In the English city of Brighton, work is underway on a new and impossible-to-miss landmark that defies easy classification.
Soaring over 530 feet above the English Channel, the British Airways i360 — pre-naming rights, it was simply known as the Brighton i360 — is ostensibly an observation tower. When completed and opened to the public this August, it will be the world’s tallest moving observation tower.
Wait ... a moving observation tower?
The team behind the i360 — the same design and engineering team responsible for sparking the giant observation wheel craze in March 2000 with the London Eye — has largely eschewed marketing the structure as an observation tower. Instead, Marks Barfield Architects is billing its needle-y creation as the “slimmest tall tower ever built in the world” and the “world’s first vertical cable car.”
Lacking a fixed observation deck, the structure can best be described as an amusement park-style rotating gyro tower on steroids. That is, the actual viewing platform — in this case, a massive glass-encased pod that can hold up to 200 passengers in climate-controlled comfort — slides up and down a steel mast, ascending from beach to sky in a matter of minutes. Unlike its regular-sized gyro tower forbears, the likes of which can be found at Hersheypark and Knott’s Berry Farm, i360’s 59-foot-wide circular viewing platform does not rotate.
The £46.2 million (roughly $66 million) project is being built as a sort of tourist-snaring crown jewel in the seaside regeneration of Brighton, the famed Victorian resort located about 90 minutes south of London. Stuffed to the gills with sightseers, stag nighters and sinister oversized seagulls, freewheeling Brighton could be described as the British Atlantic City. It’s a rough analogy, but it works. Just replace the boardwalk with a historic pleasure pier, saltwater taffy with rock and the Trump Taj Mahal with the similarly onion domed Royal Pavilion, a stunning palace built in 1787 for King George IV, and you’re somewhat close. Basically, it’s a coastal party town where stiff upper lips are relaxed — and then some.
This all said, Brighton — already home to arcades, amusements and more night clubs than you can shake a glow stick at — seems a good fit for a crazy, super-tall thingamabob with an aerodynamic glass donut traveling up and down it … right? Depends who you ask.
Sweeping views, a strengthened economy and a singular tourist magnet
Naturally, a soaring monument to the all-important tourist dollar such as the British Airways i360 comes equipped with promises of a serious boost to the local economy. After all, the project was inspired by the runaway success of the London Eye, which is now the top paid attraction in the United Kingdom. It's anticipated that each year 739,000 visitors, each paying £15 a head (half that for locals), will step aboard i360's oversized glass pod and enjoy a leisurely 20-minute ride into the clouds and back down again. A standard ticket for the London Eye, by comparison, is £20.
From the top, passengers will enjoy spectacular views stretching 26 miles up and down the England’s south coast. And no, most passengers won’t be able to see clear across the English Channel to France from the i360, although if the conditions are right and a telescope is employed you can indeed potentially peep straight across to the shores of Normandy.
Overall, i360 is expected to generate 440 permanent jobs, including 169 new jobs at the tower itself. It will also lure 300,000 new visitors to Brighton. This, of course, means gangbusters business for the city's existing hotels, restaurants and shops.
There are also hopes that i360 will usher in the redevelopment of Brighton’s fabled West Pier, an 1886 landmark designed by unparalleled 19th century pleasure pier guru, Eugenius Birch. West Pier been steadily ravaged by severe weather, arson and general misfortune since the 1970s, when it first fell into a state of disrepair and was closed to the public. The landward end of the old pier was demolished in 2010 to make way for i360. As owner of the blighted site, the charity West Pier Trust serves as the tower's landlord.
All that remains of Brighton's West Pier, once one of England's grandest pleasure piers, are these much-photographed skeletal remains. (Photo: Cliva Darra/flickr)
David Marks, one half of the visionary husband-wife Marks Barfield team, presents the overall vision of "vertical pier" project:
People love to see a landscape from above. Anyone who’s ever visited the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building or the London Eye knows that a bird’s eye view of a famous city is a sight that never leaves you. Landmarks like these not only enhance the skyline — they celebrate the cities they belong to.
We cannot think of a better place to do this than Brighton. The views are stunning — 26 miles of the Sussex coastline, the sea, the UNESCO World Biosphere, South Downs National Park and Regency Brighton and Hove.
Brighton is already the most popular destination in the South East outside London and the UK’s favourite seaside destination. Last year 11 million people came to Brighton — and 9 of 9 million of those visited Brighton beach where the i360 is situated.
Simply put, project supporters are banking on the economic impact of i360, which would also include a beachfront hospitality complex at the foot of the tower complete with event space, gift shop, 400-seat brasserie and tearooms, to be nothing short of massive. While Brighton is certainly already on the map so to speak (and has been for hundreds of years) in the United Kingdom, the i360 would help further thrust the city into the global tourism spotlight.
With projects of such grand scale and cost comes inevitable raised eyebrows and backlash.
Here, the main point of contention is over public funding: a huge bulk — £36.2 million to be exact — of the £46.2 million price tag is from a government loan via the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB). In this arrangement, the Brighton and Hove City Council serves as the borrower. Originally, the council's borrowing was limited to a contribution of £14.8 million, but that figure more than doubled when a private equity investor pulled out in 2012.
Eleanor Harris, CEO of British Airways i360, explained to The Argus in June 2014 that all involved are so confident in the resounding success of the i360 that they firmly believe repayment on the £36.2 million loan will not be problematic. And even if the tower doesn’t meet its anticipated annual visitor targets, it will continue to be profitable for the city. “We could have got private investment, but the council wanted to make the money for Brighton.” She adds: “The council is taking a longer-term view. This gives them an income stream they wouldn’t get.”
Marks Barfield itself has contributed £6 million to the project.
A majority of the local and very vocal quibblers, worrywarts and petition-signers are concerned about the deep heap of financial trouble that the city would if the so-called “London Eye: The Sequel” fails to attract the anticipated crowds that it needs to be a viable operation. Some think it's a colossal waste of money — and a risky one at that.
Others, however, are opposed to the tower — it's been relegated to “iSore” status well before its completion — for more aesthetic reasons including blocked views. After all, although svelte, the tower, at a height equivalent to a 54-story building, completely alters Brighton’s historic seaside skyline.
Valerie Paytner, a particularly outspoken critic of the project who is overcome with “simmering unhappiness,” describes i360 to the Guardian’s Leo Benedictus as a “sort of bonkers, outsize flagpole with a ring around it forced into the skyscape." She goes on to lay out a long list of concerns including parking and congestion woes, weather-related shutdowns, beach overcrowding and on.
Local conservationist Selma Mountford tells the Guardian: "I think it’s just out of all proportion, and I don’t believe for a minute that it will achieve the visitor figures that are promised for it.”
Even the i360 Google reviews page is filled with a litany of complaints and historic conservation-centric criticisms — seems a bit unfair considering that the business itself isn't even opening for another six months. In response to naysayers, supporters of the project have largely responded with a simple "just you wait ..."
From 'Quadrophenia' to champagne bars in the sky
Financial concerns and ill-proportioned appearances aside, there’s no arguing that the British Airways i360 is a staggering marvel of engineering. Even during the construction phase — work on the 106 metric ton viewing pod just wrapped up early this month while the tower reached its full height back in August — the structure is a sight to behold.
The London-based design and engineering team, working alongside Dutch steel manufacturer/head contractor Hollandia and French ski lift behemoth Poma, has achieved numerous milestones since construction commenced in 2014. And go figure that i360 has done a bang-up job of documenting each impressive step through a series of time-lapse videos and super-informative blog. There's also a webcam that allows admirers from afar to view progress at the construction site.
Some, however, are a wee bit too eager to experience the marvelous views from atop i360. This past weekend, a quintet of scofflaw base jumpers broke into the construction site, climbed more than 500 feet to the top of the tower and leapt off. No one was reported injured during the security breach.
It's also worth noting that some of those at first strongly opposed to the project have since come around.
Architect and local resident Paul Zara explains to the Guardian: “I shared the view that lots of people in Brighton have, that it was a waste of money. But when the council finally put the money in place and work started on site, I took the view that, well, it was ridiculous to be against it now. It’s here and it’s happening. Now, seeing it being built, I just find it incredibly exciting.”
Zara adds: “I think it’s part of that tradition of crazy things. People just don’t realise how high it’s going to be. It’s quite an extraordinary piece of technology as well. I would say it’s a national-quality building, possibly a world-quality piece of construction. We should embrace it. It will be on every Brighton postcard that people send for the next 100 years.”
From an engineering standpoint, one of the most impressive aspects of the i360 is how little energy the whole operation consumes. One would assume that the glass viewing pod is a big old energy hog, but it isn’t: it consumes less than 1 kilowatt-hour per passenger. As a whole, the oversized elevator consumes as much energy as a “medium-sized restaurant.”
And get this: the pod itself generates energy. During its descent, energy is produced and captured by the movement of the massive cable car. While this isn’t enough energy to fully power the pod’s trip back up to the top of the tower, it does account for roughly half the energy needed for the ascent. All other power needs for the tower and the building at its base come from renewable energy sources.
As you can see, the British Airways i360 (the “i” stands for “independence and innovation,” by the way) makes a statement — a loud, proud and really tall statement. And while many would argue that Brighton — a frisky, fish and chips-fueled resort town that’s longed dared to be different — doesn’t really need a skyline-dominating next-gen Eiffel Tower, others are welcoming the dizzying new addition and the dramatic influx of tourist dollars that, if all goes as planned, will come along with it.
As Rachel Clark of the West Pier Trust told the Guardian back in August: “I think people haven’t grasped, possibly even I haven’t grasped, the utterly transforming effect it’s going to have on Brighton. This is putting it absolutely fairly and squarely back on the map as an exciting, glamorous and daring place to be.”