BY Douglas Murphy in Frieze | 01 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 147

Towers of Babble

The ArcelorMittal Orbit and the recent history of large-scale folly

BY Douglas Murphy in Frieze | 01 MAY 12

Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor, ArcelorMittal Orbit, 2012, digital rendering. Courtesy AncelorMittal, Luxembourg

Compared to other world cities of the industrial age, London suffers from a lack of a pointlessly symbolic engineering folly. Perhaps due to a particularly British resistance to the visual trappings of modernity, or a reticence about objects which aren’t immediately useful, certain attempts at joyously futile structures – whether it be Sir Edward Watkin’s ill-fated Wembley Tower (1891–1907), designed by Stuart, MacLaren and Dunn, or the Festival of Britain’s much-lamented ‘Skylon’ by Powell & Moya (1951) – were never given the chance to become permanent fixtures on the skyline. But this is about to change, for the Olympics have managed to bring to London perhaps the most spectacular bauble yet conceived as urban adornment: the ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012). Designed to be a permanent visitor attraction at the Olympic Park, this twisted, ruby-red squiggle of a structure is 115 metres high, its lurid whorls housing a viewing platform, a lift leading up and a spiral staircase back down.

The process by which the Orbit has become a reality is a perfect snapshot of just how vulgar monumental culture can be. Boris Johnson, the bumbling yet ruthless mayor of London, decided that the worthy collection of rather cheap-looking Olympic architecture needed some kind of monumental public art work to give it a bit of oomph. He was at a loss as to what this might be until he serendipitously bumped into Lakshmi Mittal in the cloakrooms at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2009. Mittal, the sixth-richest man in the world, is the ceo of ArcelorMittal, a steel giant known for its mass redundancies, plant closures and price-fixing. Mittal – once embroiled in a ‘cash for influence’ scandal with Tony Blair – instantly agreed to funding and supplying Johnson’s sculpture in exchange for it being named after him, the two egos recognizing just what this project might do for their profiles.

With funding and material in place, all that was needed was the art, and after an invited competition in which they saw off Antony Gormley, a joint proposal by artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond was selected. Already frequent collaborators – most recently with Middlesbrough’s Temenos (2010), which translates as ‘Sacred Ground’ and is now the largest work of art in the uk – they are major players in the growing field of art works, such as Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998), that have become so large as to be infrastructural, with construction budgets reaching into millions of pounds. Both Kapoor and Balmond have approached this career position from different directions: over the years, Kapoor’s sculptures have steadily increased in size, leaving the gallery behind and becoming subject to public commission and design-team input. On the other hand, Balmond, the world’s most famous structural engineer, has been an important driving force behind the flamboyant globalized architecture of the last 15 years, working with Daniel Libeskind and oma, amongst others. With its allusions to fractals, musical structure and so on, his work has enabled him to cultivate an artistic persona that has led him into the world of the sculptural quasi-building.

Despite their separate fields of expertise, both Kapoor and Balmond have become equally trapped in a mode of expression that could be termed ‘fireworks art’: simply symbolic, highly affective works of art on a massive scale, whose only purpose seems to be the inducement of an awed ‘wow’ from the audience. Corporate- or state-funded contemporary art commissions, such as the Unilever series at Tate Modern (where in 2002 Kapoor and Balmond collaborated on Marsyas, a massive blood-red ‘trumpet’ that filled the Turbine Hall), often appear to dictate that the only acceptable, non-controversial, non-elitist gesture is to dwarf the viewer in some massive physical display, a sublime without threat, a mild disorientation as its substitute for spiritual or intellectual experience.

Zaha Hadid, Olympic Aquatics Centre, 2012, London. Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects, London

But while the Orbit does operate in this manner as a vast dumbfounding form, it has another register than that of size – its vanguard engineering. To make something so irregular, so convoluted – to make every single steel component unique – is a task that has only recently become possible. In the last decade, a digital revolution has occurred in construction, with contemporary architecture becoming increasingly curved, smoothed and expressive – the Olympic Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, is just one example. But accompanying the great increase in formal complexity is an attendant difficulty of meaning: the possibilities of form have greatly increased, but the logic of expression hasn’t quite managed to keep up, being currently stuck in a representational rut of simplistic metaphor: shells, pebbles, fish, plants, pearls etc. The Orbit’s form has been variously compared to a trombone, a prolapsed intestine, a rollercoaster, even the Olympic rings themselves: its twists have no significance of their own, but act allusively, hinting at whatever one wants to see. Its representational blankness belies its tacky brashness.

When the Orbit’s design was revealed, there was a collective wretch from the critics – the staggering ugliness of the object receiving near-universal condemnation. The only real defence made against this critical revulsion has been to draw historical comparison to the horrified protests that attended the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, when the Parisian cultural elite begged for their beautiful city not to be disfigured. The patently false logic behind this defence is that because the Eiffel Tower is now a much loved and treasured monument, then the bile that has been directed towards the Orbit is similarly bound to end up as familiar affection.

When the Eiffel Tower was built it really was the limit of what was possible with engineering, marking a massive step forward in human capabilities. Bearing in mind that the Eiffel Tower (the tallest building in the world for 40 years) is three times the height of the Orbit, then the ridiculous complexity of the latter – with its counterintuitive engineering and its formal and structural redundancies – is neither revolution nor evolution, but rather involution. However, it is often forgotten that Gustave Eiffel also engineered the Statue of Liberty – a far more appropriate comparison to the Orbit, in that its engineering seeks not some kind of perfect rationality and efficiency, but rather is working in a secondary role to an overarching formal idea. But where the Statue of Liberty is fully laden with all sorts of cultural meanings, symbolism and ideology, the Orbit seems naked, its jolly abstraction a telling reflection of its blankly cynical patronage.

But perhaps the Orbit’s most obvious but also most difficult comparison is to Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), that melancholy dream which Viktor Shklovsky famously said was ‘made from iron, glass and revolution’. There are indeed superficial similarities – both are deep red and both feature twisting steel structures housing rudimentary internal buildings – but of course their spirits couldn’t be more different. Whereas Tatlin’s twists were a yearning evocation of the teleological thrust of dialectical materialism, the Orbit’s creators, in their design statement, merely explain that it ‘should make an iconic statement about “Tower-ness”’. But there is a darker resemblance also: Tatlin’s tower was, famously, to be 400 metres high and demanded more steel than the civil war-gripped Soviet Union could possibly have provided, and though the Orbit does indeed stand tall, thanks to 21st-century technology and the vanity of its powerful backers, it exists at a time where Europe itself stands on the verge of collapse – the approaching pageantry of the Olympics looking set to coincide with a further summer of unrest, collapse and riot. Kapoor and Balmond may well intend to – in their language of cuddly critique so familiar to public art – ‘unravel and destabilize’ the conventions of ‘tower-ness’, but who knows whether the Orbit’s friendly deconstructions will remain so symbolically innocent in time.

Douglas Murphy is a writer based in London, UK. His book Last Futures: Nature, Technology, and the End of Architecture (2015) is published by Verso.