06/29/2012 11:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The ArcelorMittal Orbit / London Olympics / Kapoor + Balmond

By Karen Cilento
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The ArcelorMittal Orbit / Anish Kapoor + Cecil Balmond

Is it the perfect blend of sculpture and engineering, or it is a twisted form of nonsense? Opinions are quite varied on the subject of Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s observation tower, ArcelorMittal Orbit, which will serve as a permanent reminder of London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games. The red steel structure will rise close to 400 feet – taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty and London’s Big Ben – to be Britain’s largest piece of public art. Criticized for undertaking such a massively expensive project during the country’s recession, London Mayor Boris Johnson has claimed that the Orbit will not only enhance visitors’ experiences at the Olympic Games but will also be “the right thing for the Stratford site” beyond the summer time, calling on its potential to become ”the perfect iconic cultural legacy”.

Back in 2008, Johnson and Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell organized a design competition to give Olympic Park “something extra” in the form of an Olympic tower at least 330 feet tall. Kapoor’s ambitious design is conceptualized on the notion of a continuous journey referencing the challenges Olympians undergo in their strive for greatness.


Kapoor with model of the tower.

The 377ft chosen design is situated between the Olympic Stadium (193 feet tall) and Hadid’s Aquatics Center, offering visitors an amazing view over the entire Olympic Park…for a fee of 15 British pounds! Imposing such a free was claimed to be a necessity during the Games, “The £15 is what it costs us to operate it,” said Sir Keith Mills, the vice-chairman of London 2012.


Photo by: Richard Blake/ArcelorMittal Orbit

The project cost a remarkable £19+ million, with £16 million donated from Lakshmi Mittal, the Chairman of the ArcelorMittal steel company. The rest of the cost was deferred to the London Development Agency. Although “Orbit” was Kapoor and Balmond’s original name for the tower, the official name of the sculpture, “ArcelorMittal Orbit”, takes into account the generous donation from Mittal’s company.


Photo by: Anthony Charlton/ArcelorMittal Orbit

While some see merit in the designers’ bold advancement of blending art, sculpture and engineering, the project has also been criticised as lacking merit and not contributing to the public realm. Particularly, those in Stratford dislike the major scale-shift between the height tower and its context, as it appears to many as “towering over” the existing. Kapoor has explained to The Telegraph, “The Eiffel Tower was hated by everybody for a good many years and now it’s a mainstay of how we understand Paris. It’s controversial and that’s a place to start. Discomfort is OK….It refuses to be an emblem. It is unsettling, and I think that is part of this thing of beauty.”

What do you think of the tower? Does it simply need time to be as widely revered as its Parisian partner? Or, was the commissioning of The Orbit a colossal mistake?