- guardian.co.uk, Friday 2 April 2010 14.00 BST
At the unveiling of Anish Kapoor's design for the Orbit tower it was compared to the Colossus of Rhodes and the Tower of Babel. But the history of those follies isn't auspicious. The Colossus of Rhodes was destroyed by an earthquake after standing for only a few decades, and the Tower of Babel was, the book of Genesis tells us, constructed to glorify those that constructed it.
I can't help wondering to what extent the ArcelorMittal Orbit is being built for the glory of Boris Johnson, Kapoor and Lakshmi Mittal. And as details emerge of its Olympic corporate entertainment role, it looks less and less like a work of art. But setting the motivation of the creators aside, the worst comparison of all is with the Eiffel Tower.
Gustave Eiffel's iconic tower was not designed as a piece of public art, nor was it intended to remain in Paris more than 20 years. It was built as a grand entrance for the Exposition Universelle of 1889, and was designed to be easy to take apart. It became a work of art in the eyes of the world against the protestations of the Parisian art world. And it remained, in part, because of its utility. It was used for early radio experiments at the start of the 20th century and in 1910 the tower was used to detect cosmic rays. To this day its top bristles with antennae, and its bottom bustles with tourists.
Another problem with comparing Kapoor's structure with Eiffel's is that what makes the Parisian tower so pleasing to the eye is that its shape was dictated by the forces of the wind, not by the foolishness of man. Eiffel is quoted as saying:
"Now to what phenomenon did I have to give primary concern in designing the Tower? It was wind resistance. Well then! I hold that the curvature of the monument's four outer edges, which is as mathematical calculation dictated it should be will give a great impression of strength and beauty, for it will reveal to the eyes of the observer the boldness of the design as a whole."By following the forces of nature, Eiffel's massive iron structure appears graceful and almost part of the natural environment.
By comparison, Kapoor's structure is a prime example of man demonstrating his mastery over nature. The sweeping shape is reminiscent of melted roller coaster ride, or as one Twitter user put it: "It looks like congealed intestines". The horror of which was only replaced in my mind by the relief of recalling that Kapoor and not Damien Hirst had been awarded the design contract.
But the worst part about comparing the Orbit with the Eiffel is the idea that London needs to rival Paris in the metal tower stakes. London already beat Paris to host the 2012 Olympics; now it seems Johnson wants to rub salt in French wounds. The copycat unoriginality of building London's Eiffel verges on parody when one realises that the Orbit will be 100m shorter than the Parisian monument and 20m shorter than the diminutive Blackpool Tower.
The true determinant of whether the Orbit deserves a place on London's skyline should be how it is perceived by Londoners. It would be hard to find a Parisian today who hates the Eiffel Tower; Boris Johnson should set a 20-year time limit on Kapoor's tower and let the public decide. If in 2032 it hasn't endeared itself to the residents of Stratford and beyond it should be pulled down. Since the tower is to be made of steel it could be safely recycled.
That standard has applied to at least one other London icon. The giant ferris wheel London Eye, after all, was initially a temporary attraction that married engineering prowess with a graceful form. It has stood the test of time and looks set to stay on the banks of the River Thames. In it London already has a worthy rival for Eiffel. And from it a panoramic view of London is already possible.
Writing in the Times, the architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff described the tower as a "giant Mr Messy". But initial reactions should be tempered by allowing time to pass; perhaps I'll get over thinking it looks like a giant blood clot. Whether you love it or hate it, the last word should go to Johnson, who said of the Orbit: "It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel". There's no arguing with that.