ArcelorMittal Breaks Promise to Bosnian Concentration Camp Survivors as it Unveils Extravagant London Tower

ArcelorMittal Breaks Promise to Bosnian Concentration Camp Survivors as it Unveils Extravagant London Tower
The ArcelorMittal Orbit
(Getty Images)

The ArcelorMittal Orbit has been called many things by many people. The Olympic Park showpiece once described as "a kind of 21st century Trajan's Column" by London mayor Boris Johnson has been likened to the towers of Babel, Eiffel, and Tatlin by its co-creators Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. As for the building's critics, one scarcely knows where to begin: Architect Magazine contributor and critic Kieran Long denounced the "overgrown maypole," while locals lambasted the "contorted mass of entrails." As polarizing as the Orbit's torqued red steel may be, to a population of Bosnian Muslims, its aggressive aesthetics are just the dreadfully overdone icing on the cake. For them, the grotesque sculpture is a monumental reminder of an unfulfilled promise by steel giant ArcelorMittal, the Orbit's primary sponsor, to memorialize a concentration camp where more than 5,000 Bosnians were detained and tortured during the 1992 Prijedor massacre.

The correlation between London's lavish new observation tower and the Bosnian mining town of Omarska is simpler than you'd expect. In 2004, Mittal Steel, which would later become the Orbit-christening conglomerate ArcelorMittal, acquired a throng of iron ore mines in Bosnia, including one located at the former site of a Bosnian Serb-run concentration camp. For the steelmaker, the promise of enormous profits easily assuaged any ethical concerns that came with the purchase of the new site. Furthermore, resident Bosnian Serbs were still coping with the trauma of the country's recent past, and many had turned to complete denial of the events that occurred in the summer of 1992. For those determined to forget, the conversion of a former concentration camp site into a lucrative iron-mining complex would conveniently erase a painful chapter in Bosnia's cultural memory.

Keen on dodging negative publicity, Mittal chose to acknowledge and negotiate with Omarska camp survivors, eventually reaching an agreement to leave some of the scant remaining buildings on site untouched and grant visitation rights to victims and their families, reports the International Center for Transitional Justice. In 2005, the company went a step further and pledged to finance and build a memorial on the site of the camp's "White House," a small building once used to interrogate and torture prisoners. But the promise quickly lost momentum, and in 2006, the newly merged steel-manufacturing giant ArcelorMittal suspended progress on the memorial project, reflecting a shift in attitude prompted by the local mayor's public insistence that Omarska camp had only functioned as a "transit and interrogation center." Finally, on the May 9th anniversary of Victory Day this year, survivors were shocked to find themselves barred from visiting the Bosnian camp site at all. Just three days later, the 377-foot tall, $35-million ArcelorMittal Orbit was officially completed and unveiled in London's Olympic Park, ready to greet the masses in July with a £15 admission fee even Anish Kapoor finds exorbitant.

ArcelorMittal's immodest patronage of the Orbit can be characterized as an apathetic – not to mention overblown – slap in the face to Bosnian Muslims left with nothing but a voided promise. As Bosnia's brief but harrowing history of ethnic cleansing is left to fade, London's grandiose tribute to steel emerges on the scene like an unsightly red herring, its physics-defying "deconstructivism" demanding attention from every twisted angle. In many ways, the Orbit's contorted form has become an appropriately hyperbolic expression of the folly of our age (a "go-to cover shot for future textbooks describing this moment in history," says Design Observer critic Mark Lamster). Rather than push the boundaries of art, architecture, and engineering, the Orbit has come to symbolize the triumph of corporate greed, which appears to have erupted out from the ground in Statford, London, unafraid to reveal its hideous, raw form. But to Bosnia's Omarska camp survivors, the monument may be more detestable for what it is not than for what it is.