When the wheels fall off

After discussing so much brilliant architecture in Melbourne, the time has come to discuss what is, in my opinion, a blight on our skyline. It is a structure which features a calamity of mistakes and bad decisions by various groups including planners, developers, and politicians. The Southern Star Observation Wheel takes the prize as my most disliked new structure in Melbourne.

Nothing says ‘debacle’ to a Melbournian quite like the southern star wheel in Docklands.  

The idea of a giant Ferris wheel as a city tourist attraction was conceived in the burst of pre-millennial optimism which resulted in the spectacular London Eye. In a relatively low rise city this towering structure was instantly iconic and a hit with tourists seeking impressive views.

Seven years later construction began in Melbourne on our intellectually cheap and clearly inferior rip-off. One idea behind it was sound. Positioning a public space with significant demand at the far end of the Docklands precinct logically should provide pedestrian traffic to help enliven New Quay.

So where did it all go wrong? Let’s do a Vitruvian analysis of this structure.


Construction began in 2006 and the wheel was opened in 2008. It was open for all of 40 days before significant structural damage appeared. Contrary to popular opinion at the time, it was later found that this was not caused by a heatwave, but by inherent problems in the design. Obviously, even if a heatwave was the cause, this would be no excuse when designing for Melbourne.

Subsequent to the closure, the wheel has been completely dismantled, redesigned, and is in the process of being reconstructed. This reconstruction has also been problematic. On the 28th November 2011, some of the structure buckled, causing the wheel to start spinning. This incident caused the workers to run from the site and one worker was injured.

To this day, construction still continues, some six years after it first commenced. Clearly, structural firmness has been a fiasco for this project.

The Red and Black Architect’s Vitruvian score for firmness (in Roman numerals of course):


The London Eye is a clear leader in this regard. Situated in a relatively low rise city, it towers above the surrounding buildings, offering a fantastic view. The clear flaw in Melbourne’s imitation wheel is that the view provided is not particularly spectacular when compared with either the London Eye or our own Eureka tower. Melbourne is a much taller city than London which makes it not a good candidate for a wheel. What makes this worse is that the overall height of the wheel is less than the height of the Eye.

In addition to the commodity of an observation wheel, the Southern Star is also intended as a major tourist attraction. One of the essential roles of a tourist attraction is to help provide its home city with a clear identity by being a landmark. World leaders for iconic viewing platforms include the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the London Eye and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Each of these has a unique and easily identifiable form which makes it iconic. In contrast, the Southern Star observation wheel is unlikely to ever be iconic or independently attract visitors to Melbourne. We are six years into building a miniature version of someone else’s landmark. Clearly, we could do better.

For unoriginality and mediocre functionality, I give it III/X.


It is perhaps a little unfair to fully judge a building before it is complete. In normal circumstances I would refrain from doing so. However, based off the first design and the progress towards the second, it seems the end result will not be spectacular. Aside from some childish novelty value, the structure appears bland and utilitarian. There are plenty of examples of wheels where the design plays artistically with what appears physically possible or where the idea of a wheel has been distilled into its most simplistic form. Ironically, what detracts most from the design is that it appears over-engineered when compared with far more graceful examples such as the Singapore Flyer and the Big-O in Tokyo. For other great examples, check out this top 10 list http://listverse.com/2011/07/12/top-10-ferris-wheels/

Delight is always more subjective, but for me it’s a Vitruvian III/X

So overall, the wheel scores a rather sad VIII/XXX (which is 8/30 for those from The Shire).

Re-inventing the wheel

It is impressive to find any structure which fails so badly on all three Vitruvian criteria. In the very beginning, the decision makers who approved the poor excuse of a landmark made a grave error and have sold Melbourne short. The investors, or possibly the insurance companies, must be regretting their involvement with this debacle. The designers missed an opportunity to do a better job and at least give the project some merit. As for the structural engineers, I can imagine that they would like to wake up and find that this project was a bad dream.

So what should have been done? As I said in the beginning, there is a definite need for something which will bring people to the far end of Docklands precinct. It is clearly the wrong spot for an observation point which will always be inferior to Eureka Tower. A solution to some of the problem would be to place a new underground train station which could connect Docklands with the CBD. This would make the far end of Docklands also the near end of Docklands.

We are definitely blessed in Melbourne with some great architecture. It is unfortunate that we now seem destined to be the home of the ugly distant cousin of the London Eye.

Architecture is for everyone.

About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in all posts, Review, Urban Design and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to When the wheels fall off

  1. So I take it that when a project like this starts, there is no way of giving up? I can see how that would be a nightmare for so many reasons, but does the wheel have any chance of being even somewhat of a success?

    • Hi Irina, thanks for the questions,
      It is very uncommon for a building to be permanently and totally abandoned once construction has commenced. postponements of a couple of years are more common and they typically occur when one party runs out of money or go bankrupt.
      As for the wheel ever being a success as a tourist attraction, to me it seems unlikely. I think Eureka Tower has their market covered.

  2. livsmith21 says:

    My most hated building is the shamozzle that is Pentridge. They took an amazing structure full of history and put what appears to be a stock standard really boring housing estate in it. It’s heartbreaking.

    As far as the wheel goes, one thing I like about it is that it lines up with the Bolte bridge and it looks like it’s rolled off it. Not that that makes the building ok.

    • Hi Liv

      Yes agreed, Pentridge could have been so much better!

      The relationship between the Bolte Bridge and the wheel is an interesting one due to their matching scale. Perhaps the designers could have played on this a little more by creating a sense that the wheel was in motion having rolled off the freeway!

      Thanks for commenting

      Architecture is for everyone!

  3. Andrew says:

    As well as the points mentioned above I think the Melbourne wheel fails because of what it looks over. Sure, on one side is the thriving city metropolis and out towards the Bay, but on the other side is mostly industrial as far as the eye can see. Pretty much an eyesore. Not exactly a view you’d want to promote to visitors to this city.

  4. The following response was received from Ken Davis of Clifton Group
    I am reposting here as it found itself in the wrong area of the blog

    Hi Michael

    Thank you for your interest in the Southern Star Observation Wheel at Docklands.

    It is the biggest investment in tourism in Australia for 20 years (Movieworld) and the most recent in Melbourne since the opening of the Aquarium.

    The construction is extremely complex as you would know with each of the 21 cabins weighing 16 tonnes and being 70 metres from the centre of the wheel.

    A recent “Letter to the Editor” sums up the situation

    Ken Davis

    Southern Star Observation Wheel

    Following the recent negative media coverage criticising the speed of construction of the Southern Star Observation Wheel, I thought it important to respond to those comments.

    While the criticism is understandable, it is unjustified.

    The complexities associated with the construction have meant that Sanoyas Rides Corporation, which is redesigning and rebuilding the new Southern Star under warranty, have been unable to provide a completion date. This is extremely frustrating for all concerned.

    The construction of the new Southern Star is unlike any other major development project in Melbourne.

    It is not only susceptible to rain and varying weather conditions but also strict occupational health and safety restrictions which do not permit any structural lifting work to be carried out in wind conditions exceeding even moderate levels.

    These restrictions are extremely prohibitive. To put this in perspective, inclement weather restricted construction activities during 50% of working time in May. This is an example of the difficulty in meaningfully predicting a re-opening date at this stage.

    Construction is continuing and the fourth large section of the Southern Star Observation Wheel’s outer rim was installed last week.

    Work will now continue around the clock on the installation of the three remaining large rim sections and the fitting of the 21 fully enclosed glass cabins.

    It is important to note that the heatwave in January 2009 was not the primary cause of the Southern Star’s closure however it did expose the structural design flaw earlier than it would have been identified under normal weather conditions.

    Following a comprehensive design review led by Sanoyas Rides Corporation, in consultation with a group of local and international engineering experts, it was decided that the Southern Star should be redesigned and rebuilt new, under the existing warranty, to address the problems.

    Upon completion, the Southern Star will be one of only three giant observation wheels worldwide. This major tourism icon – standing more than 120 metres high – will complement Melbourne’s vast array of existing cultural, entertainment, and sporting attractions, while enhancing the city’s reputation as a world-class tourist destination.

    Fred Maybury,

    Chairman, Southern Star Management Group

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