The View from the Top: The Enigmatic Evolution of the Observation Deck

The Angry Architect The Angry Architect

When Gustave Eiffel completed his tower for the 1889 World Fair in Paris, the observation deck typology was truly born. The success of that structure – it remains the most visited paid monument in the world – illustrated the power of the humble viewing platform to transform a city’s economic fortunes and its architectural identity in the eyes of the world. The appeal of a lofty lookout is second to none.

Since then, countless destinations have endeavored to utilize the observation deck as both an urban place-maker and a catalyst for civic prosperity. City after city has followed suit, desperate to tap into a perpetual stream of tourists possessing that perfect socio-economic combination – wide eyes and deep pockets.

Via Buzz Buzz News

As this strategy has proliferated, the question of uniqueness has become increasingly pertinent: how can a city devise a suitably recognizable observation deck for its skyline, and offer something different to tourists that will stand out from similar structures around the world?

In recent times, this has led to increasingly outlandish and experimental iterations of the viewing platform, as city planners attempt to establish a foothold in the consciousness of tourists. The latest case in point is New Orleans, where urban roller coaster company US Thrill Rides is proposing an unconventional hybrid — a 320-foot tall observation deck with a helical gondola track winding around its core.

Tricentennial Tower, New Orleans. Via Designboom

The curious design for the Big Easy’s “Tricentennial Tower” combines modern steel and glass gondola carriages — something akin to the London Eye capsules — with a quaint wrought-iron balcony at the tower’s summit. The traditional detailing of the wrap-around platform, which alludes to a levitating bandstand, pays homage to the city’s French Quarter (where the structure is to be located).

Tricentennial Tower viewing platform. Via Design Boom

The helical gondolas provide a new way of viewing the city without taking up a huge footprint in the way that urban ferris wheels can. This is one advantage championed by US Thrill Rides, who specialize in space-saving tangles of track — last year, they unveiled a vertical roller coaster in Orlando, Florida, billed as “the world’s tallest.”

Phoenix Observation Tower, via BIG Architects

New Orleans is not the only southern U.S. city to seek such a landmark in recent years. In 2012, BIG proposed the Phoenix Observation Tower, a corkscrewing, pin-shaped observation deck that combines a restaurant, café, exhibition space, and viewing platform. Intended as an inversion of the New York Guggenheim’s spiraling atrium, the tower had a strong, sculptural quality, but funding difficulties meant the project fell through last year.

Via BIG Architects

Some unorthodox observation decks have come to fruition though: Anish Kapoor’s serpentine ArcelorMittal Orbit was erected in time for the 2012 Olympics, with its chaotic curves and blood-red hues dividing public opinion to the present day. This observation deck gives people a panoramic view over the new Olympic Park, complete with tremendous sporting venues designed by Zaha Hadid, Hopkins, and Populous.

ArcelorMittal Orbit.Via ArchDaily

However, in contrast to its prestigious architectural neighbors, the Orbit itself has not been taken into the hearts of Londoners. It suffers from being over-complex, a jumble of forms that read as a mash-up of roller-coaster tracks, Kapoor’s signature sculptural trumpets, and a strangely conventional observation capsule wedged at its summit.

Via Open Buildings

The Orbit fails where Eiffel succeeded all those years ago — its form is convoluted, its silhouette an irregular muddle of disparate elements. Sure, a great view can be enjoyed from the top, but the structure itself cannot be considered an icon. It is a folly of towering proportions.

The jury is out on whether the Tricentennial Tower in New Orleans will prove any more successful. In terms of form and stylistic cohesion, it appears to suffer from an architectural identity crisis. Furthermore, the spiraling gondola track looks like a blatant attempt to add novelty value that the observation deck alone lacks. At a paltry 320 feet in the air, tourists may well need more to tempt them through the turnstiles in this location.

The Tricentennial Tower’s helical gondolas. Via Designboom

However, with time, the tower may yet be viewed affectionately by locals as a quirky pavilion in one of this city’s distinctive districts. Its gondolas will provide an element of animation that can add a touch of dynamism to the skyline, in a similar manner to the much-loved London Eye — which was also criticized by many as a superfluous novelty when it was first erected.

Whatever your view, it’s safe to say that this won’t be the last experiment in the realms of observation decks and viewing vehicles: As long as cash-laden tourists are about, lofty lookouts of every conceivable kind will continue to be big business.

Yours observationally,

The Angry Architect

© studio VASE

Chopsticks // studio VASE

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