Tomorrow, on April 16, after surviving the 10 plagues of delay — from hurricanes to the storms of local politics — ground will be broken for the New York Wheel at the St. George tip of northern Staten Island. Opening is slated for summer 2017.
Designed at a world record-setting 630 feet, the Wheel will operate year-round with an unparalleled vista of New York Harbor and its iconic Liberty gateway, outdoing even the soon-to-open observation deck atop One World Trade Center, the phoenix of Ground Zero.
While called most commonly by the name of its inventor, maverick engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, even he referred to it by what holds as the accurate label of “observation wheel.” And thanks to Ferris’s 1893 template, these wheels conceived for both pleasure and bird’s-eye perspective have spread globally in the last 25 years with a demographic arsenal of ambitious new economies, technologies, and materials heralding an accelerated race for world’s tallest. The wheel emerges as the amusement-ride equivalent of the skyscraper, given the competitiveness of record holders. New York will soon grab the height crown for its 28th time since the Ferris wheel rose along the shores of Lake Michigan 122 years ago (though Dubai looms large with a new contender of its own).
The astonishing 22 million passengers who ride the Staten Island Ferry annually, including a hefty percentage of first-time visitors, will soon have a next-door tourist destination luring them like Homer’s Island of Sirens. With any luck, instead of merely circulating in and out of the 2005 St. George Terminal building by Peter Eisenman and HOK (a mere remnant of a grand cultural complex that otherwise never got past the drawing board), many will venture deeper into the City’s least populous and least understood borough to discover cultural and natural assets little known even to New Yorkers themselves. Ferris wheel as Bilbao effect — or so it is hoped.
That impulse also defines the observation wheel’s original advent, when American builders were so spooked by the revolutionary engineering feat of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair in the Champ de Mars, that nothing less than national pride was at stake. Far from a predicted boondoggle, its thrilling rise showed France as the worldwide leader in cutting-edge engineering and the use of steel. “Out-Eiffeling” Eiffel in many ways drove the national mania to stay on top and the symbolic opportunity presented itself in the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.
Although the World Columbian Exposition missed the actual anniversary by a year (it opened in 1893), the event in Chicago was the perfect opportunity to eclipse Paris. And to successfully out-Eiffel Eiffel, some sort of architectural exclamation point was essential; it had to have the kind of towering centerpiece that would set collective imaginations soaring. With the endless turf battles and questions of safe plausibility that characterized the entire expo, it took risky, even cocky, persistence and steady determination for the 33-year-old George Ferris to prevail in a national competition for this symbolic 264-foot centerpiece of the Exposition zone, labeled the Midway Plaisance.
Eric Larson’s 2003 bestseller The Devil in the White City best captures the wheel as one element in this epic and epically successful enterprise which a staggering one-third of the nation visited in its fleeting six months. When the Exposition’s Director of Works, Daniel H. Burnham, said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood,” he wasn’t fooling around.
Larson quotes Ferris’s partner, W. F. Gronau, who, on his first test ride alongside a brave Mrs. Ferris and despite the rattle of a few nuts and bolts shaking out of what was effectively a giant bicycle wheel, he breathlessly exclaimed that, “The view is so grand that all timidity left me and my watch on the movement of the car was abandoned … all conversation stopped, and all were lost in admiration of this grand sight.”
And so it is hoped for the New York Wheel, whose design team features a broad array of experts, led by the wheel engineers themselves, the Dutch firm Starneth, B.V., creators of the new millennium’s London Eye and the forthcoming Dubai wheel, as well. In this global design environment, it seems a distinguished firm can thrive on observation wheels alone.
For the New York Wheel, Starneth is teamed up with Perkins Eastman/EEK Architects as wheel-anchoring and visitor-accessing architects and, critically, M. Paul Friedberg and Partners, creators of the surrounding harbor-side landscape. While the design itself is at the secondary service of the engineering, this winning troika renders a thin, gravity-defying elegance that announces its modernity in fixed form alone.
Mr. Ferris and his crew got it right in an enduring way none of them could have imagined. They only seem to be outdone continuously in today’s planet-spanning marketplace of civic pride, capitalism, and the ingenuities of new building methods of mind and computer conjoined.
Renderings via Perkins Eastman