Part fish, part pistol
The Falkirk Wheel in Scotland links 21st-century technology to the high technology of the 1800s: Britain's network of canals and locks.
Where does engineering end and art begin? If this unique rotating boat lift - nothing like it has ever been built before - were solely functional, how different would it look? But the Falkirk Wheel was never intended for function alone. Appearance was a consideration. As designer Tony Kettle put it, the aim was to create something "sculptural" that would be "a celebration, a statement." The hooked leading edges of the caissons give them a sense of movement.Skip to next paragraph
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Opened in May 2002, the wheel certainly works effectively. Using extraordinarily little power, it speedily and efficiently lifts boats and water some 115 feet up or down between two renovated Scottish canals. (The Union Canal is the lower, the Forth and Clyde Canal the upper.) The wheel rotates silently, lifting and lowering the two balanced caissons containing boats and water. It is an original solution to the centuries-old problem of enabling canal boats to negotiate changes of level.
The word "wheel" was retained from earlier proposals. And although rotation is still the essential concept of the final design, the structure has more to do with Roman aqueducts than with wheels. The beauty of those aqueducts, often a progression of supporting arches striding over the landscape, was a direct inspiration. Part of the upper level of the design is, indeed, an aqueduct. The wheel, bearing the higher caisson, breaks away from this aqueduct as it revolves. Unlike conventional locks, there is no changing of water levels at all.
Other references for the appearance of the wheel were fish and the revolver. The aqueduct was inspired by the elegant skeleton of a fish; the rotational structure turns like a gun chamber - though the canal boats are not exactly fired from the caissons when they arrive at their new level. They move out of them steadily, ready to resume their floating journey.
You know how it is: You have the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on your doorstep. Hordes of eager tourists flock to see them year-round. But you - not surprisingly - are much too busy with daily life to spend time staring at the object of wonder that faces you continually.
I worked in New York for years, but never went up the Empire State Building. It's been like that with the Falkirk Wheel. This much acclaimed, much visited wonder of engineering and imagination is a short drive from us. Since its opening, everyone else seems to have had an uplifting ride on it.
Finally, one fine autumn day, more than a year after its inauguration (by the queen, in May 2002) we joined the pilgrimage to this giant revolving boat lift.
I'd seen pictures; I'd studied the website. I had read and heard that there was nothing like it in the world. I was impressed. But as we were walking up toward the thing itself, I realized I had no idea what it was like. It strode across the grassy slope of a hill like some gigantic alien construct. It's a mix of many things: modern sculpture, modern architecture, art, engineering. It looked like a hybrid of two gigantically elegant swans and two slightly threatening claw hammers.
We joined the line, the motionless wheel towering over us, and stood waiting to file onto the moored barge.
It seemed to me, looking up, that the wheel is designed to be a symbol. A symbol of "now." It was designed to look promising and aspirational. At the same time, it is actually functional.