After the London Eye: Marks Barfield keep hold of their good ideas.

Marks Barfield is not like other firms of architects. This is because, at any given moment, there will be at least one project in the office that is startlingly ambitious, self-generated, and – this is where they part company with other architectural dreamers – commercially viable.

Why are they like this? Why do other architects not produce extraordinary things like the giant modernist observation wheel of the London Eye? Why do other architects sell their abilities for a knock-down price rather than keeping control of their big ideas and the income streams they can generate? Probably because they don’t have the cojones to take the big financial risks necessary to get the big rewards. Well, watch and learn. Because they are at it again.

It is over a year now since – somewhat reluctantly – David Marks and Julia Barfield sold out their stake in the Eye. It’s a long story, but they had never had a brilliant relationship with their co-investors, British Airways and the Tussauds group. Still, it was some payday. The Eye is quite ridiculously successful. Some people might have retired on the proceeds. But this pair have just reinvested it – or several millions of it, at least – in their next venture: Brighton’s £25m “i-360” observation tower, right on the seafront.

Obvious, when you think about it: a 21st-century pier should be vertical, not horizontal. The higher you go, the more you see of the coastline and the townscape. Moreover, the “i-360” will generate funds to help restore elements of the famously derelict – indeed, scarcely existent – West Pier, which is one of the longest-running conservation/redevelopment sagas Britain has ever produced. After decades of false dawns and hopeless optimism, it turned out that what the West Pier needed was a dose of Marks Barfield lateral thinking. All being well, it should start on site during the summer.

Down the years I’ve had a number of lunches with the pair in the agreeably dark and basic brasserie across the street from their studio in Clapham’s Old Town. That’s another aspect of their otherness: in a world where Clerkenwell and north-of-the-river rules the London architectural roost, Marks Barfield, following their earlier pedigree working in the offices of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, have always been South Londoners. The office is part of a one-time music hall turned rag-trade factory next to what is now a small arthouse cinema. They took it on in the early 1990s on the promise of a £30m job, just as their developer client turned turtle and their fledgling workload fell right out of the nest.

“We had been 16 people, then suddenly we were back to being just the two of us and a book-keeping assistant,” Barfield recalls. “We had seamstresses working in the office.” To which Marks adds, with grim satisfaction, “But we never went under. We paid all our debts.” They were in good company, striking a deal with an equally work-starved Bennetts Associates to share whatever jobs were going. But that was before the Eye. These days, they are back up to 27, with four directors – the other two being Frank Anatole, in charge of transport projects, and finance director Leigh Jostins, who was that book-keeper back in the hungry days. There’s also a new practice director, Ian Rudolph.

That period of recession-enforced idleness did however yield the first big idea, and this is one genesis I remember. Back in the mists of time, The Sunday Times teamed up with Ricky Burdett’s Architecture Foundation to run an early competition for ideas to celebrate the forthcoming millennium. Marks Barfield entered their concept of a giant modern observation wheel. The judges – where I found myself sitting alongside the unlikely pairing of Norman Foster and Andrew Neil – were dismissive of it, and the contest produced no clear winner. This is where Marks Barfield first showed their mettle. Instead of quietly abandoning the unregarded idea, they ran with it, refined it, overcame all the hurdles, and famously this wholly private-sector venture turned out to be a much more effective Millennium marker than the Lottery-funded excesses of the Dome downriver. Foster happily revised his earlier opinion and endorsed it.

After the Eye came the “Skyhouse” concept of ultra-high-rise living, where three slender towers in various configurations share a common spine. Several public and private sector developers showed an interest, but to date Skyhouse has been influential rather than actual. “When we did Skyhouse, nobody was thinking about tall residential,” observes Marks. “It moved the debate on.”

But as one idea goes on the back burner, another is pulled to the front: currently Barfield is assiduously promoting their “Beacon” concept of urban wind-generator towers, which at 40m high, each with five triple-helix turbines, are sized to rise above the 99 per cent of London buildings that are less than 100 feet high. “They can catch the wind in any direction, and are efficient, quiet and beautiful,” says Barfield. “You can’t expect all wind-generating capacity to be provided on the tops of buildings. It has got to be part of the urban infrastructure, like traffic roundabouts.” Never less than ambitious, the pair is in talks with all the relevant London authorities with a view to building 6,800 of them. Sounds like a lot? “There are 19,000 bus stops in London,” Barfield points out. “And I don’t know how many lamp-posts”.

Alongside such kite-flying, Marks Barfield found time for some relatively low-cost conventional work such as sailing centres in Liverpool and London, and their nearly-complete “Lightbox” art gallery in Woking. They have the Michael Tippett “special needs” secondary school in Lambeth ready to go – the first of the Government’s “Building Schools for the future” projects to be built in London – but for some reason a disproportionate amount of their work appears to be on one kind of waterfront or other. Such as the new £6m Ryde transport interchange on the Isle of Wight, a composition of elliptical buildings and external landscaping that sorts out the current tangle of transport modes where Ryde pier – an interesting combination of ferry terminal, promenade and railway viaduct – meets the shoreline.

There’s more of this relatively conventional work, of course – an innovation centre in Lincoln, for instance, planned beyond the university in the old industrial part of the city, is designed to help keep graduates in the area by encouraging start-up businesses. There’s a peanut-like gridshell visitor centre in Kazakhstan on the way, too. But let’s face it, it’s their penchant for the spectacular that we sensation-seekers respond to. So, just to ram home the fact that they have the most diverse workload imaginable, Barfield flicks up a Powerpoint image of yet another observation-deck project – this time not a wheel or ascension-lift tower, but a treetop walk at Kew Gardens. Some 18m high, and made of welded plates of safely oxidising Cor-Ten steel, and derived from fractal geometry, it will take a 200m circuit from one circular viewing platform to another through the tree canopy of Kew. It’s the permanent replacement for a temporary structure the botanical gardens tried out two years ago.

However, the one that will hit the headlines is Brighton’s 140m slender stick of steel, the i-360. This is so very Marks Barfield. For a start, it’s not a wheel, after all the talk about them doing a series of me-too wheels in various places around the world. No, this starts from first principles, and they have pulled together the same people who made the Eye work, from the structural engineers (these days called Jacobs) to architect-turned-boat-designer Nic Bailey, who worked on the pods for the London Eye and is now doing a similar job on the counterweighted doughnut-shaped observation car that slowly will ascend the shaft, carrying between 100 and 200 people a ride.

The way Marks tells it, Brighton was looking for a project, and he was looking for a site. Thus the deal was done, remarkably quickly. They have negotiated a 125-year lease. Fundraising is well under way. There’s one final bureaucratic hurdle to overcome regarding the change of use from the old pier, and then construction will start. They’re both remarkably casual, going on blasé, about it. But then – after the success of the £85m London Eye with its 3.6m visitors a year, the taller i-360, pulling in up to 800,000 annually, is a lower-key project. But one they fully intend to keep tight control of.

“We do miss the Eye,” reflects Marks finally. “but there’s a lot about it we don’t miss. It’s quite liberating not to have to do all that arguing…and to be in a position to take a more measured approach to the whole development of the practice.” Fair enough. But let’s hope the big ideas keep coming.

Text © Hugh Pearman, photos courtesy of Marks Barfield, portrait of David Marks and Julia Barfield by Steve Speller. First published in the RIBA Journal “Coast to Coast” issue, May 2006.

Links

Marks Barfield Architects: http://www.marksbarfield.com
RIBA Journal: http://www.ribajournal.com