist, Keith Waterhouse, summed up the vibe with this one-liner: ‘Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries’.
‘Barfield sees the BAi360 as a descendant of Brighton’s most adventurous 18th and 19th-century architectural and engineering projects: John Nash’s 1787 Royal Pavilion; the 1823 Royal Suspension Chain Pier’
The BAi360, 20ft higher than the London Eye, is the first decisive architectural indicator that the city has left its seedier reputation behind. For Barfield, the tower reflects a long-held design ethos: ‘Our projects have their roots in engineering innovations and the creation of a level of enjoyment that raises the spirits. We look for an approach to design that’s ahead of its time, based on solving a problem that’s interesting, and understanding it deeply’.
She sees the BAi360 as a descendant of Brighton’s most adventurous 18th and 19th-century architectural and engineering projects: John Nash’s 1787 Royal Pavilion; the 1823 Royal Suspension Chain Pier, a promenade and ferry terminal; the asymmetrical curve of the 1882 railway station shed; the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, whose raised carriage rattled along its track just above the waves from 1896 to 1901; and the nonpareil 1866 West Pier, Eugenius Birch’s marine masterpiece.
The Grade I listed structure fell into disrepair in the 1960s and, following severe storm damage in the 1987 hurricane, and devastating, unexplained fires in 2003, it survives as a darkling ruin – ‘a pathetic monument to public indifference’, according to Brighton’s Regency Society. The BAi360’s podium and tower are rooted to a 4,150 tonne ferroconcrete foundation slab, 24m wide and 3m deep, set directly onto the Jurassic limestone bedrock beneath what had been the pier’s shore landing-point.
The BAi360’s position and relationship with its immediate context was carefully considered: the tower is half the length of the original West Pier; the width of the visitor centre at the base of the tower is identical to the width of Regency Square, immediately to the north; and Eugenius Birch’s ornate cast-iron tollbooths – one had been removed, the other was structurally decrepit – were accurately reproduced to house a tea room and the BAi360 ticket office.
Barfield suggests that the tower, set on the central, north-south axis of the square, could be seen as a post-Victorian obelisk marking its open end. The tower is strangely unobtrusive: its perforated, wind-diffusing anodised aluminium mesh cladding gives it a soft, veiled appearance – semi-transparent in some lights, and rather like pale grey worsted cloth in others.
Nevertheless, this is Vorsprung durch Technik architecture combining the pared down structure of the tower, and the finessed components of the 18m diameter pod, which weighs 94 tonnes and can carry 200 passengers. The pod was assembled in France from 60 prefabricated parts: 24 metal floor sectors resting on 48 trusses cantilevered from the chassis; 24 double-glazed superstructure sectors; and 12 inner wall arcs. The underfloor portion pod contains concealed air-conditioning, dehumidifying and fresh-air systems. The tower and pod movements in high winds are quelled by concealed sloshing-dampers filled with viscous fluid.
The aerodynamically tested geometry of the pod – an oblate ellipsoid resembling a well-squashed sphere – required precisely formed double-glazing. The glass sections, mirror-coated on the pod’s underside, were cut to size, formed into heat-toughened 3D shapes, and fixed to the lightweight mild steel chassis. The 24 metal floor sections were then installed, followed by 24 gracefully detailed radial bracing ribs which wrap around the inside of the pod. The key parts of the tower and pod were made in Holland, Spain and Italy. Will such Euro-fabrications be as straightforwardly achievable, post-Brexit?
The tower rises from a 22-tonne anchor-bolt frame fixed to the foundations, and the 3.9m diameter cans required extremely accurate formation. Their metal thicknesses vary from 20 to 85mm, with weights ranging from 45 to 80 tons, with the shorter, heavier cans forming the base of the tower. Each can was made from a single rolled steel sheet welded into a circular shape. Connective flanges were formed from single ingots of steel which were machined, match-drilled for bolts and welded to the cans. They, and a jacking tower, were delivered in two barge-loads from Rotterdam, directly onto a prepared landing next to the West Pier.
The tower’s erection process was equally unusual, yet took only 10 weeks. One by one, individual cans were skid-tracked into position at the base of the jacking tower and lifted by a 200-tonne crawler crane and strand-jacks within the structure, allowing the next can to be skidded beneath it and connected. Tower sections composed of several connected cans were raised, and the final lift weighed 900 tonnes.
‘The pod, inside and out, is as sleekly refined as the ultimate Moderne car, the 1938 Phantom Corsair’
The BAi360 is undoubtedly outstanding high-tech design: novel, efficiently functional, aesthetically satisfying; and clever in its operational narrative. The pod docks below the promenade deck to release and take on passengers, settling into a circular glass-walled well in the visitor centre at beach level. Here, you can buy postcards depicting the BAi360 in the artistic manner of a 1930s Come to Brighton image. This 21st-century commercial relativism is not entirely stupid: the pod, inside and out, is as sleekly refined as the ultimate Moderne car, the 1938 Phantom Corsair. At the pod’s maximum elevation, on a clear day, the panorama stretches 26 miles, taking in Chichester, Bexhill-on-Sea, the shoulders of the South Downs, and the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head; a vapour-trailing Spitfire or two would complete the scene.
The ethos that produced the BAi360 – ‘solving a problem that’s interesting, and understanding it deeply’ – applies equally to very different kinds of projects designed by the Clapham-based practice, and Barfield’s enthusiasm and attention to detail when describing them is not different to her explanations of the BAi360.
The practice is designing what is described as Britain’s first green mosque in Cambridge, and has recently completed the Greenwich Gateway Pavilions and the University of Cambridge Primary School, where, uniquely, teaching and educational research take place symbiotically. The Greenwich project, she says, ‘came out of a desire for placemaking, and the form of the buildings plays a big role, urbanistically, linking the cable-car station and the Tube’.
The primary school required ‘a huge amount of research. We visited a lot of schools so that we could have conversations about what worked and what didn’t’. Barfield was fascinated to study Robert Owen’s highly progressive early 19th-century Lanark schools, whose symbol was a globe and where subjects included natural history, music, dancing and the study of maps.
The resulting circular, one-level building features a learning street, level access, covered outdoor classrooms, learning corridors and no dead-ends. ‘This illustrates our approach’, says Barfield. ‘It’s open-ended. We had no ideas about the form at the beginning.’
‘Architects have become pigeonholed as sideshows, with the rise of project managers and consultants. But we are trained to lead teams, to solve problems creatively’
Barfield’s experience in initiating or evolving major projects is applied equally to local community schemes. In Stockwell, which she and Marks have known intimately since the 1970s, the practice identified and militated for a scheme to support sustainable improvements to Larkhall Park, funded by the development of suitable local housing sites; government and European grants worth £500,000 have been secured.
The project was inspired by the open spaces network in Patrick Abercrombie’s 1944 Greater London Plan. ‘Four out of five people here don’t have a garden,’ says Barfield, ‘so it’s very important that any parks have to be as good as they can be.’ She’s also involved in a comparable, but much smaller project in Clapham Old Town, where the practice was commissioned to develop an existing public realm scheme by involving local people in its design.
You can’t see Clapham from the BAi360; and a £2m scheme in SW4 cannot be compared to an architecturally unique £48m structure in Britain’s trendiest seaside city. But it is as much in Julia Barfield’s mind as Brighton’s most upwardly mobile piece of architecture. ‘In many ways,’ she says, ‘architects have become pigeonholed as sideshows, with the rise of project managers and consultants. But we are trained to lead teams, to solve problems creatively. There’s a rich tradition of taking on projects, and risk. There has to be true independence of thought.’
Architect: Marks Barfield Architects
Engineer and project manager: Jacobs: John Roberts
Steelwork contractor: Hollandia Infra
Pod, drive and control system: Poma
Foundations and visitor building: JT Mackley
Photographs: Luke Hayes