It started in a men’s cloakroom at the World Economic Forum apparently, when steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain, happened to bump into Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and they had a quick conversation about the 2012 Olympics.
Johnson thought it might be a nice idea to construct an ‘icon’ for the Olympic site in East London, supposedly as a tourist attraction to draw people to this no-man’s land of stadia and housing estates after the Games were over.
Mittal possibly saw a chance to promote himself and his huge global concern, the steel production firm ArcelorMittal. A competition was launched and a jury of nabobs and pundits from the London art scene was assembled.
The winning scheme was announced on 31 March: an eccentric tower of spiralling red girders 115m tall, designed by the ultra fashionable sculptor Anish Kapoor, in collaboration with the equally fashionable engineer Cecil Balmond.
This ungainly object, a sprawling steel gadget a few metres taller than the Statue of Liberty, immediately set off a search for comparisons in the public press: a crashed version of the Eiffel Tower, a whirligig or helter skelter from a fun fair, a recycled version of Vladimir Tatlin’s unbuilt monument for the Third International (1920) with its spiralling structure and revolving chambers. The cost was announced as being just over £19 million, of which Mittal would supply £16 million (plus the steel, of course), leaving the London Development Agency to supply the rest. In honour of the patron, it was to be called the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Kapoor established his reputation as a sculptor in the 1990s with work of considerable power and enigmatic presence, and when he was invited in 2002 to do a large sculptural piece for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, he came up with the extraordinary Marsyas, a red trumpet-like membrane of fabric stretched tight over a light frame, a structure designed by Balmond.
In addition, Balmond has been involved in several of the Serpentine Pavilions (the most effective being Toyo Ito’s, AR September 2002) and in projects designed by starchitects such as Rem Koolhaas. As an engineer, he favours complex geometries over simple ones and has explored algorithmic transformations in his structural designs. This suits those architects who like to make things twist, lean and turn, though the search for ‘complexity’ sometimes seems gratuitous.
With the ArcelorMittal Orbit, Kapoor and Balmond have given birth to an unfortunate deviant that cannot claim the status of either sculpture or architecture, and which comes far too close to being a contraption in an industrial theme park to be convincing artistically.
The overall form is muddled, its geometries are a mess, and there is no clear relationship between the idea and the structural means of tangled girders.
But then what is the idea? The project is without any clear symbolic meaning and risks being seen as a plutocrat’s self-indulgent plaything masquerading as public art. Even the notion that the ArcelorMittal Orbit is somehow ‘public’ may be misleading, for the viewing platform will probably require a ticket, like the wretched London Eye, that huge piece of fairground equipment which continues to treat central London as if it were an amusement park.
In sculpture, every form has its proper size and if the object is inflated too much, it turns into a caricature of itself, a tendency alas in several of Kapoor’s recent ‘monumental’ works. Where the engineer could have reined in the design he seems to have done the opposite and let everything hang out, a fatuous exercise in concocting a species of anti-Cartesian tower.
Balmond’s practical skill is beyond reproach but his visual taste raises doubts. When he designs a bridge on his own, as he did recently in Portugal, he has to put a kink in it (for lateral stability, he claims) but the resulting form, with its ill-proportioned members, is enough to make great engineers, like Robert Maillart or Gustave Eiffel, turn in their graves. What one longs for is the quality that Italian Pier Luigi Nervi calls ‘the intuitive sense of structure’.
So Mittal will get his monument and Johnson will get his ‘icon’ (as if London, with all its historical landmarks, had need of such a thing). But what does the icon really represent? Here the ball of harsh social reality risks bouncing back into the middle of the game. In popular opinion, ArcelorMittal is sometimes associated with the closure of steel plants. Voices can already be heard suggesting that such huge sums of money would be better spent on public services and the generation of jobs, than on a colossal folly.
This painfully awkward structure, which reflects poorly on both the artist and the engineer, may one day be seen as an unfortunate gesture of plutocratic aggrandisement, marking, through a historical irony, the end of British manufacturing in steel. The ‘icon’ risks being read unintentionally as a sort of giant collapsing crane made from the very material that once made British industry great.
This tasteless colossus is no Eiffel Tower and reflects badly on all concerned. It should be scrapped forthwith.