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 Worldâ€™s Fair of 1958. The Atomium is accessible to visitors, and gives the kind of view of Brussels youâ€™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 Worldâ€™s Fair. Show us what you can see from a hundred metres above a suburban festival park, plus lunch: itâ€™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 worldâ€™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, youâ€™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. Iâ€™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 donâ€™t think this will happen with the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
First, thereâ€™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, Iâ€™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 Worldâ€™s Fair of 1964 (the round observation deck). I donâ€™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. Whatâ€™s more, the designers didn’t apply a â€˜languageâ€™ 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 whatâ€™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 youâ€™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 thereâ€™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 projectâ€™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 doesnâ€™t disgust. I donâ€™t want to speculate on human psychology but itâ€™s conceivable that disgust responses are â€˜hardwiredâ€™, 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, thereâ€™ll be future generations whoâ€™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, thatâ€™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 weâ€™re better off with a permissive approach to public art; one that steers well clear of entartete kunst thinking. But weâ€™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 youâ€™re going to have one at all.