- The Observer, Sunday 4 April 2010
It's dangerous to compare it with the Statue of Liberty. The boosters of ArcelorMittal Orbit, the £19m, 115-metre tower to be built on the London Olympic site, announce it will be taller than New York's great green lady, but it's unlikely to be as eloquent. Is the ArcelorMittal steel company, one wonders, as great a cause to be celebrated as liberty? Well, no, but the aim is that this big red sculpture, by the artist Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, will do more than glorify its generous sponsor. It is the most extravagant example yet of the idea that a big, strange object can lift tens of thousands of people out of deprivation. This idea has had some successes, but the Orbit could mark the point at which it overreaches itself and we decide to try something different in the future.
According to the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Olympic site "needed something extra, something to distinguish the east London skyline, something to arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors. With £9.3bn going into the Games, we need to do everything we can to regenerate the area and ensure that crowds are still coming here in 2013 and beyond".
The Orbit is therefore to join the ranks of the Angel of the North, the Millennium Dome and the London Eye. Also of the Eiffel Tower, the Seattle Space Needle, the Rotterdam Euromast, the Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower, the Oriental Pearl TV tower in Shanghai and the Unisphere of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Also of the Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang, a celebration of the late Kim Il Sung's unique fusion of Korean identity and Marxist-Leninism. The latter, at 170m, is taller than the Orbit and for some reason this is a comparison Johnson chooses not to make.
The Orbit is a landmark, an icon, a thing, a doo-dad, a wotsit. Its aim is to imprint an image on the consciousness of the world, which will also make people want to come to Stratford, east London, even after the Games have gone. It means that, as well as the new Olympic Park, the gigantic new Westfield shopping centre, and whatever might be happening in the ex-Olympic stadium, a great day out in these parts can include a ride to the top of the Orbit. By some associative magic, businesses, investors and housebuyers will want to be there more. This district, whose statistics of deprivation are often repeated, will begin to go up in the world. You might have thought that the Olympic billions were already enough to draw attention to this site, but the Orbit will be the icing on the cake.
It's not wholly fanciful that such landmarks can help lift places. No one can put a figure on jobs created or investments made in Gateshead thanks to the Angel of the North, but it has at least created a feelgood factor and sense of pride. The Bilbao Guggenheim of 1996, still the archetype of such town-boosting, certainly placed a relatively obscure city at the centre of attention.
Buildings can't do it alone and if people find their attention has been drawn only to a wasteland, they will go away again. The Guggenheim worked because there were also dull practical things in Bilbao such as new transport infrastructure and business parks. In this respect, the Orbit is in luck: Stratford, long the example of urban deprivation, has been love-bombed with train lines and parks.
But the most important ingredient of a successful icon is that it works. It has to strike a chord, sound the right note, catch a mood, win hearts and confound sceptics. It must justify the spending of money that might otherwise go on kidney machines or rehousing Haitians. It is a risky business: for every Angel of the North there are many more unloved rotting wrecks that no one has the nerve to demolish.
Here I fear for the Orbit. It's true that Kapoor is a crowd-puller and his recent exhibition at the Royal Academy drew unprecedented numbers for a one-man show by a living artist. But his Olympic monument seems to lack the pith and succinctness with which he usually engages people. His temporary Tarantantara of 1999 (another jewel of Gateshead) was a wonderfully direct construction of two giant funnels that created striking optical effects. His Marsyas in Tate Modern did something similar. Next to these, the Orbit looks ponderous and confused. Its basic concept seems simple, of making a giant structure that is something like a loop of string arrested in mid-fall, but this simplicity is compromised by the stairs and lifts needed to get people into it.
During the two-and-a-bit weeks of the Olympics, it will be animated by crowds descending its stairs, but it's hard to imagine this ever happening again, least of all in the damp east London Februaries of the future. The main thrill it offers is of a view slightly better than that enjoyed by residents of nearby tower blocks and less good than that of bankers in the towers in Canary Wharf. This doesn't seem enough to justify such an effortful work or the maintenance costs.
It's hard to see what the big idea is, beyond the idea of making something big, and the official blurbs don't add much light. These are full of words such as "wonderful", "incredible", "spectacular" and much-repeated "greats". There is some 24-carat guff. The work is variously said to be like "an electron cloud moving" and to have "this sense of energy, twist and excitement that one associates with the human body as it explodes off the blocks down the 100m straight".
Johnson also references his kids, in an ominous echo of Blair's belief that the Millennium Dome could be justified by the pleasure it would give young Euan. As with the Dome, it seems that grandiosity has caused a group of smart people, including Johnson, Kapoor and Balmond, to do something dumb. They all laughed, of course, when Christopher Columbus told them that the world was round and it's possible that in two-and-a-bit years we sceptics will be humbled by the joy and majesty of the Orbit. Right now, it threatens to be an urban lava lamp. It might look fun on 25 December, but by the 27th you're cursing the need to change its bulbs. So what else could be done with this creative energy and £19m?
It could have gone into beautifying those parts of Stratford where people live. It could ensure that the aquatic centre and other Olympic venues have enough money to keep running after the Games. It could have paid for uplifting places as needy as Stratford, but without its celebrity. It could have helped in making the safety-first architecture of the Olympic buildings a little less boring, so there would have been no need for another injection of excitement. But these would have been less good advertising for ArcelorMittal and you couldn't have compared them to the Statue of Liberty.