Wheeling in protesters

As ever, the die-hard reactionaries are parading in front of the TV cameras, this time kicking up a fuss about the millennium Ferris wheel. Love it or hate it, if the wheel is colourful, argues Sutherland Lyall, the South Bank may take on a long-overdue n

Creepy preservationists and planners are foregathering to make sure that the Marks/Barfield millennium Ferris wheel doesn’t happen on London’s South Bank.

Let me declare an interest: Ferris wheels leave me cold. What’s the point of getting into an unsteadily swinging cab, going up in the air slowly, stopping occasionally and coming down again? A pleasure excelled only by hanging around on cold evenings watching condensation form on car windows. And what happens when you’re near the top and it starts to rain? Fifteen minutes of a serious soaking and no escape.

All right, I’m scared of heights and engineering, and there’s no way you’d get me on one. On the other hand, braver people have been paying to ride on Ferris wheels ever since Mr Ferris or whoever it was first offered this form of entertainment to a breathless Victorian public. So there’s a likelihood that the mooted wheel could make a bob or two and be the very thing to persuade people other than concert-goers to visit the windy old South Bank. Maybe in droves.

Of course, the fact that lower- class people might flock to the millennium Ferris is probably a closet reason why the preservationists are opposed – and the fact that they oppose any change at all. Especially change which involves new and visible buildings and structures and even art works. Poor Imagination – it has this vast millennium site much further down the river at Greenwich. What no one explained is that it’s bang next door to a “heritage” industry zone and the site itself is surrounded by baying preservos who have already knee-jerked in front of the TV cameras over the designs for the 600-foot Globorama tower, led by some pompous twit from the Prince’s Institute school of revival architecture.

They and the planners are rehearsing tired old arguments about scale, size and “inappropriateness”. In the case of the South Bank, they argue the fact that there has never been a Ferris wheel there before and it is a foreign invention after all. Vienna has one already, and we can’t imitate what the filthy Europeans do can we? And, oh, it’s just so un-English and soooo vulgar.

The response of all right-thinking people to that is “balls”. The fact that loony and repulsive preservationists are marshalling against it means that it is probably an excellent idea.

And the design. It’s a mildly daring, if dated, bit of engineering- thinking, made from something like cool stainless steel or self- coloured aluminium or neutrally painted steel. It’s the natural materials argument of modernism which neatly coincides with the hope that the style police won’t notice so much if the chosen colours are either neutral or “invisible”. I’ve always thought Lloyds, whose owners seem to have followed this very logic, suffers a bit from eschewing the bright colours of the Pompidou Centre in Paris in favour of “sober” natural metal finishes. Interestingly, Imagination had to be called in to do a colour lighting scheme to cheer the place up.

But that’s at night. By day, which is when you can see them, almost all the buildings in our great cities are grim exercises in drabness. Before the clean air acts of the Sixties, architects didn’t have to think about colour because every new building was soon covered in a thick deposit of soot. When they cleaned them during the Seventies everybody got excited at the alleged qualities of the natural stone thus uncovered (for other reasons, “natural” off-the-form concrete had been de rigueur with modern architects for several decades). The grey aesthetic police really loved it. All of a sudden grey, clean and hard stood for gravitas. And architects were desperate to be taken seriously, and most of them were no good at colour. But by the end of the century – even for Calvinists – the pleasures derived from observing acres and acres of grim, slightly dirty stone and incredibly dirty concrete have surely begun to pall.

You probably can’t go around painting all those drab buildings in bright colours – although what a wonderful sight the north and south banks of the Thames would then be. But you could paint the millennium wheel, and if you need a precedent there is the example of those dotty old bridges starting upstream from the site in question whose structures are improved by festooning them with electric side-show light bulbs and crazy paint schemes.

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