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Obituary: David Marks

Holistic London Eye architect who believed in useful, innovative designs

    Gary Eastwood
    Gary Eastwood

    He was an architect who believed that well designed buildings can improve the quality of peoples’ lives. David Marks, who has died aged 64, proved the principle in his own life, when he and  his wife and associate Julia Barfield, saved their home from the developers, turning it into their personal eco-system. They also  re-generated their local derelict area by creating a park.  

    The co-founder of Marks Barfield Architects, Marks was best known for developing the London Eye, but other projects included Kew Garden’s Treetop Walkway and the  British Airways i360 observation tower in Brighton, based on the Eye. They were the footprint of a designer as passionate about the skyline as he was about architecture itself; a man known for his idealism and his social conscience – but also for his intuitive imagination. 

    The London Eye, for example was conceived as an entry to a 1993 competition in the Sunday Times for a Millennium monument. It was typical of Marks’ character that he did not wait for the conventional commission, but for the simple flow of an idea. His still embryonic company reinvented a lightweight fairground Ferris Wheel and sited it on the southern bank of the Thames, referencing the 1951 Festival of Britain. It was an imaginative move, intended to symbolise Marks’ engineering heroes, Isambard Kingdom Brunei, Joseph Paxton and the pier designer Eugenius Birch. Looking down on the city would be a way to see London in a different way, and this was key to Marks’ visionary genius. 

    There were no winners in this competition but Marks and Barfield decided to go it alone, intent on developing their dream, despite serious opposition. They both re-mortgaged their homes to finance the Millennium Wheel Company. The Eye opened in 2000 and has since become the most popular paid-for attraction in Britain. attracting more than three million visitors a year. While Marks rejected offers for similar projects abroad, replicas have sprung up all over the world, including the Singapore Flyer, China’s Star of Nanchang and the proposed New York Wheel.

    However, the team’s involvement with the Eye did not have a happy ending. They lost control of the company when their partner British Airways, sold their stake in it, but Marks stayed true to his principles by ensuring that one per cent of revenues went to the local community in perpetuity. Both Marks and Barfield were both appointed MBE in 2000 and their company continued its commitment to blend first-class engineering with social values into a portfolio of schools, libraries, bridges, art galleries and a putative Cambridge mosque. Marks’ son Benjamin carries on the family tradition, last year winning RIBA’S McEwen Award for his work on the Oasis Children’s Venture in Stockwell, South London. 

    Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Marks was the son of Gunilla née Loven  and Manchester journalist and film producer Melville Marks who had fought in Israel’s War of Independence and co-founded the Montreux Golden Rose Television Festival. David Marks was considered a less flamboyant character than his father, except when discussing politics, social justice and design issues. 

    He was educated in Geneva, and moved to London in 1972, studying at the former Kingston Polytechnic. He won a place at the  Architectural Association, where he met Julia. They married in 1981. On graduating, the couple set up an architectural model-making business and Marks went on to work with their main client, Richard Rogers, on such projects as the Lloyds Building before setting up his own practice in 1989. His wife left Norman Foster, to join him.

    Marks believed architecture should be useful and innovative, and his concern for social issues developed when he and his wife backpacked across South America, establishing squatter settlements in Peru. Later they had a taste of the itinerant life themselves when they squatted in South London. They brought up their three children, Benjamin, Maya and Sarah in their restored and carbon-free family home, helping redevelop their local park in the face of budget cuts. 

    “Architects don’t stop,” David Marks told the Sunday Times last year. “They just go on building things until they run out of breath.” His company praised his belief “in the power of architecture to have a transformative effect on civic life.” Marks is survived by Julia and their children.

    GLORIA TESSLER

    David Joseph Marks, born December 15, 1952. Died October 6, 2017.

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