“The i-sore”: Will Brighton’s new i360 observation tower ever win over the public?

An artist's impression of the completed tower. Image: Marks Barfield.

For the last 16 years a collection of Brighton-based photographers has produced a calendar highlighting the events, buildings, and characters that give the city its flamboyant appeal. This year’s edition features a photograph of a doughnut on a stick, with the seafront blurred in the background. The work, by Alex Bamford, is described as “an early artist’s impression” of the i360.

The irreverent image captures the ambivalent attitude to the enormous observation tower which now looms over the derelict ruins of the West Pier. Many residents regard is as a disfiguration of the splendid Georgian environs, dubbing it the “i-sore”. Others argue that it will regenerate the area, pulling in more leisure and business visitors.

The 162-metre tower is the brainchild of husband-and-wife architect team David Marks and Julia Barfield, who were also responsible for the London Eye. When it opens this summer, a pod attached to the pole will accommodate up to 200 people at a time, so that, on a good day, they’ll be able to enjoy views of the Channel, the South Downs and neighbouring Worthing. The ride will cost £15, and a discount has been promised to locals.

Below, a 400-seat beachside venue will be used for dining, conferences and events. Corporate hire charges range from £1,000 to £40,000.


Marks Barfield was itself unable to find private investors to back the scheme, which is set to cost £46m. Some £36m of the cost will be covered by a Public Works Loan Board loan, negotiated by the city council when still controlled by the previous Green adminstration. The loan was agreed by a committee of 10 councillors, with seven voting in favour and three against. 

Although the current Labour leadership was against the loan when in opposition, it is making the best of the situation. The council claims the profit on the interest from the loan plus business rates will earn it more than £1m per year.

“Now that the Greens and Tories have voted for this to go ahead and construction has started,” says council leader Warren Morgan, “we sincerely hope that the predictions for visitor numbers for the viewing platform are not over optimistic, and that revenue is enough to pay off the taxpayer loan.”

But the fine detail of how this will be achieved is being kept under wraps. The council has refused to release the financial details contained in a consultant’s business review of the i360.  The document contains the rationale for pricing policies, projections for customer numbers, profit projections, staffing levels and overhead costs.

Last September, I submitted a Freedom of Information request asking that the full report be published. The council stuck to its guns. Following my appeal, the Information Commissioner’s Office decided that it had not been shown how disclosure of the information would prejudice the operator’s or the council’s commercial interests. The Commissioner also noted that it has not been shown that there would be an actionable claim for breach of confidence. It ordered the council to release the full report.

Now, however, the council has decided it will not accept the ICO ruling. It will instead appeal to the first-tier tribunal, spending thousands of pounds of council taxpayers’ money in the process.

A council press officer told me: “As a major new commercial enterprise the Brighton i360 is still in the process of negotiating with prospective suppliers and sponsors.  Publishing background pricing assumptions for new contractual relationships can prevent a fair negotiation of the most beneficial terms. 

“The council is therefore appealing the decision of the Information Commissioner that this information be placed in the public domain.”

The views from the top of the observation tower may prove to be impressive – but clear sight of the business case for the i360 remains a distant prospect.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.