Over the past two decades, cities looking to shake things up with a tourist-snaring, skyline-disrupting architectural showpiece have turned to Ferris wheels.

Once restricted to state fairgrounds and mid-sized amusement parks where they served as the diversion of choice for necking teenagers, giant Ferris wheels — or observation wheels, if you want to get technical — have been popping up in dense urban areas with greater frequency — each, it would seem, bigger and wheelier than its predecessor: The London Eye (2000), the Singapore Flyer (2008), the Seattle Great Wheel (2012), the Melbourne Star (opened in 2008 for a brief run; reconstructed and reopened in 2013), the Capital Wheel outside of Washington, D.C., at National Harbor (2014), and the world’s current tallest Ferris wheel, the 550-foot High Roller on the Las Vegas Strip (2014).

Due to open in 2017 on a redeveloped waterfront parcel in northeast Staten Island, the 630-foot New York Wheel is expected to nab the High Roller's title as the tallest observation wheel in the world. That is, until the 689-foot Dubai Eye eventually opens for business.

Writing for CityLab, Errin Whack ponders what will happen when these sky-high status symbols become so ubiquitous that they’re rendered ineffective at seducing out-of-towners — “when so many cities have Ferris wheels that they’re no longer special or unique?” Have we reached peak wheel? Are they at risk of becoming — or are they already — the Hard Rock Cafes of urban architecture?

Leave it to the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, long the hotbed of audacious and avant-garde architecture, to shake things up with a proposed structure that’s one part observation wheel — but also one part housing development, one part luxury hotel, one part renewable energy showcase and several parts unabashed tourist magnet. The team behind the so-called Dutch Windwheel refer to the concept, positioned to be “one of the most spectacular attractions in the world,” as a “sustainable icon and an icon for sustainability.”

It’s tricky to describe what the Dutch Windwheel, if ever built, will look like judging from the initial batch of design renderings. To say it resembles the world’s largest desk fan or an alien spacecraft that’s crash-landed, sideways, in Rotterdam’s famed harbor wouldn’t quite do it justice. In the rendering below, it appears as the lovechild of Rotterdam's own Rem Koolhaas and Sauron.

At nearly 600 feet tall, the Dutch Windwheel would be located slightly offshore in a constructed wetland area and built on underwater foundations to give the appearance that the massive structure composed of two rings is floating. The larger outer ring functions as more-or-less a traditional observation wheel (the project website refers to it in more terrifying terms as a roller coaster) with 40 gondolas that travel up and down the side of the circular volume on rails. While panoramic views of Rotterdam’s bustling port, modernist buildings and the staggeringly horizontal landscape beyond are the main draw of this feature, the cabins will also include glass “smart wall” panels that display an interactive digital experience in which visitors can take “a trip through the history of Dutch water management.”

It’s the Dutch Windwheel’s inner “programmatic” ring structure, however, where things get interesting. In the Rotterdamian tradition of erecting unlikely mixed-use developments, the circular structure would be home to 72 apartments, a 160-room hotel spread across seven floors, a restaurant, public viewing area, boutiques — nothing too out-of-the-ordinary. The kicker? The inner structure would also function as a massive electrostatic wind energy convertor — a silent and blade-free wind turbine of sorts developed by Delft Technical University that’s also known as EWICON.

The Smithsonian attempts to explain the technological nitty-gritty behind the concept:

It uses a series of tubes, to be strung along the Wind Wheel’s inner circle, that creates an electric field into which positively charged water drops are sprayed. Wind blowing through the wheel pushes the water away from negative electrodes in the tubes, creating resistance that can be harnessed as energy.
While the concept has been proven effective in small prototype form, it has yet to be tested on a scale approaching the size of the proposed Wind Wheel. And a message at the top of Delft’s page on the subject notes rather ominously ‘…there is no evidence that this principle is suitable for use on a commercial scale. At present TU Delft is not actively involved in the further development of the EWICON.’

It’s unclear exactly how much energy the Dutch Windwheel — described as a “showcase for Dutch clean technology” would consume — and how much it would generate using the aforementioned technology. In addition to EWICON, the structure would also use PVT (photovoltaic thermal hybrid solar) panels to produce clean energy.

The project website points out that the Dutch Windwheel is designed to easily be dissembled and relocated and makes use of the available materials, particularly steel, that come in and out of Rotterdam’s port, the largest in Europe.

The consortium of Rotterdam-based companies banded together to form the Dutch Windwheel Corporation (BLOC, DoepelStrijkers and Meysters) believe that the structure would attract around 1.5 million visitors annually. While the concept itself may come across as exceedingly starry-eyed, this isn’t to say renewable energy projects are totally incapable of attracting visitors. In neighboring Germany, for example, the Holtriem wind farm is touted as a top-notch tourist spot. Last year, a guidebook recommending the country’s must-see wind farms, solar facilities and other clean energy hotspots quickly sold out.

Millions of tourists descend on the Netherlands each year to view the quintessential Dutch icon that isn’t tulips or clogs or Delftware or a wheel of Gouda: the water-pumping windmill. If realized, could this flashy ring-thing showcasing wind-based water management and energy production in a futuristic fairground-esque package pack 'em in like the consortium believes it can?

On the tourism front, it's worth noting that Rotterdam already does have a popular attraction of similar height as the Dutch Windwheel in the form of Euromast, a 600-foot concrete observation tower built in 1960 for an annual Dutch gardening exhibition. While this iconic concrete edifice lacks any sort of roller coaster-esque component, both zip-lining and abseiling are offered to thrill-seekers. The village of Kinderdijk, home to the largest assemblage of old-school windmills in the Netherlands, is also an immensely popular tourist destination located just a short drive outside of Rotterdam city limits.

Via [Gizmag], [Smithsonian]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.