The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a 115 metres (377 ft) high observation tower in the Olympic Park in Stratford, London. The steel sculpture is Britain's largest piece of public art, and is intended to be a permanent, lasting legacy of London's hosting of the 2012 Summer Olympics, assisting in the post-Olympics regeneration of the Stratford area. Sited between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre, it allows visitors to view the whole Olympic Park from two observation platforms.
Orbit was designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. Announced on 31 March 2010, the tower was expected to be completed by December 2011, though like many projects on the Olympic Park that date was pushed back. The project came about after Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell decided in 2008 that the Olympic Park needed "something extra". Designers were asked for ideas for an "Olympic tower" at least 100 metres (330 ft) high, and Orbit was the unanimous choice from various proposals considered by a nine-person advisory panel.
The project is expected to cost £19.1 million, with £16 million coming from Britain's richest man, the steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, Chairman of the ArcelorMittal steel company, and the balance of £3.1 million coming from the London Development Agency. The official name of the sculpture, "ArcelorMittal Orbit", combines the name of Mittal's company, as chief sponsor, with Orbit, the original working title of Kapoor and Balmond's design.
Both Kapoor and Balmond believe that Orbit represents a radical advance in the architectural field of combining sculpture and structural engineering, and that it combines both stability and instability in a work that visitors can engage with and experience via an incorporated spiral walkway. The structure has been both praised and criticised for its bold design. It has also been criticized as a vanity project, of questionable lasting use or merit as a public art project.
According to Boris Johnson, around October 2008, he and Tessa Jowell decided that the site in Stratford, London that was to become the Olympic Park for the 2012 Olympics needed "something extra" to "distinguish the East London skyline", and "arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors".
A design competition held in 2009 called for designs for an "Olympic tower". It received about 50 submissions in all. Johnson has said that his early concept for the project was something more modest than Orbit, along the lines of "a kind of 21st-century Trajan's Column", but this was dropped when more daring ideas were received.
The media reported unconfirmed details of the project in October 2009, describing the interest of the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, Britain's richest man, in funding a project that would cost around £15 million. Boris Johnson was believed to want something like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. At that time there were understood to be five short-listed artists, including Antony Gormley, being considered for the project. Early designs reportedly included 'Transmission' by Paul Fryer, a 400 feet (120 m) high structure "resembling a cross between a pylon and a native American totem pole", according to The Times. A spokesman for Johnson would only confirm that he was "keen to see stunning, ambitious, world-class art in the Olympic Park", and that work on the commissioning project was at an early stage.
Mittal's involvement in the project came about after a chance meeting with Johnson in a cloakroom in Davos in January 2009, as they were on their way to separate dinner engagements. In a conversation that reportedly lasted 45 seconds Johnson pitched the idea to Mittal, who immediately agreed to supply the steel. Mittal later said of his involvement, "I never expected that this was going to be such a huge project. I thought it was just the supply of some steel, a thousand tonnes or so, and that would be it. But then we started working with artists and I realised that the object was not just to supply steel but to complete the whole project. It took us almost 15 months of negotiation and discussion." Johnson has said that, "In reality, ArcelorMittal has given much more than the steel."
Kapoor's and Balmond's Orbit was announced as the winner on 31 March 2010. According to The Guardian, Orbit was chosen from a final short-list of three, with Orbit beating one design submitted by Antony Gormley and another submitted by the architectural firm Caruso St John. According to The Times, Gormley's design was a 390 feet (120 m) steel colossus titled Olympian Man, a trademark piece of a statue of himself, rejected mainly on the grounds of its projected cost, estimated at £40 million.
Johnson and Jowell agreed to issue a commission for Orbit in partnership with Mittal after it was chosen by a 9 person advisory panel brought together by them to advise on a long list of proposals. According to Mittal, the panel made a unanimous decision to pick Orbit, as it both represented the Olympic Games and was achievable within the ambitious time frame. Kapoor described it as "the commission of a lifetime".
Johnson pre-empted possible criticism of the project during the official launch by stating: "Of course some people will say we are nuts – in the depths of a recession – to be building Britain’s biggest ever piece of public art. But both Tessa Jowell and I are certain that this is the right thing for the Stratford site, in Games time and beyond."
115 m (377 ft)
Design and Construction
Olympic Park Legacy Company (on completion)
Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond
Arcelor Mittal and London Development Agency
According to Kapoor, the design brief from the Mayor's office was for a "tower of at least 100 metres (330 ft)", while Balmond said that he was told the Mayor was "looking for an icon to match the Eiffel Tower".
Kapoor said that one of the influences on his design for the tower was the Tower of Babel, the sense of "building the impossible" that "has something mythic about it.", and that the form "straddles Eiffel and Tatlin". Balmond, working on the metaphor of an orbit, envisaged an electron cloud moving, to create a structure that appears unstable, propping itself up, "never centred, never quite vertical" Both believe that Orbit represents a new way of thinking, "a radical new piece of structure and architecture and art" that uses non-linearity - the use of "instabilities as stabilities." The spaces inside the structure, in between the twisting steel, are "cathedral like", according to Balmond, while according to Kapoor, the intention is that visitors will engage with the piece as they wind "up and up and in on oneself" on the spiral walkway.
The Independent describes Orbit as "a continuously looping lattice...made up of eight strands winding into each other and combined by rings like a jagged knot". The Guardian describes it as a "giant lattice tripod sporting a counterweight collar around its neck designed to offset the weight of its head, a two-storey dining and viewing gallery". According to the BBC, the design incorporates the five Olympic rings.
Upon its launch Johnson said of the "mind-boggling" design: "It would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel." Nicholas Serota, a member of the design panel, said that Orbit was a tower with an interesting twist, with "the energy you might traditionally associate with this type of structure but in a surprisingly female form".
According to Mittal, Orbit was already the working title of the design by Kapoor and Balmond, as it symbolized a continuous journey, a creative representation of the "extraordinary physical and emotional effort" that Olympians undertake in their continuous drive to do better. It was decided to keep this as the final name and prepend the name of Mittal's company ArcelorMittal as the project supporter. On the public announcement of the design Johnson conceded that it might become known by something other than its official name, suggesting "Colossus of Stratford" or the "Hubble Bubble", in reference to his belief that it resembles a giant shisha pipe, or a variant on people's perceptions that it resembled a "giant treble clef", a "helter-skelter", or a "supersized mutant trombone".
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