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i can see for miles and miles

Views from the British Airways i360 in Brighton don't disappoint but the accompanying exhibition leaves you wanting to know more about its design

British Airways i360 with the ruins of West Pier to the right and Brighton Palace Pier beyond.
British Airways i360 with the ruins of West Pier to the right and Brighton Palace Pier beyond.

It might not be the tallest observation tower, offer the swiftest ascent or feature a revolving restaurant, but the British Airways i360 viewing tower in Brighton – the world’s most slender tower – doesn’t disappoint. It’s a shame that it’s suffered some technical hitches because when things operate as intended, as they were on my visit this Easter, the ride really works well, moving smoothly and silently at a stately pace on its 25 minute ‘flight’.

As you’d expect from architect Marks Barfield, who came up with the concept for the attraction, the passenger pod is impressive both inside and out. The underside is reflective so that those on the ground can see the city and seascape in it as it takes off and comes back down to land.

In the new How it was Built exhibition at the tower’s base David Marks describes the i360 as a vertical pier, but I’m not convinced by the analogy. Certainly it’s a nice concept given its proximity to the ruins of Brighton’s grade I listed West Pier, which had fallen into disrepair and closure long before its devastation by fire in 2003. Yet as an experience within a sealed pod, the viewing tower has nothing of the bracing open-air character that is the very essence of a traditional pier.

Marks also states that the i360’s purpose is to ‘delight, entertain and inspire’ and in this it certainly does succeed.

  • Drone image of British Airways i360 with the city and South Downs beyond.
    Drone image of British Airways i360 with the city and South Downs beyond. Credit: Visual Air
  • British Airways i360 view to east and city.
    British Airways i360 view to east and city.
  • British Airways i360 pod with reconstructed pier toll booth to the left.
    British Airways i360 pod with reconstructed pier toll booth to the left.
  • Drone image of British Airways i360 with Regency Square below.
    Drone image of British Airways i360 with Regency Square below. Credit: Visual Air
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Yes, it’s beautifully designed, but it’s the great views out that make it as a visitor experience and these are definitely worth the trip. Brighton can be a puzzling place to navigate for visitors, who often get lost in the higgledy-piggledy of the Lanes, but here is the whole town laid out before you with the Downs beyond, the promenade and beach stretching off in either direction and the distinctive domes of the fabulous Royal Pavilion somewhere in between. Then there’s the sea and, last but not least, the poignant remnants of West Pier which have a starring role as the capsule rises above to a height of 138m, making it the world’s tallest moving observation tower.

Once at its highest, the capsule lingers to allow passengers to enjoy the view – and in return this is really the best view for those looking at the i360 from afar, especially when it is illuminated after dark. There’s rather less visual charm in the tower alone when the futuristic pod has landed and disappeared from view.

After disembarking, passengers who can resist the lure of the gift shop and café a little longer can crunch the numbers of how the tower was built in the new exhibition on the lower ground level. 

The reflective underside of the British Airways i360 pod.
The reflective underside of the British Airways i360 pod.

This modest display is full of impressive stats about the construction of the tower, which gains its world’s most slender accolade by virtue of its 40:1 height-to-width ratio – 162m tall and just 3.9m wide. The story of the construction is all very impressive, requiring a 120m diversion of the town’s Victorian sewer and some 4,150 tonnes of concrete foundations. We learn that the tower is formed of 17 steel ‘cans’ that stack together to form the vertical, and that these were manufactured in the Netherlands before being towed to the site by barge and assembled in situ with the aid of 1336 bolts.

Then there’s the 18m diameter pod (10 times the diameter of a London Eye capsule) which was prefabricated in 60 parts including 24 double curved, double laminated glazed superstructure sectors, and is supported on 48 trusses cantilevered off the central chassis.

There’s also the story of another part of the i360 project, the recreation of the two Italianate tollbooths that once stood at the end of the pier, designed by pier architect Eugenius Birch. These now house a tea room and ticket office. 

While this exhibition is all fine as far as it goes, I would have preferred a broader remit that said more about the design as well as the construction.

‘We sort of got the band back together,’ says Julia Barfield in a soundbite from the audio-visual in the exhibition, referring to the team that the entrepreneurial practice had previously worked with on the London Eye, which it also instigated.

But how did the bright idea – essentially an elegant scenic lift going up and down a tower – arise? What were the main challenges in achieving the vision? And how did Marks Barfield arrive at the sleek, futuristic design for the pod? I’d have loved to have heard more from the practice and seen more of the design development drawings, and the ideas that didn’t make the cut. But enough quibbling; the exhibition is just the bonus – it’s the flight experience that really matters to the passengers. 

  • British Airways i360 pod interior.
    British Airways i360 pod interior.
  • Night shot of the illuminated British Airways i360.
    Night shot of the illuminated British Airways i360.
  • The tower under construction. The ‘can’ components arrived by barge before being stacked to form the tower.
    The tower under construction. The ‘can’ components arrived by barge before being stacked to form the tower.
  • Test build of British Airways i360 pod at Poma, France.
    Test build of British Airways i360 pod at Poma, France.
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The locals who live with the tower every day may be rather more interested in the anticipated regenerative effect that the i360 could have on the area as it draws visitors along the promenade in the opposite direction to the surviving Brighton Palace Pier. While it’s too early to judge this, landscaping is under way near the two recreated tollbooths that will create a new public space incorporating 24 columns salvaged from the derelict pier.

Further along the seafront there are signs of other renewal projects including the replacement of the historic Shelter Hall building. There are many more, rather larger projects heading Brighton’s way in the next few years, including large-scale housing at Brighton Marina and a possible redevelopment of the Churchill Square shopping centre and its surrounding area. And what better way to see their impact on the town than from the all-seeing i360.

British Airways i360: How it was Built, British Airways i360, Lower King’s Road, Brighton, BN1 2LN