Unless a student of architecture, chances are you probably haven’t heard the name David Marks before now. I would however hazard a guess that you might recognise one of the most quintessential features of our city skyline; the London Eye. Interestingly, it’s a landmark that wouldn’t exist if not for Marks and his wife and professional partner Julia Barfield.
In 1993 the Sunday Times held a competition to design a monument in celebration of the new millennium; the London Eye was a fanciful entry by Marks Barfield Architects. Located on the southern bank of the Thames, it’s a reinterpretation of the fairground ferris wheel; one of a much grander scale than ever before though.
Lightweight in structure; its design solves the challenge of how to effortlessly elevate large numbers of people over the heart of London. Marks considered it an extension of British engineering tradition and thought it might provide a chance to see the city anew once more.
Unfortunately nothing came of the competition though; not even a winner was declared. So against advice and convention Marks and Barfield decided to make an attempt to build the project themselves. They remortgaged their house and founded The Millennium Wheel company.
After weathering six years and considerable opposition they managed to gather enough financial, public and political support to make their project a reality. The wheel subsequently opened in 2000 and has since become the most popular paid-for attraction in the UK. Not only did Marks and Barfield secure one percent of the wheels revenue for the local community in perpetuity but its success also sealed their reputation.
Marks was an architect in pursuit of innovation, his entrepreneurial spirit and close collaboration with other disciplines, in particular with engineers has literally changed the face of London. Not only was he passionate about the potential for architecture to improve people’s lives but he was also unyielding in making such aspirations a reality.
Both he and Barfield defied more traditional commission based practise to self-generate work. Marks didn’t wait to be asked or to be paid; with nothing more than a belief in the social consciousness of his work he fearlessly took responsibility for his projects. With Barfield’s support he took on great financial risk and devoted more time and effort to the realisation of his projects than many of his contemporaries.
Marks was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year honours list in 2000 and was given a Special Commendation for Outstanding Achievement in Design for Business and Society by the Prince Philip Designers Prize in the same year. His portfolio has included schools, art galleries, libraries, bridges and the Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens.
Despite declining invitations from other cities to design similar observation wheels, Marks did more recently complete a sequel of sorts with the conception of the British Airways i360 in Brighton. Opened in 2016 the i360 reimagines the experience of elevating people once more; it caters for a smaller number of visitors but acts similarly as a new landmark for the coastal town – a vertical pier.
Following their experience with the London Eye, Marks Barfield once again took sole financial responsibility for the realisation of their project. It also took similar persuasion, resolve and support from the city council after progress was almost derailed by the 2008 financial crisis. In maximising its social benefit the BA i360 which was part-funded by a council loan scheme has already contributed extensive revenue in its first year of operation to local regeneration schemes.
Not only has Marks inspired a entrepreneurial, community-minded movement amongst architects and designers but his works stand in testament to the ability of architects to improve their world at large. These landmarks in our landscape have transformed both our vision of the city and the way in which we interact with the built environment. They will continue to herald delight and inspiration for future generations and such is the well deserved legacy of David Marks.