The ArcelorMittal Orbit

The ArcelorMittal Orbit is compared by its sponsors to the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, two nineteenth century French constructions. I think a better comparison is with the Atomium, left over from the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958. The Atomium is accessible to visitors, and gives the kind of view of Brussels you’d expect from its peripheral location in Heysel Park, north of the city, with the addition of a hundred metres or so of elevation. Originally, of course, it gave a modestly elevated view of the World’s Fair. Show us what you can see from a hundred metres above a suburban festival park, plus lunch: it’s not a strong brief for a project, but in that something like the ArcelorMittal Orbit or the Atomium can be said to meet a practical purpose at all, this is that purpose. The Statue of Liberty? That gives you a view of the Manhattan skyline from across the water of New York Harbour; not life-changing, perhaps, but notable. The Eiffel Tower? That gives you a view over Paris from the city centre, plus an excellent lunch (if you can afford it). At the time of construction, the Eiffel Tower was the world’s tallest structure (taking the title from the Washington Monument, surprisingly). If – as is not the case with the Orbit – your pointless project can claim a compelling location and at least one superlative, you’re off to a reasonable start.

Beyond function, though, lies the issue of icon-icity. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is supposed to do the cultural job of a Statue of Liberty or an Eiffel Tower; It’s supposed to be a draw, simply in virtue of its design. Here, my tone is snarky, but I actually do think we have something that doesn’t just fall short, we have a wreck. I’m going to try to say why this is, and why it matters.

Many pubic artworks get a beasting, of course. People have come to love Gormley’s Angel of the North after hating it. I don’t think this will happen with the ArcelorMittal Orbit.

First, there’s a problem of resonance. What connections are we supposed to make when we experience the Orbit? The Atomium – my preferred comparator – is defiantly ahistorical. It’s said to represent an iron molecule; if we were to think sufficiently airy thoughts about the Atomium, we might say that it stood as a metonym for its own substance: steel, mostly. Materials science: very 1958. You have to try that bit harder with the ArcelorMittal Orbit. The designers talk vaguely about the idea of structural instability and the Tower of Babel (intending the Breughel painting, I’d guess, but it’s possible that they got in a muddle and were actually thinking of the Monument to the Third International). Now those are odd choices: the confounding of language, the scattering of nations, things falling over; is there a cautionary intent here? Are we celebrating these things? As for what’s unstated, I suppose the creative team would be pleased if spectators were to think of any of the following clever things (in no particular order): Klein bottles, Calabi-Yau manifolds, trombones, flayings. But the ArcelorMittal Orbit also calls to mind the dull precedents of Wembley Stadium (the tubular latticing) and the observatory towers of the New York World’s Fair of 1964 (the round observation deck). I don’t think the designers intended those associations; I think they just stumbled into them.

Worse, the design is conceptually weak. This isn’t an accusation to be tossed around casually, but I have reasons. Early sketches show a continuous, looping line or thin tube of constant thickness. Apparently the team then attempted to force a lift, a stair and a viewing platform / restaurant into that form, distorting it in the process. What’s more, the designers didn’t apply a ‘language’ to these new but essential items; instead, they used ordinary geometry and neutral colours. This suggests a wishing away. Most architects recognise (eventually) that wishing away won’t work and learn to integrate what’s needed within the framework of a concept that’s developed in anticipation.

There’s also compromise in the proposal’s major expressive component: the looping tube(s). In other pieces by Kapoor, tubes appear as you’d expect tubes to appear: as continuous surfaces. In the ArcelorMittal Orbit, though, the tube(s) is realised as an open lattice. This contradicts the design team’s formal choice. Now there are good structural reasons for using a lattice; triangles are very rigid and surfaces offer more wind resistance than open frames. Wind forces on tall structures are significant. One major structural concept selected for the Eiffel Tower aims to optimise for wind overturning; this concept gave the tower its tapering profile. (I say ‘aims to optimise’; it may in fact not be optimal.) But there’s no such alignment of thinking in the Orbit. It looks instead as though a decision was made – cynically – to maximise the use of steel componentry. The project’s sponsor, of course, is Lakshmi Mittal.

Finally, and worst of all, the ArcelorMittal Orbit is literally repulsive; it’s blood red, it looks biological, like intestines. Here, we leave the Atomium far behind: the Atomium doesn’t disgust. I don’t want to speculate on human psychology but it’s conceivable that disgust responses are ‘hardwired’, as they say. If this is so, then even if the current cohort learns to love the ArcelorMittal Orbit, having mastered its own shock reaction, there’ll be future generations who’ll be disposed to hate it.

Some say they enjoy being shocked. Some film directors know this. In his War of the Worlds remake, Spielberg has his aliens keep humans in steel cages slung beneath the rear of their tripods; when the aliens get peckish, a round hatch like a camera iris gapes open (cue horrible screaming) and a large hollow blood red tentacle comes out and has a good feel around for a flailing limb. Once it limpets on, it sucks the victim into the tripod interior. You see this and you think: OK, Mr Spielberg, you got us, that’s truly disgusting. You are the master here. Anyway, the point is that the ArcelorMittal Orbit reminds me of that scene. You too, most likely. So visitors to the 2012 London Olympics are going to get to enjoy something that resonates with gore. You might wonder if that’s what they will have been wanting.

Any public benefit / disbenefit point is of course arguable. Like most, I think we’re better off with a permissive approach to public art; one that steers well clear of entartete kunst thinking. But we’re not talking about your run of the mill art project. To the extent that the ArcelorMittal Orbit is supposed to represent Britain – not that Britain asked to be represented in this way – it looks to me like a bad mistake to pull out something like this. Obvious interest-promotion; a failed attempt at cleverness; laziness; provocative sourness, even. Probably not what you want in an official culture, if you’re going to have one at all.

13 thoughts on “The ArcelorMittal Orbit

  1. Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, you are missing the entire point. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, how tall it is, or what view it offers.

    It’s terrifically PC. That’s all you need to know.

  2. I know that the trash right wing press claims a monopoly on slating contemporary art and anything and everything associated with Nicholas Serota, but that doesn’t make this the letters page of the Spectator. I have no idea what you mean by ‘PC’; is it something to do with ethnicity?

  3. Charlie, believe me, I know what it’s like to put some effort into an article and then have the first comment be some dimwit like this. (I write about the Balkans, so actually it’s pretty normal.)

    “PC” in the US has come to be a meaningless term; the nearest definition I can give is that ‘it’s somehow involved with liberals, minority groups, nagging, scolding, poor people, or foreigners’. It looks like it’s much the same in Blighty.

    Anyhow: I thought this was an excellent piece, and I agree pretty much down the line. As you say, the Angel of the North has grown on us, as have any number of other orphan children — the Vietnam War Memorial in Wasthington DC is another good example.

    But those are relatively exceptional. This thing is fugly. And while I don’t think architectural disgust is necessarily hardwired, neither do I think tastes are going to change in the very strange and specific directions necessary to make future generations say anything but “WTF”.

    Doug M.

  4. “…then have the first comment be some dimwit like this…”

    And then to have all the other comments be comments on the first comment. Truly, truly tragic.

  5. I’m usually loathe to comment on art that I don’t like, because the chances that I don’t “get it” are much higher than in art that I like. But I think I do sort of get it, and I still think it is bad.

    But here we go: You’re right, it is ugly. And not in a ‘so ugly it is kind of appealing’ like a Pug dog kind of way either. I see what they are trying to do with the curves, and I can see how it might be appealing. But the lattice-work/scaffolding required to support it is completely distracting from any aesthetic appreciation of the curve. In that 360 degree view, there was not one moment or direction where the appreciation of the curve could overtake the jumble of the lattice.

    If it had been built with a solid face, we could appreciate the curve, but that isn’t the design. And yes I know that sometimes artists make artistic statements about the innards of things, but this particular effort bears all the marks of divided and confused attention. If you want to focus on the curve, do so. If you want to make a statement about the innards of large structures, either do so with the focus on the innards, or make the innards attractive so they complement the curve and both can be appreciated.

    If this curve were a common feature in buildings, I suppose the artist could be saying something like “look at the complexity of something you see all the time, and think as beautiful, but never appreciated on the inside”.

    But it isn’t, so he didn’t.

    And additionally, you are also right that the visceral intestines thing is hard to get past.

  6. … this particular effort bears all the marks of divided and confused attention.

    Nicely put.

    Hugh Pearman (editor of the RIBA Journal and architecture critic for the Sunday Times) doesn’t like it either:

    That is by a considerable distance the worst piece of public art I have ever seen.

    He also spots how the looping tube has been ‘wrestled’ vertical in one place to allow a clear run for an elevator. I’d add that the designers didn’t have to do that (whether they realise it or not). Eero Saarinen and Hannskarl Bandel’s arch in St Louis has elevators; they run around inside the catenary like little trains, each car on gimbals. I very much like the St Louis arch: it’s chock full of modernist virtue. I like the way that the terrain is modelled to allow the entrance to be below grade; this in turn allows the support accommodation (including the elevator lobbies, which are something like cable car stations) to be neatly hidden. You can imagine Jan Kaplicky doing something similar to the St Louis arch, were he alive (and Kapoor, on a good day: Kapoor collaborated with Kaplicky once or twice).

  7. Saarinen’s arch is emotionally gripping, however awful the idea of a Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is. ArcMitOr, not so much. It’s a thingy, another vaguely shit thingy wotsname piled up in London.

  8. Re ‘intestines’ – some blogger (Chick Yog ?) posted that the Orbit was reminiscent of ‘drawing’ (as in hung, drawn and quartered), when the victims intestines were pulled out and displayed to them.

    The worst thing is that it won’t even incorporate a functional helter-skelter.

  9. Is this going to turn out as bad as the millennium bridge? Why is Arup being allowed to build anything in London?

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