Next week is the fifth anniversary of the London Eye hoisting its first passengers 130 m above the capital. Its designers David Marks and Julia Barfield talk about their battle to ensure the Eye’s future, their next height-defying design and why they are not millionaires … yet.

David Marks and Julia Barfield
David Marks and Julia Barfield

Success has not changed David Marks and Julia Barfield. Five years on from the opening of the Eye, they are still working in the same airy first-floor office in Clapham, south London, albeit with a few more staff. There are a few visual reminders of their landmark creation dotted round, but Marks and Barfield appear to be their same old modest and cheery selves.

Unfortunately, success has not changed their bank balance much, either. “We’ve made millions of friends,” is how Marks gracefully sidesteps the issue. The pair, who own a shareholding in the London Eye Company, are locked in a dispute with fellow shareholders British Airways and leisure group Tussauds over the financial future of the landmark, which attracted 3.7 million visitors last year. The spat became public when Marks Barfield accused Tussauds of blocking a refinancing deal that would have ensured the future development of the scheme.

In an interview ahead of next week’s anniversary, the husband-and-wife team look back at the past five years, assess the lessons learned from the experience, discuss design theory and construction and reveal their big idea for a next-generation tourist attraction.

What is the situation with the refinancing of the London Eye?

David Marks: Discussions are continuing and we are very hopeful they’ll be successful. The progress is frustrating: at times it’s been like watching paint dry. We recently met the chairman of BA and the chief executive of the Tussauds group and there is a willingness to find a solution. But the last year has been quite difficult because there have been different agendas. I don’t want to rake over the problems too much – the fifth anniversary is an opportunity to look forward and put the problems firmly behind us. We all want to move on.

You have to remember how hugely successful the London Eye has been. It’s extraordinary what’s happened. People have taken it to their hearts in a way that we could never imagine. Despite the problems, people have a great time there. Even Margaret Thatcher, when she went up on the wheel, came down with a smile on her face.

What will the refinancing deal do for the Eye?

DM: The refinancing will enable the company to develop and to invest. We have a lot of ideas and plans to improve the existing experience and to develop new experiences around it.

We are looking at new boats on the river.

It’s about time that London had some really stunning-looking craft.

Julia Barfield: We are working with Nic Bailey, the boat designer who worked with us on capsule design for the Eye. You could envisage trips that are linked with the pier we designed outside Tate Britain at Millbank.

There have been plenty of plans to create other wheels all over the world. Why do you think none have come to fruition?

DM: We have had a stack of letters from people who want develop them, everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Las Vegas. I don’t actually think there are many locations in the world that would support 3-4 million visitors each year.

JB: You also need something to look at.

Even Margaret Thatcher, when she went up on the wheel, came down with a smile on her face

David Marks

DM: There are very few places that require that capacity or that can generate that kind of revenue. People are trying to replicate it but not thinking about whether it is suitable for a city. That’s why we have come up with the “I360” concept [that is, capital i followed by 360°. It consists of a pod that goes up and down a 100-150 m high prong].

This is very suitable for a country’s second or third city, and could attract up to 1 million visitors a year. The ride would take 15-20 minutes up and down and would be very much like the London Eye as it would travel imperceptibly slowly. We would like to start in the UK and have three cities in mind at the moment. It’s at a very, very preliminary stage at the moment. What the London Eye has proved is that people love a great view.

It’s worth saying that on this one we have copyrighted design. We have been granted a European design registration and have a patent pending.

Looking back, what would you have done differently during the conception of the wheel?

JB: We didn’t patent it. That’s one thing we might have done.

DM: There is obviously a benefit to protecting intellectual property rights. Ideas after all are one of the unique contributions designers and architects make. You only have to look at Dyson to see the value of ideas. Business in this country doesn’t properly recognise the value of design.

JB: Ideas and design make things work. Just look at your iPod. Yet people had to be persuaded every single step of the way for the London Eye. British business is very slow to recognise the value of design.

DM: We created the business plan for the Eye E E and it’s been hugely successful for the companies that invested in it. The banks were paid back nine months early, BA made a mint and so did Tussauds. I’m not complaining about this, but money makes money – ideas don’t unless you protect them. Dyson did and we certainly will in the future. Good design is seen as a subsection of marketing, a tactical issue rather than a strategic one. I think that’s going to change. It’s been recognised in the film and music industries. Other creative areas have a big catching-up job to do – architecture in particular.

Have you made millions from this?

DM: We’ve made millions of friends [laughs].

We feel delighted about it.

JB: It’s not over yet.

How has the firm developed after the Eye?

DM: We have seen fairly modest growth.

Nobody talks about beauty, but that’s what we’re trying to create. It’s inspired from what see around you and maths and geometry

JB: Our ambition remains to do projects on the scale of the Eye. We haven’t had the opportunity yet, but we’re ready. The Eye was seven years in the making and sucked a lot of energy out of the practice. The past five years have been about reinventing the practice.

DM: We are not necessarily trying to become a commercial practice. We think our skills are best employed by people who want unique projects. We are in a fantastically better position now than five years ago. We have no debt, we own our office and we have a healthy balance sheet, loads of ideas and extremely talented staff.

Has your approach to design changed?

DM: I tend to go back to the first competition we ever won back in the 1980s, to come up with an idea for a bridge. It set an approach for us where we worked closely with engineers. If people think architects are undervalued, engineers are even more so. People forget cities are only civilised because of engineers – whether it’s transport, water or sewers.

Some of the recent advances in maths and geometry are really interesting. Computers now enable people to replicate nature. Nobody talks about beauty, but – let’s not mess around – that’s what we are trying to create. It’s inspired from what see around you and maths and geometry are keys to that understanding.

Do you have a position in the iconic vs non-iconic, blobs vs blocks debate?

DM: Arguments about style are really, really boring.

How do you feel the construction process has developed?

DM: The UK industry went through a bit of a hiatus between the loss of traditional craftsmanship and the advent of computer technology. Now I think it is fantastic. Contractors that are using computers are doing incredibly good work. Thomas Vale, which worked with us on the spiral cafe in Birmingham, was great. The geometry [based on the “golden section”] was very complex.

Have the past five years been a good experience?

JB: If the story has a happy ending.

Was there a time when you thought of walking away from the Eye?

DM: There was only one moment when we thought we had lost it – in April 1998. After selecting Mitsubishi to build it they turned round and said they couldn’t do it. They offered to build a gimcrack fairground wheel. We were under huge pressure from BA and Tussauds to accept but we said no. We thought the project was dead. Eventually the powers that be at BA had another think, we sacked Mitsubishi and used construction management with Mace, who did very well.

JB: We used trade contractors we had identified two years earlier – Hollandia and Poma [a ski-lift maker]. If we hadn’t developed a relationship with both of those companies it wouldn’t have happened.

London Eye in numbers

  • It attracted 3.7m visitors last year

  • Its capacity is 6.4 million people every year. It can open for 4000 hours a year, has 32 capsules for 25 people so can take up 1600 people an hour

  • It accounts for 1.5% of London’s total earnings from tourism

  • More than 50 new businesses have opened in the immediate area since since the advent of the Eye

  • David and Julia have been up at least 400 times since opening and they receive 2000 free tickets a year. “They all get used,” says Marks.