Interview with BAi360 creator David Marks

David Marks always seems very relaxed for a man with a large amount of money tied up in the ambitious, controversial and previously untried scheme that is the British Airways i360. But he and Julia Barfield, his wife and partner in Marks Barfield Architects, have the track record that justifies his confidence.

They redefined the role of the architect by coming up with the idea of the London Eye and then helping to make it a reality, and they have brought the same entrepreneurial spirit to Brighton’s newest tourist attraction, putting around £6 million of their own cash into the project.

“It is a large commitment for us,” he admits. “We ploughed what we got from the Eye into this [they sold their one-third stake in 2006] and we’re at the bottom of a long list of people who get paid back first. But we’re not in a hurry and we couldn’t think of anything better to do with the money.”

David, 63, was born in Sweden, grew up in Switzerland, attending an international school in Geneva, and moved to London in 1974 to study at the Architectural Association, where he met his wife. They worked for Richard Rogers and Norman Foster before making their name with the Eye. Now an integral part of the London skyline, it began life as their entry in a competition to create a project to mark the Millennium. When no winner was declared, they found the funding to build it anyway.

“We thought: ‘Why can’t we do it?’ Architects are trained to be problem-solvers, so if you see a problem and can think of a solution, you don’t have to wait for someone else to ask you to find it.”

The i360 was Marks Barfield’s idea for a viewing platform on a lower budget than the Eye, and it was Brighton & Hove’s openness to innovation and the Trust’s willingness to provide a location that brought it here. “We had the concept of an observation tower and the next question was where to put it,” David says. “In Brighton we found the right demographics and characteristics, and leaders who were open to the idea. We looked at a number of possible sites with [then Council Chief Executive] Alan McCarthy. We were walking up and down the seafront and when we came to the West Pier I asked about it and he said there was a very complex history. But here we are.”

The financial crash of 2008 affected the funding that had been put in place, but Marks has paid tribute to Trust and Council leaders, whose belief in the project never wavered. “It was tough for a while and people wondered why we didn’t just walk away. But it still made sense and we were able to ride it out and, as with the Eye, a few leaders showed the persistence to see things through.”

The design has not found favour with everyone, as he admits. And he understands doubts about the investment and even the fact that 180 degrees of the view is only of water, apart from the ruins of the Pier far below. “It is a first, as the Eye was. We’ve taken the same leap in innovation, technology and engineering. It’s a little different but in time it will be part of the landscape. It doesn’t replace the West Pier but it allows people to walk on air the way the Pier let them walk on water.

“Yes, much of the view is of the Channel, but everything is moving and changing. The sea is fascinating to look at. 138 metres up in the air on the edge of the land and sea is a beautiful place to be. And we’re very convinced of the benefits to the city and our business case.”

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