David Marks 1952 – 2017

One half of London Eye and i360 designer Marks Barfield, fearless player of the long game who changed the way the profession thinks and works

David Marks  1952 – 2017
David Marks 1952 – 2017 Credit: British Airways i360/Gary Eastwood

David Marks, who has died at the age of 64 following a long illness, helped change the way we consider what the profession is and does. Interwoven with what was a relatively conventional if innovative practice with conventional clients, he and his wife and partner Julia Barfield ran an alternative, risk-taking entrepreneurial practice, the one that conceived and built both the London Eye and Brighton’s i360. In these two cases the architects remained firmly in charge of both the construction and the operation of the visitor attraction once built.

We used to joke about how I had rejected the original idea for the London Eye. This was true up to a point. It came about because in the mid 1990s I ran an ideas competition in The Sunday Times, assisted by the Architecture Foundation, for architectural projects to mark the impending Millennium. Marks Barfield entered with a model of a landmark big wheel, engineered by Jane Wernick. It was greeted largely with indifference by the judges, who liked none of the entries enough to declare a winner and so we had to declare the whole competition void.

Typically David took this rebuff calmly and it only spurred him to develop the idea further, gaining publicity, refining the design, raising finance, signing up business partners, finding a site and eventually getting planning permission for the Eye as a temporary structure only: later it was agreed it could be permanent. Almost as dramatic as the finished object was the way it was built: floated up the Thames in segments, it was assembled flat across the river on piled platforms, then raised slowly into position with a giant crane, which failed on the first attempt.

Built just in time for the Millennium, and wholly privately financed, the Eye was a huge success from day one but had a mountain of debt. Eventually Marks and Barfield sold out in 2006 so as to recycle their stake into the i360 – which promptly hit a long delay occasioned by the financial crash. Again, Marks played a long game, kept plugging away, and so the i360 – with one large vertically-rising pod rather than many rotating ones – was finally built. For both attractions he ensured that a proportion of the ticket sales benefit the local communities. 

David Marks and Julia Barfield at the opening of Brighton's i360 in 2016.
David Marks and Julia Barfield at the opening of Brighton's i360 in 2016. Credit: Hugh Pearman

The signs of promise were there in the early days when, as students at the AA, Marks and Barfield found themselves living as squatters in a condemned street in south London. They did up a house, organised the other residents to make a park out of waste ground nearby, saved the street from demolition, and lived ever after in the same house, lately much enlarged. Later, as a practice hit by the recession of the early 1990s, they pooled their resources with similarly-affected Bennetts Associates and both emerged stronger in consequence.

Marks was a very tall man with considerable presence, who chose his words carefully and seemed almost shy. Although he took hair-raising financial risks with his pet projects, even mortgaging his house against the initial costs of the Eye, he had an air of great serenity which served him well. He is rightly described as fearless, and one of his great contributions was a new kind of collaboration: not only with engineers, but also with financiers. His progressive design instincts also found clients elsewhere, as with the Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens, again engineered with Wernick. 

Born in Stockholm, raised in Geneva, he finally came to London to study at the AA in 1972, studying under Keith Critchlow. After working for others – in Marks' case in the Richard Rogers practice as part of the crack team on the Lloyd's of London building – Marks and Barfield, who had married in 1981, set up their practice in 1989 in Clapham, close to where they lived.

David Marks is survived by his wife Julia and their children Benjamin, Maya and Sarah. The practice continues under Julia Barfield and the team of directors: Ian Rudolph, Gemma Collins, Ian Crockford and Magali Thompson.