The global engineer

People, technology and buildings.

The 1960s have so much to answer for. Those were the days when Swiss roll was a hot dish, Elvis was still king and someone, somewhere, had the idea that dinner was best served high up and spinning. Nearly 50 years on, Elvis has gone and Swiss roll's gone sweet, but these brash symbols of technological showmanship are still at the top of their game. Diners still gaze down on an unfolding view and share a menu that will inevitably - wherever in the world it's served - contain the 1960s staples of prawn cocktail, duck à l'orange and black forest gateau, finished off with an Irish coffee.

Sadly, if you confine yourself to the UK, there is only one place where you can readily experience the thrill of revolving gastronomy at (albeit modest) altitude. With the loftier and more famous BT Tower reserved for private functions, it is left to the three-storey La Sapiniere, tucked away in the Elveden Forest Centerparcs in Suffolk, to champion the revolving experience. Moreover, it takes its ageing rotation mechanism two hours to make a single turn - and it's an experienced diner who can make the irish coffee and bill haggling last that long.

The world's first revolving restaurant spun at a headier speed. La Ronde in Honolulu, Hawaii, opened in 1961, the brainchild of Seattle architect John Graham Jr, who had proposed a tower with a restaurant on top of it at the new Ala Moana office block. His partner, Jim Jackson, suggested the restaurant should rotate, so diners could enjoy the panoramic mountain view and Hawaiian sunsets.

The initial idea was to install the restaurant in a separate casing on top of the main building and rotate the entire structure. But the load and the wind forces would have been too excessive, so the solution was arrived at to rotate only the dining area, keeping the peripheral walls and central services area stationary.

Graham's engineers designed a 5m wide cog-driven turntable, shaped like a ring doughnut. It couldn't be powered from a central shaft, as the centre ring wouldn't be rotating. Instead, it was mounted on flanged wheels riding on a circular track under the floor.

They then had to calculate a speed of rotation that wouldn't put people off their food or topple the waiters as they stepped on and off the rotating areas. A total revolution in 60 minutes seemed to work - the speed at which the majority of rotating restaurants are now set.

This is not, however, a standard: some restaurants are equipped with variable speeds, rev up at busy periods to encourage faster turnover. Diners grow restless when they arrive at a view they've already seen, and call for the bill. It's also rumoured that the Fernseh-turm in East Berlin fairly trotted around, so that people in the West could clearly see it revolve and marvel at the technological superiority of the German Democratic Republic.

One of my favourites - the Seri Angkasa in the Menara Tower, Kuala Lumpur - gallops around at an alarming rate. One minute your table is inches from the grand piano, the next you can hardly hear the melancholic lounge-plink of 'Yesterday', it is so far away.

The Orbit, perched atop Skycity in Auckland, New Zealand, is furnished with dark leather chairs and matching dark wood tables. In this most modern of the spin-for-your-supper establishments, even the menu bucks twirling tradition; in place of Rose Marie sauce there's Hawkes Bay lamb and green-lipped mussels. But you could argue that the most important thing is missing - the view. Only dedicated suburbanites will enjoy the endless Auckland sprawl, finding comfort in so many manicured lawns.

Still top of the tree

By the close of the 20th century, there were over 100 revolving restaurants in 40 countries, three quarters built by the Macton Corporation of Connecticut. They continue to be symbols of technological progress and modernity as higher models are thrust up every year. They're so central to a city's image, that when a new one is opened, the scissors are often wielded by a head of state.

It's in the southern hemisphere - and in particular Asia and the Middle East - that the love affair with altitudinous eating flourishes. When the Forte Grand Hotel opened in Abu Dhabi in 1993 - over 30 years after La Ronde in Hawaii - Gulf Construction magazine was still declaring: "the crowning glory of the hotel is the revolving restaurant, a masterpiece of modern technology".

One wonders where it can go from here. Has anybody ever attempted to place a revolving door at the entrance of a revolving restaurant? Would physics itself be irreparably bent? Certainly rotation has got a few people penning some innovative ideas onto their napkins in the 21st century - and the humble revolving door could be at the forefront of a - well, a revolution.

Invented in 1888 by Theophilus Van Kannel, the revolving door acts as an airlock, preventing the rapid influx of cold air into warm buildings on a chilly, windy day. This has proved particularly effective in high-rise offices and big hotels, where the pressure differences, caused by the warm air inside the building and the cold air outside, make ordinary doors difficult to open or close.

Design company Fluxxlab, founded by two Colombia University graduates, has come up with a concept of a revolving door that harnesses the energy of the person entering and exiting. By the time you check in at the hotel reception, you could have contributed to the national grid. Called the Revolution Door, it replaces the central core so that energy can be captured, thus, according to Fluxxlab, "communicating a single person's contribution to an energy cycle possible through the metabolic relationship between people, technology, and architecture".

All of which may sound like so much hot air to the seasoned technology-watcher, but if someone could find a way of applying such energy-generating principles to the rotating restaurant, then the dizzying decadent heights of prawn cocktail, black forest gateau and Irish coffee may light up our future. 

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