Artistic collaborations often sail on an uneven keel: the best-known member of the crew tends to get all the limelight while the rest are left toiling away in obscurity. Anish Kapoor's tower sculpture for the London Olympics, "ArcelorMittal Orbit," is a case in point — the role of its structural designer, Cecil Balmond, has received so little coverage as to seem nonexistent. Reading the press, it sometimes feels as if the "Colossus of Stratford" soon to grace the Olympic park was the fruit of a single artistic vision — Kapoor's — heavily supported by London Mayor Boris Johnson and the project's main donor Lakshmi Mittal (CEO of the world's largest steel company, ArcellorMittal). But the 115-meter high Olympic Tower has more than one creator, and it is part of Balmond's ongoing research on non-linear structures.
The "Orbit" is to be inaugurated tomorrow, six months later than first planned. The design was heavily criticized by architecture commentators when it was first unveiled — the Times of London's Tom Dyckhoff famously labelled the sculpture a "giant Mr. Messy" — but the controversy has significantly quietened down. Like Paris with its Eiffel Tower, megalopolises are good at absorbing architectural oddities, turning the much-derided into the much-cherished, and today the "Orbit" already feels part of London's cityscape. Balmond recently shared some insights into the structure's convoluted design and construction process with ARTINFO UK.
How did the Orbit's very particular shape come about?
The way it began was Anish and I sitting and thinking: what are the main references for a tower? Of course, the Eiffel Tower is one. There was an architectural experiment in 1910 called the Tatlin Tower, which was never built, but is sort of "out there," and there's the Tower of Babel, a mythic fabrication. What could we do that was different? There was also the brief for an iconic presence at the Olympics. All towers go up in a vertical line continuously connected up. Any tower: the Empire State, the tallest building in the world, the Eiffel Tower, they are all connected up the vertical. And I was thinking what could be very different, and yet something quite stable, was the idea of an orbit. We didn't know what we meant at that time, and we just drew a circle going round like a planet.
Literally, the way this form began was like that: a circular thing going round and round, and in some way connecting up. That was the first idea but it was a bit simplistic so then we thought of crossing space more, from side and side and not just going round and round. Effectively, the shape you look at is one line going up and going back down in a figure of eight, slightly different every time it goes up and back down. It stands up because it's connected up. The fundamental difference in this high tower, is that it's only connected with a scatter of points, so if you just look at the connections, they are only points in space — in between are these free-flowing lines. This has a lot more freedom, and more an energy of flux and change than a constant straight line going up the vertical.
You've said that the "Orbit" "stretches the language of the icon." Would you like to expand on that?
"Icon" is a difficult word because in general "iconic" means: "printed on your memory"; it's a landmark. The Empire State Building is iconic; it was hugely powerful in 1938 and still is. An icon is something memorable that you visit and revisit whether you like it or not. In that sense a tower about 115 meters high, the highest thing on the Olympic site, is iconic in its presence. Another thing we talk about with icons is that people see other things into it — and the more you can see into it, the more iconic it gets. And I think the Orbit is extending the language of the icon in the sense that you can have various interpretations, you can look at it and see different things in it. It's an amazing experience, because unlike anything else you've gone up a great big height to come down, the Orbit, comes near you or it swings away from you. It's horizontally moving in and out as well. It's very different in that sense, it's a kind of live icon.
You mentioned the Eiffel Tower as a reference. Do you see the Orbit becoming to London what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris?
We can't predict that. I remember a lot of people didn't like the Millennium Wheel when it came up, but it's become a reference point and a fond point for Londoners. Anish and I didn't do this for three weeks of the Olympics, we had thought that this will be a landmark in London, which will be seen from that whole area of the East End and very clearly from Canary Wharf, and even Hampstead Heath. It will be a landmark that pushes London from the center towards that area in East London, as somewhere to go to and have weekends. And with the swimming pool there and the football, I think it can be a focal point for that part of London, definitely.
The "Orbit" will be unveiled tomorrow. Could you reveal some of the most challenging aspects of putting it together?
The first challenge was to get it to happen. Mr. Mittal was quite helpful in that he was donating money. And actually, as a footnote, it's not steel because it was him, it's just that this kind of shape, you can only really do it in steel. I think the most challenging thing probably was the whole planning process: we did what we thought of as a sculpture, but because there are viewing platforms on top, and the restaurant, it became classified as a building, and so a lots of pragmatics get thrown your way about all sorts of rules and codes.
If your question is geared more toward the technicalities, then the thing I'm quite amazed we pulled off is that it almost built itself. It didn't have any scaffolding, it was built in four-meter sections only. As you can imagine, as you keep adding one section to what's built it pulls it over, then it pulls it over further, and if the curve is going back again, it pulls it back again so this process of building it up is in increments, and yet amazingly, when it's all put together, it meets up and joins up properly. Only three men were needed to build it: two people on cherry-pickers and one crane. That I think is a really huge achievement that no one knows about or understands, because it's there now.
A version of this story appears on ARTINFO UK.