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Wheel deal

Despite its wobbly beginnings, the capital's giant ferris wheel has become a much-loved symbol of London. And even urban sprawl seems beautiful from the top

Tony Blair officially opened the London Eye on 31 December 1999. But it was only after a number of technical glitches had been sorted out that the public was finally allowed aboard in March 2000 – 10 years ago this week. Since then, well over 30 million people have taken the vertiginous but breathtaking half-hour journey, in air-conditioned capsules, up and around what was, until two years ago, the world's biggest ferris wheel. That honour now belongs to the Singapore Flyer; with a height of 165 metres, it outranks the London Eye by a full 30 metres. But, while the Flyer looks like a gigantic version of a 19th-century original (the first of the breed, designed by George Washington Ferris, began revolving at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago), the London Eye is a fighter jet to Singapore's biplane. The Eye has since become as much a part of tourist London as Westminster Abbey, the Tower and Big Ben; a friendly curiosity, an urban eye-catcher, and an engineering wonder to compare with the Eiffel Tower.

When it was first announced, though, it was hard not to think that the London Eye was going to be some sort of Victorian throwback, an enormous music hall-era fun-fair ride among London's new wave of challenging millennium monuments– Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and the Millennium Dome itself. At the time of its opening, the joke went that the Eye was a perfect symbol of contemporary British political culture, going around and around uselessly and getting nowhere in the process.

When, however, the design by the architects Marks Barfield was unveiled, most doubts were cast aside. The husband-and-wife team had come up with a striking and rather beautiful hi-tech big wheel. It wasn't just the high-spec design that drew attention, it was the bravura manner in which the Eye's prefabricated components were brought up the Thames on river barges to Jubilee Gardens, and the week-long drama during which, inch by inch, the giant wheel was raised from the river and up into place alongside County Hall. Now, every view in and through Westminster, and along the Thames, was changed. Suddenly, this spidery and beautifully resolved ferris wheel crowned Victorian terraces, filled unexpected views along avenues of plane trees and sat like a tiara atop government offices.

Perhaps its best aspect is that it also offers awe-inspiring and uninterrupted views over London. From up top on a clear day, the entire city can be peered down upon and encompassed. The patterns of London's growth can be seen spreading into subtopia and the green belt like rings marking the age of venerable trees. Rides on the Eye in rain, snow or at night offer their own haunting attractions.

Of London's deafeningly trumpeted rival millennium projects, the Eye has been, perhaps, the most endearing. The Dome was undermined by the unforgivably crass and soulless Millennium Experience exhibition of 2000; it was many years before it redeemed itself as today's O2 music venue. The Millennium Bridge linking Tate Modern and St Paul's Cathedral wobbled, and it was some while before its virtues could be discerned. Tate Modern became almost too popular for its own good, a heaving cultural souk – acutely in need of its planned extension – where art can occasionally be seen between massed heads and shoulders. Other millennium projects, such as the refurbishment of the Royal Opera House, were fine things, yet tame in terms of fresh design.

The London Eye was always a brave and daring adventure, a throwback to 1951's Festival of Britain, held on the same site – an era when Britain could still claim to lead the world (just) in supersonic-era design and engineering. It looks to the past as well as the future. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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