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.