The story of swagger buildings and "experience architecture"

From towers and domes to wheels and vessels, these spectacular structures blow budgets, attract controversy and risk disaster. Yet, just occasionally, they triumph.

by John JervisPublished on : Feb 25, 2022

Blame the Eiffel Tower. Constructed for Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle, denounced as barbarous by Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant and Paul Verlaine, it pulled in two million visitors upon opening. Today, around seven million tickets are purchased every year. That’s some achievement for architecture that offers a good view and little more.

The Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars, Paris, 1887–89, designed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 by engineers Gustave Eiffel, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, with embellishments by the architect Stephen Sauvestre | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
The Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars, Paris, 1887–89, designed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 by engineers Gustave Eiffel, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, with embellishments by the architect Stephen Sauvestre Image: Daniel, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ever since, cities have employed structures of dubious utility to attract tourists and corporations. At great expense, flashy edifices are inserted into skylines in the name of regeneration, promising visitors an extraordinary experience, with a mediocre restaurant or museum thrown in to justify the price. Brussels' Atomium, Seattle's Space Needle and the Montreal Biosphere, for Expos 58, 62 and 67 respectively, are among the best known and most enduring examples of such "experience architecture". Another, the London Eye wheel constructed for the millennium, now attracts more paying visitors than any other UK attraction.

  • The Atomium, Heysel Park, Brussels, 1956–58, designed for Expo 58 by engineer André Waterkeyn with assistance from architects André and Jean Polak | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    The Atomium, Heysel Park, Brussels, 1956–58, designed for Expo 58 by engineer André Waterkeyn with assistance from architects André and Jean Polak Image: Christian K, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The Space Needle, Lower Queen Anne, Seattle, 1961, designed for Expo 62 (officially Century 21 Exposition) by Edward Carlson, President of Western Hotels Inc., and architect John Graham | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    The Space Needle, Lower Queen Anne, Seattle, 1961, designed for Expo 62 (officially Century 21 Exposition) by Edward Carlson, President of Western Hotels Inc., and architect John Graham Image: CommunistSquared, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The London Eye, South Bank, London, 1998–2000, designed to celebrate the millennium by Marks Barfield Architect | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    The London Eye, South Bank, London, 1998–2000, designed to celebrate the millennium by Marks Barfield Architect Image: Mike Peel, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Why do these particular structures work as destinations? Central locations, on this evidence, play a major part in success. In terms of beauty, however, they are a mixed bag. But all take care to be eye-catching – a task to which, it seems, engineers are often well-suited. The absence of a big-name architect could even be seen as a plus. The one exception, the Biosphere’s designer Buckminster Fuller, never received professional training, and his diverse achievements transcend architecture.

The Observation Towers, New York State Pavilion, Flushing Meadows, New York, 1964, designed for the 1964 World’s Fair by architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster, with structural engineer Lev Zetlin | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
The Observation Towers, New York State Pavilion, Flushing Meadows, New York, 1964, designed for the 1964 World’s Fair by architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster, with structural engineer Lev Zetlin Image: Tdorante10, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In addition, they all benefitted from the energy, adrenaline, visitors and funds associated with a major international celebration. Bolstered by an Olympics or World’s Fair, potential follies can emerge as prestigious centrepieces, overcoming public scepticism, high property values, stretched finances and uncertain returns. Not that there’s a guarantee. The Observation Towers in Flushing Meadows built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Osaka's Tower of the Sun for Expo 70, and London's Millennium Dome have, over the years, met with patchy success, not helped by their less-than-central locations – it seems an experience has to be pretty awesome to lure tourists away from where they really want to be.

The Millennium Dome, Greenwich, London, 1997–99, designed to celebrate the millennium by architects Richard Rogers Partnership with BuroHappold Engineering | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
The Millennium Dome, Greenwich, London, 1997–99, designed to celebrate the millennium by architects Richard Rogers Partnership with BuroHappold Engineering Image: Matt Buck, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the conspicuous success of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, most efforts to leverage architecture for urban renewal have shifted towards arts and cultural institutions. In London, at least, recent attempts to persist with more whimsical experiences have, by and large, descended into farce. The later insertion of a tubular slide by Carsten Höller into Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s swirling Orbit, built for the 2012 Olympics, has failed to stem its heavy losses. Two other projects – Thomas Heatherwick’s costly, impractical and dubiously financed Garden Bridge, and Norman Foster’s equally expensive (and unappealingly tumescent) Tulip tower – have fallen by the wayside after intense and protracted disputes.

  • The ArcelorMittal Orbit, Stratford, London, 2010–12, designed for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games by artist Anish Kapoor and architect Cecil Balmond of Arup Group, shown here before the addition of a slide by artist Carsten Höller in 2016 | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    The ArcelorMittal Orbit, Stratford, London, 2010–12, designed for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games by artist Anish Kapoor and architect Cecil Balmond of Arup Group, shown here before the addition of a slide by artist Carsten Höller in 2016 Image: Fred Romero, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • The Tulip, a proposed 305m-tall observation platform in the City of London, designed by architects Foster + Partners for J. Safra Real Estate in 2018. The plan was rejected in November 2021 | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    The Tulip, a proposed 305m-tall observation platform in the City of London, designed by architects Foster + Partners for J. Safra Real Estate in 2018. The plan was rejected in November 2021 Image: Courtesy of DBOX

These days, such grand projects tend to be met with a collective roll of the eyeballs – they feel outdated, unnecessary, gauche, uncertain, unaffordable. For better or worse, priorities and necessities have changed. Elsewhere, the extraordinary may still be possible. Ain Dubai, the world’s tallest observation wheel, opened in October to coincide with the launch of Expo 2020 in the Emirates to impressive effect. Construction started on OPEN Architecture’s sculptural Sun Tower in Yantai, alongside the Yellow Sea, just this year. Today, all that London can deliver is the Marble Arch Mound, a scraggy effort to lure shoppers to Oxford Street post-lockdown, now disassembled and disowned by its architects, MVRDV.

  • Ain Dubai, Bluewaters Island, Dubai, is the world’s largest observation wheel, standing over 250m tall. Construction started in 2015; its opening coincided with the launch of the delayed Expo 2020 in October 2021 | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    Ain Dubai, Bluewaters Island, Dubai, is the world’s largest observation wheel, standing over 250m tall. Construction started in 2015; its opening coincided with the launch of the delayed Expo 2020 in October 2021 Image: Courtesy of Ain Dubai | Dubai Holding
  • The Sun Tower in Yantai, Shandong, designed by architects OPEN, stands 50m tall, and contains a semi-outdoor theatre, an exhibition space, a library and, at its top, a ‘phenomena space’ overlooking the ocean. Construction started earlier this year; the tower is due to open to the public in 2024 | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
    The Sun Tower in Yantai, Shandong, designed by architects OPEN, stands 50m tall, and contains a semi-outdoor theatre, an exhibition space, a library and, at its top, a ‘phenomena space’ overlooking the ocean. Construction started earlier this year; the tower is due to open to the public in 2024 Image: Courtesy of OPEN

Most private developers have long favoured the cheaper option of public sculpture, splashing works by Eduardo Chillida or Jeff Koons around upmarket districts to imbue them with requisite prestige. Recent troubled experiments with experience architecture, chasing monumentality, interactivity, publicity and footfall – Heatherwick’s controversial (and now roped-off) Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards is one example – suggest that this dominant conservatism is wise. In short, a Richard Serra and an ice rink remain the way to go.

Vessel, Hudson Yards, New York, 2019, designed by architects Heatherwick Studio for the Hudson Yards development, commissioned by Related and Oxford Properties Group | Experience architecture | John Jervis | STIRworld
Vessel, Hudson Yards, New York, 2019, designed by architects Heatherwick Studio for the Hudson Yards development, commissioned by Related and Oxford Properties Group Image: Mobilus In Mobili, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In truth, many architects aren’t cut out for this sort of work. Temporary pavilions can be fruitful, allowing emerging stars to build careers and older ones to manifest artistic ambitions. But, charged with designing permanent arcadia, with few checks from inexperienced clients, ill-defined briefs and elastic budgets, big-name architects and their patrons risk producing monuments to self-belief rather than public desire. There would seem to be more important and appropriate areas – residential, cultural, financial – on which architectural training, talents and tunnel vision can be applied. And there’s another body of people adept at taking us places we didn’t know we wanted to go – they are called artists.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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