A gewgawed non-sequitir

ArcelorMittal Orbit, artist’s impression. Image: http://images.fastcompany.com/upload/olympictower1.jpg

No, no, NO! It’s hard to know where to begin criticising Anish Kapoor’s projected ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit‘, a 115-metre tall red steel tower to be constructed on the site of London’s Olympic Village. But here’s two reasons straight up: firstly, it is no more and no less than an enormous monument to steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Europe. The rhetoric of constructing this on a site on which the entire world’s attention will be focused for an entire summer cannot be ignored, never mind the fact that Mittal will generate revenue from the restaurant that is set to be built at the top. Secondly, it would not have even reached the planning stages if British politics was not such an old boy’s club:

‘Johnson said he got Mittal on board as a result of a chance meeting in a cloakroom at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He spent 40 seconds outlining the concept and Mittal immediately said he would provide the steel.’ (Guardian, 31/03/10)

Thirdly, and finally (for now, at least), it is an entirely reactionary gesture. Look at the comparisons people are making – the Colossus, the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. Should we not be straining to grow out of this desire to ceremonially construct enormous, authoritarian monoliths? The plans for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad point to a bright new future for public art, one where major commissions do not merely aim to impress but to engage and to empower. By investing in this supreme gesture of international capitalism’s power over the city, Kapoor appears to be retreating into the dark ages.

by Daniel Davies and Luke Healey


6 responses to “A gewgawed non-sequitir

  1. One of the major problems I have with this is visable in the picture used for this article. It’s proximity to the olympic stadium disturbs me. It just goes to show the lack of ambition behind the design of the stadium, and is symptomatic of a more general lack of ambition when it comes to designing stadiums in this country. Admittedly it looks less boringly non-descript than the new Wembley, but not by much. The last olympics took place at the magnificent Birdsnest stadium, and this is our contribution? It’s pathetic. And what’s worse, the organisers seem to know this, because they’ve apparantly felt the need to place this art work right next to it. Surely an OLYMPIC STADIUM and a MAJOR WORK OF PUBLIC ART should be able to ‘draw the crowds’ without the presence of the other. The East of London is obviously a big place, and surely it would be more beneficial to create something in a different area, and spread the benefits even wider.

    The inclusion of the restaurant also troubles me. Not only does it serve no purpose in terms of the art behind the structure, rendering it a poorly executed work of art in my eyes, and with a portion of the profits going outside the East in such an explicit way, it undermines the idea of it being on a site of regeneration for the area.

  2. I too am unsettled by the proximity of the monument to the stadium. However, I think it’s a little unfair to consider its neighbour unambitious. The Beijing Olympic Stadium was indeed terrific – perhaps the most striking arena in the world – but I really feel that London’s offering deserves praise for a completely different sort of ambition: it will be cost-effective, low energy, and re-usable (commendable in a city with so many existing major sports stadia). In 2009, the Bird’s Nest was used for just two events; an opera and the Italian version of the Community Shield! I know the London team have harped on and on about ‘legacy’ but I really think that they are right to do so. While it seems a shame to reduce the size of the stadium after the games (Britain might have to wait another hundred years to host the IAAF World Championships) at least London will have state of the art athletics facilities; Crystal Palace is very, very tired.

    Surely it is the unnecessarily negative reaction of the British media and public that has birthed this rash and insensitive – by which I mean ‘shit’ – project. Perhaps they do, as you suggest, ‘know’ that the Olympic Stadium is plain, but only because they’ve been told SO many times over the past three or four years.

    On a side note, I’m really looking forward to Craig Coulthard’s ‘Forest Pitch’ – a football ground built in the middle of a wood to the south of Edinburgh, which will, after the games, be left to nature. The interactive bus stops in London should also be cracking.

  3. I should be speaking to Craig sometime soon about his ‘forest pitch’ and about the relationship between arts and sports in general. Expect this ‘shit’ project to be brought up.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about the Forest Pitch idea, and I should have mentioned it. I’m also really excited about The Boat Project and nowhereisland.

  5. Perhaps we’re all just gazing at this with our jaded British eyes: expecting and desiring it to be shit.

    Or, perhaps it is just shit.

    It would be interesting to get another perspective on it though… I’m sure most of the things we find most disgusting about it (specifically its commercial side) are just sorry side-effects of what is necessary in the 21st century. Perhaps we’re just looking at this from our youthful idealistic view-point, and that when we actually start trying to make things happen ‘in the real world’, we’ll soon start to see the positives of this project.

    Or, perhaps it is just shit.

  6. Ha, where to begin on this debacle!

    Olympic stadium architecture, like International expo architecture (check out the myriad of examples at the forthcoming Shanghai 2010 expo for some humorous, dreadful, and occasionally inspiring examples : http://www.designboom.com/weblog/keyword/shanghai-2010.html ) is always going to be contentious. To David and Angus, I wouldn’t be too quick to extol the virtues of the Bird’s Nest as the arch stylistic precedent. Like any number of projects undertaken by western architects in China, Herzog & de Meuron (usually exemplary practitioners of sensible, legible and thoughtful architecture), when faced with a blank cheque and brief that simply asked for spectacle, lost a great deal of perspective and dropped a great over-structured ‘icon’ that is conceptually dubious and morally bankrupt. I say icon, rather than emblem, as that well worn architectural trick of creating a building as a loaded signifier, and then post-rationalising what is meant to be signified. The ‘roof,’ the enormous steel lattice work the wraps around the building was developed to serve two important functions, firstly to support an enormous retractable roof and secondly, and more significantly, give the building a unique and unmistakable appearance. After the idea of a retractable element was abandoned midway through the planning stage, the steel stayed, as a truly enormous piece of adornment, a fancy steel jacket for the concrete structure behind, the actual seating and accommodation of the stadium, to wear. Ok, it holds up the roof, but we’re talking about the WORLD’S LARGEST STEEL STRUCTURE here! It seems to me to be a fair amount of overkill just for a raincover. I am more than open to everyone’s individual take on it as an aesthetic object, I’d be lying to say the thing didn’t look stunning at the opening ceremony. However, coming from my own perspective of architectural criticism, it’s hard to read the intentions of the design as being any more sophisticated as the ‘authoritarian monoliths’ referred to in the above article.

    Oh, and then there is the morality of the project. It took three years of round-the-clock work to build the thing, staggeringly quick construction by any standards. But we are talking about China here, hardly renowned for labour rights. Debate raged during construction as to the number of (mostly migrant) worker fatalities, reports ranging from 2 to 10. A building of this sort could never, ever be built anywhere else, especially in the west, not in three years, not in a dozen.

    I actually really like the London Stadium. It’s simple, elegant, sustainable (hopefully) and doesn’t rely on a grand concept or (inevitably convoluted) symbolic iconism. Instead it is, for me, an emblem, a fair representation of British design culture, innovative, clean and, dare I say, a bit chic? I’ll put off a final judgement till I get the chance to watch Usain Bolt break the world record there in two and a half years time (right?)

    Woah! Now as for H̶.̶G̶.̶ ̶W̶e̶l̶l̶’̶s̶ Anish Kapoor’s big red machine. Well for a start he described wanting to achieve a sense of ‘unstability’ in the project. Last time I checked, unstability is not a word and even if it were, it seems strange for an artist to wish to attain it in what is one of the largest public art projects in British history. I’m all for a bit of sculptural dynamism; achieving the sense of motion in the static object. But this great mass of spindly red sticks certainly doesn’t seem to hit that mark. Apparently the form contains the 5 Olympic rings. If I squint long enough I can sort of see what they were maybe trying to go for. However, if your going to make formal reference to the very symbols of inclusivity in the Olympic movement, then you might want to make it a little easier for people who aren’t artists or apologist politicians to read it.
    It’s an unbelievable artistic misfire. It is neither populist and culturally embracing enough to be publicly celebrated or even accepted, and lacks any kind of artistic exploration or formal clarity that might garner critical acclaim.
    I mean look at it! The first thing that sprung to my mind was Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatlin%27s_Tower) and I’ve seen a few other commentators spot the same comparison. But then, that was a monument to the Russian revolution…

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