A very big wheel rolls onto the London skyline; Architecture: A 443-foot Ferris wheel is going up across the Thames from venerable Big Ben.


LONDON -- Big Ben, move over. The big wheel has hit town.

Larger than a football field and weighing in like a Sumo wrestler forged in steel, a gargantuan Ferris wheel is due to be hoisted onto the London skyline in a maneuver that organizers compare to the launch of a space shuttle.

After months of assembling a spider's web of cables and steel, sweaty-palmed engineers and gritty construction workers will oversee the wheel's rise along the south bank of the Thames River, opposite the Houses of Parliament and venerable Big Ben clock tower. The operation, which could begin as early as tomorrow, will be the most dramatic step yet in the construction of the wheel that will rise 443 feet and weigh more than 2,000 tons when complete.

"Never in the world has there been a project like this," says Maarten Jongejan, CEO of the Dutch company Hollandia, which built the frame and will oversee the lift up. "When you have a high-rise, you need a year to change the skyline."

But here, the skyline will change in less than a day, as the city's fourth largest structure surges up from its moorings on the Thames.

Of all the bold and imaginative projects that Britain has embarked on to celebrate the millennium, there is perhaps nothing as provocative as transforming a prime piece of real estate into what amounts to an amusement park ride.

The British seem to be banking on millennium mania, sprucing up their capital city, adding a subway line, even building a Millennium Dome to serve as the centerpiece of a year-long exhibition and celebration of humankind.

Yet it's quite a gamble to spin a wheel of fortune in London's heart.

There are some here who claim that the wheel will do for London what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris: provide a world-renowned landmark as well as a bird's-eye view of a glorious city.

It will certainly be hard to miss, especially after it opens to the public in early January 2000.

Picture a very large white wheel running continuously from morning to late night daily, turning twice an hour. Imagine the hordes of tourists waiting to enter one of 32 egg-shaped capsules, designed to hold 25 people in climate-controlled comfort, each paying about $10 for the sensation.

And what about the view during the leisurely 30-minute ride? On a clear day you can see more than 20 miles, taking in such sights as Windsor Castle and Gatwick Airport, while also looking down on St. Paul's Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross Station.

With a final price tag of more than $48 million -- $32 million for the wheel alone -- the privately financed project is named the British Airways London Eye. But most people will probably refer to it as the wheel.

"It was a huge gamble, right from the beginning," says Paul Baxter, the British Airways project manager.

"The wheel is smack dab in the heart of historic London," he says. "It's in an incredibly sensitive position. What gave us a feeling that we could do it is to have a beautiful, simple structure."

The wheel is the brainchild of architects David Marks and his wife and business partner Julia Barfield, who conjured up the structure in response to a newspaper millennium design competition.

Marks prefers to call the wheel "a ring of life." "I like the symbolism of a circle," he told the London newspaper The Times. "It's not like a tower. It's a sculpture. It's a structure."

With no music and subtle lighting, the wheel is meant to be sleek and sophisticated.

It's also a testament to European cooperation, with British steel, Italian cables, French passenger capsules, a Czech spindle and Dutch engineering and construction know-how tying the project together.

The wheel's frame was built in sections in Rotterdam and hauled over on barges for assembly on the Thames.

A trip to the site reveals just how remarkable the project is. Amid the dust and concrete is the shimmering white wheel, which actually juts over the Thames, impervious to the passing boat traffic. The cables are tightly strung. The tubular steel is hard to the touch. A giant yellow crane stands ready.

The complex lift operation will begin with the first 16-hour push, when four hydraulic jacks and scores of cables hoist the wheel to a 65-degree angle, with laser technology providing precise measurements.

The wheel will be pivoted into final position, as early as next week, with the capsules added over the coming weeks.

"It's like lifting a bicycle wheel," Jongejan says.

Betraying no nerves, Jongejan is confident the lift will come off without a hitch. After all, his company has successfully completed bridges and storm barriers. Yet, he cautions, one can never know about such things until the object is in place.

Already, though, he is wondering who might build another giant wheel.

"There's always a crazy American who wants to build one bigger," he says.

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