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May 05 2012

Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower: the mother of all helter-skelters

Finally, after two years of planning wrangles, Britain's largest public sculpture towers over the Olympic park

Time-lapse film: constructing Anish Kapoor's Orbit tower

As planning applications go, it would be fair to say that case #10/90250/FULODA, submitted to the London boroughs of Newham and Waltham Forest planning committees in May 2010, stood out somewhat. In among the loft conversions and Victorian conservatories that mark the staple fare of the weekly planning agenda in this part of east London, this particular file put the sober case for a 115m steel tower in the form of a vast, deconstructed spiral, painted bright red, lit up at night and visible from 10km away. Did the neighbours mind?

By the time it reached the application stage, the creators of the ArcelorMittal Orbit on the Olympic site (or "Boris's Folly", as it was generally known on the blog sites) had already invited as many neighbours as possible to comment. The Big Opportunity, a conglomeration of interest groups in the vicinity, with 56 members ranging from the East London Inventors Club to the Ladies' Wing of the Followers of His [Hindu] Holiness Swaminarayan Mandir, had been consulted. Responses had been invited from interested individuals from the Orbit's "region", which stretched as far as Milton Keynes, Brighton, Canterbury and Southampton. From all this reaching out, 118 comments had been received and noted by the time of the full planning application: 39% wrote in favour of a design variously described as "beautiful", "fragile" and "feminine". The rest argued in forceful terms that it was "ugly" and "not symmetrical" and objected in no particular order to the fact that it was red, pointless, expensive and an advert for Arcelor Mittal (and quite a cheap one at that).

At an open planning meeting, one of the tower's creators, the engineer Cecil Balmond, who is responsible for some of the world's most inspired and innovative structures, recalls how he thought they had lost it. "From the floor, people just seemed to be lining up with complaints, one after the other," he recalls. "It looked pretty bad at one point. We don't want this and what is the point of that? But then after a while came the counter-arguments: Britain needs something different and new, we can't bury our heads in the sand, all that. I just stood back and listened."

By the time of that public debate, Balmond and his fellow Orbit-creator, the artist Anish Kapoor, had become rather used to explaining their ideas to committees and taking feedback. They had (mostly calmly) addressed the concerns of critics, conservationists, health and safety officers and legacy deliverers one by one. Rather than calling it a tower, they liked to refer to the Orbit as "the tallest sculpture in the UK". In response to a suggestion that this sculpture had no relevance for London or the Olympics, it was argued that "the Orbit will take on a relevance of its own" after the Games had ended. As detractors had correctly observed, the colour red was chosen "intentionally for it not to blend with its surroundings". Charged with asymmetry, they argued that it was "meant to look unstable or fluid". Those who were standing up for the beleaguered bat colonies in the area had little cause for concern either: the low levels of light on the Orbit "would have no discernible effect on the bat assemblage over the Olympic site" or, indeed, on human assemblages in the neighbouring streets.

Last week, in advance of the tower's opening, I went to talk to Balmond and Kapoor at their respective studios about how they managed to stay sane and see this strange project through. In a way, they are typical Londoners. Balmond was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Kapoor in Mumbai, India. They both came to England as students and never left. Balmond has his hi-tech base, all 3D printers and biomorphic structures, on the edge of Hackney, a mile or two from the Olympic park; Kapoor's studio is a linked complex of factory spaces that stretches all the way down a road in Camberwell, south of the river (as his fame and ambition have spread so has his workshop; it now has the feel of a kind of aerospace lab manned by medieval guildsmen). In each man's office, scale models of the Orbit have pride of place. And despite what has been a gruelling process, both Kapoor and Balmond retain a sense of boyish excitement – or perhaps simple relief.

Kapoor started out in his teens with ambitions to be an engineer and this project has more than satisfied any remaining vestiges of those dreams: "I hope," he says, "I always will have a fascination with that archaic, elemental need to feel like an ant in an ant colony. To climb up the pyramids and just feel awe at man-made structures. That was the attraction of this for me."

For a role model in that enthusiasm, Kapoor needed to look no further than the project's driving force. Boris Johnson was almost lost for superlatives when announcing that work was starting on his great scarlet tower in 2010: "It would have boggled the minds of the Romans," the mayor declaimed. "It would have dwarfed the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel, and it will certainly be worthy of the best show on Earth, in the greatest city on Earth."

That was certainly the idea to begin with. The story goes that Johnson, keen to make his mark on the Olympic site that had become the fiefdom of the Tory peer Lord Coe, bumped into Britain's richest man, Lakshmi Mittal in the lavatories at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. Grasping his opportunity with both hands, the mayor buttonholed the steel magnate about the possibility of funding a lasting symbol of London 2012, boggling the minds of Romans etc. Mittal himself confirms to me that "Boris might have even taken less time than he says to convince me... sometimes you just hear an idea that resonates with you - this was one of them." Soon thereafter, Mittal pledged £17m of his fortune to Boris's priapic fantasy and the mayor sent out a notice inviting the artists and architects of his realm to find a way of spending that money.

"Anish called me up that morning," Balmond recalls. The pair had long been friends and had collaborated on various projects including Kapoor's Marsyas, the brilliant crimson horn that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2002. "He said, 'Have you seen this one?' I hadn't. Then he said, 'Shall we get together and do this? You know, rival the Eiffel Tower and so on?' And I thought, 'Well, no one's going to say no to that.' So we joined up. And then realised that there wasn't the money for the Eiffel Tower."

Kapoor and Balmond sat down with a sketch pad and thought what the reference points might be. As well as Eiffel, they thought of Tatlin's Tower (the vast constructivist monument conceived for Petrograd in the year of the Russian Revolution, but never built). And they thought, too, of the Tower of Babel, particularly Bruegel's version of it, an irregular mass of stone and humanity reaching chaotically heavenwards, like some termite's mound. And then they thought: how can we make a mythical tower new?

"Anish was saying, 'Well, all towers go up, but what can we do that is different?'" Balmond recalls. He couldn't imagine to start with. "But then I thought, everything that goes up is concentric, essentially. That's what we need to get away from. So I thought 'orbit', just as a metaphor originally." He sketched a loose ellipse on a piece of paper. "Now planetary orbits are highly unstable things, whirling around, but they are stable in the sense that they follow a fixed path. So then I drew an orbit that comes back on itself but keeps touching itself. So that was the idea."

It was to be 180m high, the platforms just stuck in as and where. With this sketch, from a starting line-up of 60 proposals, Balmond and Kapoor made the last three, alongside Antony Gormley, looking to recreate the success of his Angel of the North, and the Hackney-based architects Caruso St John. Just before he walked in to present to the first of many committees, Balmond recalls: "Someone from the mayor's office said to me, 'Do you know the budget?' And I didn't. She said it was around £25m. And I thought, 'Oh Christ!' Because what we had I knew would cost £50m to £80m. So straight away we brought it down to as low as we could go and still get a good sightline into the stadium: 115 metres."

That was only the first of a series of compromises. In this sense, as Kapoor observes the Orbit is very much of its political moment: "The basic premise was to do everything you promised for about half the money," he says, with a grin. Earlier in the week he had watched the Olympic mockumentary Twenty Twelve's take on the process. "The organising committee on the show come up with the idea that Orbit should be a symbol for promoting sexual health," he says. "But sadly they copped out half way through and don't end up putting a condom on it as planned. What is astonishing about it is how accurate it was in terms of some of the meetings we all had..."

As Balmond says, with a similar sense of weary mischief: "I suppose the story behind the story is that the competition seemed to go on for ever, round after round." The decision process lasted the best part of a year. "At one of these meetings, I said to Boris, 'Just choose someone, for God's sake. Otherwise nothing will get built.'"

Balmond and Kapoor not only had to convince Nicholas Serota and his aesthetic jury of the value of the design, but also the "legacy committee", who, full of Dome-shaped nightmares, didn't want a "white elephant, still less a red one". So there was insistence on maximum retail and restaurant areas. The elevator had risen up the outside of the tower in the original plan but that cost too much so they put it inside one of the legs. The walkways that spiral up to the viewing areas were originally open but health and safety insisted they be covered. Gaps between stair treads were also removed. "First, any space had to be too narrow for a mobile phone," Balmond recalls, "then it was a 50p piece."

After that, the Olympic delivery people, who were building the stadium site, "were instinctively against it because they had done a brilliant job of getting things ready on time and they didn't necessarily want this huge art piece in the middle of it all, potentially screwing all their plans up".

In order to minimise disruption, the Orbit was put up without scaffolding, and essentially by three men: one in a crane and two rising slowly on cherry pickers, bolting the ultimate Meccano together piece by piece. And, despite all the earlier compromises, both Balmond and Kapoor are immensely satisfied with the result, though they are tired of the question: "What is it?"

"The fact is that you will never get Orbit in 2D," Balmond says. "Its richness and its over-layers can look excessive to a certain kind of mind. But 3D and the scale are the only way to judge the piece. Even then, it's a tough aesthetic for some."

"The problem with models," Kapoor says, "is that you can't pretend scale. You have to experience it."

With this in mind, early on the morning after I had spoken to Balmond and Kapoor, I drove east to have a look at their creation. As I came down from the A12 flyover, the Orbit was rising into the gloomiest morning, like some strange helter-skelter, defiantly red against the black storm clouds (Boris Johnson's greatest regret is that it did not incorporate a slide to whizz down). The Olympic development has sought to make sense of the particularly chaotic bit of urban landscape that the tower presides over; it hasn't succeeded quite and the tangle of the Orbit seems, from all the vantage points I could find, to add to the confusion. The closer you get to it, the less sense you can make of it, beyond a smile-inducing kind of energy and movement. Which is, for better or worse, exactly what Kapoor and Balmond (and perhaps Boris and Mittal) had in mind.

You can see in it what you want, as Balmond observes. Mittal tells me that to him the Orbit "represents the essence of what the Olympics are about, pushing yourself to the limit... building the unbuildable..." (though he also likes the fact that the structure that bears his name is "a showcase for everything steel has to offer...") Pandering a little to his sponsors Balmond admits he did one "cheeky presentation" where he extrapolated the five Olympic rings from the swirl, "a bit of post-rationalisation, but they are there". More than that, though, he claims to see "a kind of semi-organised flux, which was a pretty good way of describing London in the 21st century, and all its energy frothing and bubbling round and around." That kind of thing.

Kapoor's worst nightmare, he said, would have been to create a logo or, worse, a national symbol in the manner of the Beijing Olympics. "I can clearly make sleek objects but this was not meant to be one of them." So what was it meant to be?

"It's a series of discrete events tied together," Kapoor says, which again is something approximating his idea of London. "We didn't want an icon, we wanted a kind of moving narrative. You start under this great domed canopy that sits above you, almost ominous darkness, sucking you in. Then you come up slowly to light. At the top, there is a room with two very large concave mirrors, bringing the sky in, as if you are in the lens room of a telescope. There are moments, walking round, when it looks a jumbled mess, and then at certain points you might see little harmonies and clarity. That is the kind of thing we wanted, not something that gave itself away all at once."

Kapoor and Balmond can talk about their creation in this way because they have had to. But they prefer simpler notions really. "It was just an attempt to answer the question: how do you go up if not in straight lines?" says Balmond, who plans to watch the 100m final from the top. Kapoor, meanwhile, sums up his sense of his creation with a final laugh. "Don't you think it's just amazing that they actually let us build this?" he asks, with undimmed incredulity. And the more you look at it, the more you agree.

The Orbit opens on 28 July, with tickets available to those who already have tickets to Olympic events, and after the Games to the general public. www.arcelormittalorbit.com


guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


April 03 2010

Is the Orbit anything more than a folly on an Olympic scale? | Rowan Moore

It's the most extravagant example of the idea that a huge, strange object can affect tens of thousands. This could be the point at which the idea stops working

It's dangerous to compare it with the Statue of Liberty. The boosters of ArcelorMittal Orbit, the £19m, 115-metre tower to be built on the London Olympic site, announce it will be taller than New York's great green lady, but it's unlikely to be as eloquent. Is the ArcelorMittal steel company, one wonders, as great a cause to be celebrated as liberty? Well, no, but the aim is that this big red sculpture, by the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, will do more than glorify its generous sponsor. It is the most extravagant example yet of the idea that a big, strange object can lift tens of thousands of people out of deprivation. This idea has had some successes, but the Orbit could mark the point at which it overreaches itself and we decide to try something different in the future.

According to the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Olympic site "needed something extra, something to distinguish the east London skyline, something to arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors. With £9.3bn going into the Games, we need to do everything we can to regenerate the area and ensure that crowds are still coming here in 2013 and beyond".

The Orbit is therefore to join the ranks of the Angel of the North, the Millennium Dome and the London Eye. Also of the Eiffel Tower, the Seattle Space Needle, the Rotterdam Euromast, the Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower, the Oriental Pearl TV tower in Shanghai and the Unisphere of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Also of the Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang, a celebration of the late Kim Il Sung's unique fusion of Korean identity and Marxist-Leninism. The latter, at 170m, is taller than the Orbit and for some reason this is a comparison Johnson chooses not to make.

The Orbit is a landmark, an icon, a thing, a doo-dad, a wotsit. Its aim is to imprint an image on the consciousness of the world, which will also make people want to come to Stratford, east London, even after the Games have gone. It means that, as well as the new Olympic Park, the gigantic new Westfield shopping centre, and whatever might be happening in the ex-Olympic stadium, a great day out in these parts can include a ride to the top of the Orbit. By some associative magic, businesses, investors and housebuyers will want to be there more. This district, whose statistics of deprivation are often repeated, will begin to go up in the world. You might have thought that the Olympic billions were already enough to draw attention to this site, but the Orbit will be the icing on the cake.

It's not wholly fanciful that such landmarks can help lift places. No one can put a figure on jobs created or investments made in Gateshead thanks to the Angel of the North, but it has at least created a feelgood factor and sense of pride. The Bilbao Guggenheim of 1996, still the archetype of such town-boosting, certainly placed a relatively obscure city at the centre of attention.

Buildings can't do it alone and if people find their attention has been drawn only to a wasteland, they will go away again. The Guggenheim worked because there were also dull practical things in Bilbao such as new transport infrastructure and business parks. In this respect, the Orbit is in luck: Stratford, long the example of urban deprivation, has been love-bombed with train lines and parks.

But the most important ingredient of a successful icon is that it works. It has to strike a chord, sound the right note, catch a mood, win hearts and confound sceptics. It must justify the spending of money that might otherwise go on kidney machines or rehousing Haitians. It is a risky business: for every Angel of the North there are many more unloved rotting wrecks that no one has the nerve to demolish.

Here I fear for the Orbit. It's true that Kapoor is a crowd-puller and his recent exhibition at the Royal Academy drew unprecedented numbers for a one-man show by a living artist. But his Olympic monument seems to lack the pith and succinctness with which he usually engages people. His temporary Tarantantara of 1999 (another jewel of Gateshead) was a wonderfully direct construction of two giant funnels that created striking optical effects. His Marsyas in Tate Modern did something similar. Next to these, the Orbit looks ponderous and confused. Its basic concept seems simple, of making a giant structure that is something like a loop of string arrested in mid-fall, but this simplicity is compromised by the stairs and lifts needed to get people into it.

During the two-and-a-bit weeks of the Olympics, it will be animated by crowds descending its stairs, but it's hard to imagine this ever happening again, least of all in the damp east London Februaries of the future. The main thrill it offers is of a view slightly better than that enjoyed by residents of nearby tower blocks and less good than that of bankers in the towers in Canary Wharf. This doesn't seem enough to justify such an effortful work or the maintenance costs.

It's hard to see what the big idea is, beyond the idea of making something big, and the official blurbs don't add much light. These are full of words such as "wonderful", "incredible", "spectacular" and much-repeated "greats". There is some 24-carat guff. The work is variously said to be like "an electron cloud moving" and to have "this sense of energy, twist and excitement that one associates with the human body as it explodes off the blocks down the 100m straight".

Johnson also references his kids, in an ominous echo of Blair's belief that the Millennium Dome could be justified by the pleasure it would give young Euan. As with the Dome, it seems that grandiosity has caused a group of smart people, including Johnson, Kapoor and Balmond, to do something dumb. They all laughed, of course, when Christopher Columbus told them that the world was round and it's possible that in two-and-a-bit years we sceptics will be humbled by the joy and majesty of the Orbit. Right now, it threatens to be an urban lava lamp. It might look fun on 25 December, but by the 27th you're cursing the need to change its bulbs. So what else could be done with this creative energy and £19m?

It could have gone into beautifying those parts of Stratford where people live. It could ensure that the aquatic centre and other Olympic venues have enough money to keep running after the Games. It could have paid for uplifting places as needy as Stratford, but without its celebrity. It could have helped in making the safety-first architecture of the Olympic buildings a little less boring, so there would have been no need for another injection of excitement. But these would have been less good advertising for ArcelorMittal and you couldn't have compared them to the Statue of Liberty.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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