While watching news coverage of the lead-up to the London Olympic Games over the past few days, I became aware of the existence of the Orbit Tower, more formally the “ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower”, which is without question one of the ugliest public monstrosities that Britain has built to date, at least since the “Cool Britania”-era Millenium Dome – now known as the O2 Dome – was plopped down like a rusting metallic jellyfish impaled on a sea urchin made out of Tinkertoys along the south bank of The Thames in Greenwich. The difference between the two, of course, is that we are told that the Orbit Tower is in fact a work of sculpture in the form of a building, whereas the Millenium Dome is simply a building. This means that we can be force-fed different ways of looking at the issue by the press, by Olympic organizers, and by those whose goal is to advance their own social-climbing, as is the case here.
The line between sculpture and building can of course become blurred. The famous Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York City’s harbor is both a sculpture and a building. Lady Liberty has stairs, rooms, and so on inside of her, but appears to be a giant sculpture from the outside, because she is clad in her iconic copper skin, gone verdigris from time and the elements. The Eiffel Tower on the other hand, was not intended to be a sculpture but a building, designed to be an entrance gate to and an observation platform for the World’s Fair – or more properly, the Exposition Universelle – held in Paris for the centenary of the French Revolution. Over time, some critics have called it more akin to a work of sculpture since it serves no practical purpose, and has sculptural qualities.
In fact the Eiffel Tower is a good point of comparison for the Orbit Tower, for despite the fact that the former was considered a building and the latter considers itself a sculpture, both serve the same purpose, which is no real purpose at all. Neither tower was particularly popular at the time it was built, either. However what has changed in the century or so since the construction of the former has been the gradual deterioration of all sensible debate over the question of whether a work of art or architecture is actually any good.
Back in Eiffel’s day, a who’s-who of the French art and literary establishment tried to get his tower stopped, complaining that the construction of what would become, and still is, the tallest building in Paris would ruin the skyline. “To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.” Guy de Maupassant, quite possibly the greatest short story writer in France, supposedly ate lunch in the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant every day in protest, saying it was the one place in Paris where you could not see the Eiffel Tower. Nowadays, of course, most people (though not this writer) love the Eiffel Tower for its lacy symmetry, and cannot imagine Paris without it.
Will people one day say the same of the Orbit Tower? The answer is almost certainly no, though I am prepared to revisit this blog post in 20 years’ time and see whether public reaction to it has changed. It is an asymmetrical, twisted mess, demonstrating no talent or ability other than that of wasting other people’s money, and then daring anyone to question whether it is any good by bringing out the black turtleneck brigade to attempt to insult those with common sense. It looks for all the world as though someone forgot to do their class art project until the night before it was due, and then rapidly scrunched together a bunch of odds and ends from around the house, and said, “Here: this is art.” Art it may be, but bad art it certainly is.
In fact the designer of this structure, the untalented but inexplicably popular sculptor Anish Kapoor, has said that he was inspired by – brace yourself – the Tower of Babel. “There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it.” However the Tower of Babel, lest you forget your Genesis, was a story about human ego and pretension, hubris and failure: about how man sought to make himself equal to God, and how he failed miserably.
That whopper of a quote aside, quite possibly the most head-scratching statement I have read thus far on the Orbit Tower comes from Lakshmi Mittal, often listed as the richest man in Britain, and the man without whose deep pockets, bad taste, and need to climb the social ladder the project might never have come to be. Mittal apparently told the Associated Press that people just need to get used to the building – er, sculpture. ”People are still trying to criticize the Mona Lisa,” he says. That is true, except there is one major difference: if you don’t like the Mona Lisa, you don’t actually have to go to The Louvre and look at it. Londoners who live within sight of this utter waste of materials, manpower, and money are going to have to look at this doomed-to-demolition monstrosity every day for the next several decades, until a more sensible generation has the sense to knock it down.
So, enjoy your broken roller coaster wrapped around the Seattle Space Needle for as long as it stands, London. My guess is that about 24 hours after the games end, petitions for this tower to be demolished will begin finding their way to Boris Johnson’s office.