Now that the ArcelorMittal Orbit is up, its most outstanding architectural feature is the long walk down, finds Rory Olcayto
Great views of London are fairly easy to come by – try the rooftop of Peckham’s Rye Lane multistorey car park for one of the city’s finest – so what you can see from the ArcelorMittal Orbit’s observation deck in the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, is no big deal.
But providing ever-shifting perspectives across the most controversial and daringly engineered sculpture in the world is a big deal. And that makes Ushida Findlay’s staircase, a spiral weave through Anish Kapoor’s and Cecil Balmond’s tangled mass of steel, the most interesting new architectural space in the world right now.
Ushida Findlay is the project’s official delivery architect. That has meant designing the entry pavilion and plant room on the ground floor as well as the lift and the two-storey observation deck. ‘Weaving, threading, co-ordinating’, says Kathryn Findlay, who, together with her small team of architects, has transformed Kapoor and Balmond’s 114m-high sculpture into something inhabitable.
There are some interesting details in the room at the top, the most obvious habitable space created by the architect: the square hole cut through the middle, for example, allowing views down through the twisted frame below. Or in the lift, another room of sorts, whose shaft has chamfered corners, especially crafted like all the architectural elements to fit the Orbit’s frozen form. (‘We had “clash of the week” meetings,’ laughs Findlay, as she explains the challenges that arise when an immoveable red object meets a lift, a bit of staircase, secondary steelwork and electrical and plumbing services.)
But the staircase, which visitors will descend after taking in the views, is where all the action is, where all the architecture is, and where you will experience the art and engineering of the Orbit at its very best, too.
‘It’s our most important contribution,’ says Findlay, who, like Balmond, has a reputation for what the former Arup engineering supremo terms ‘non-linear’ design. ‘The journey down is quite a surprise. It’s all about the descent. You see these unimaginable views of Anish and Cecil’s three-dimensional sculpture. It integrates the experience, the performance. It shows that the Orbit is so much more than what it looks like on the skyline.’
That, however, has been what Findlay’s fellow architects and the critics have chiefly been interested in. Most have had little good to say about it. Sunday Times critic Hugh Pearman called it ‘the worst piece of public art I have ever seen’ and was banned from the launch last month, suggesting the men behind it at least, have rather fragile egos.
Yet Findlay, until now the Orbit’s ‘silent midwife’ defends Kapoor and Balmond’s vision. ‘I think it’s valid as a new piece of spatial investigation,’ she says. ‘Whether such architecture, or sculpture, is appropriate in other situations is open to question, but what you have here is an integrated, coherent design.’
With a name like Kapoor behind the Orbit it has been difficult enough for co-creator Balmond, let alone Findlay, to garner any credit. But, for creating one of London’s greatest ‘rooms’ – for that will be how the mesh-enclosed spiral stairway must surely come to be seen in time – she deserves a great deal.
AJ Buildings Library
See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for the Orbit