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Orbit: Awkward, bizarre, sublime

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Felix Mara experiences the eccentric ArcelorMittal Orbit tower and sculpture at close quarters. Photography by Simon Kennedy

I’ll always remember the day two years ago when I first set eyes on a new project, the like of which I’d never seen before.

The fact that its designers, artist Anish Kapoor and structural engineer Cecil Balmond, were inspirational figures was auspicious. I was determined to like it, as it would obviously be controversial and I happen to believe that, as far as the appearance of their work is concerned, artists and architects should have licence to do whatever they want. There is no shortage of people intent on standing in their way.

The building looked like a red tower crane twisted into an elaborate knot, intertwined with a corkscrew of perforated grey metal, which spiralled outwards towards its base to enwrap a skewed, inverted Cor-ten steel cone, slung from the structure like an enormous bell.

Its diagrid appeared to be in motion, like a dust storm, and flared out to form a cornucopia, offering up a stack of cylinders, as the top of the corkscrew tilted and uncoiled. It stooped and looked awkward, as though in agony, and I half expected it to bellow like a baleful Tyrannosaurus Rex. It was the ArcelorMittal Orbit.

The project is now completed and, at a height of 114m, looms over the London 2012 Olympic Park. It is Britain’s tallest sculpture and a landmark for the Games and their legacy, crowned by a vantage point from which visitors can look down on the Olympic Stadium (AJ 07.04.11) and the undulating roof of the Aquatics Centre (AJ 18.08.11).

With his legacy in mind, and looking to create a stir, London mayor Boris Johnson buttonholed Lakshmi Mittal, chairman of ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel manufacturer, who spontaneously said yes, he would be delighted to fund the venture. As it turned out, the London Development Agency paid 14 per cent and Mittal the balance. After Kapoor and Balmond won the competition to design the Orbit, architect Ushida Findlay and Arup joined the project team, bringing expertise in design and engineering. Balmond assumed the role of co-designer, rather than structural engineer.

The project’s reception was a poker game played out by those who genuinely didn’t know what to make of it, fence-sitters fearful nobody would question the emperor’s new clothes and those who thought scepticism the safest reaction. Others just spoke their mind. If you suggested you liked it, you could be sure of a strong reaction. There was also confusion surrounding the brief. It was clear to Johnson and Mittal that the structure would be steel, and it is indeed a showcase for this material, using components from the 60 countries where ArcelorMittal manufactures, with a recycled quota of 60 per cent. But Kapoor and Balmond say they considered building the structure in concrete instead.

Taken literally, the Orbit’s structural design does not quite add up. Balmond, former deputy chairman of Arup and founder of the now defunct Advanced Geometry Unit, which developed the Orbit’s design, left Arup in 2010 to found the research-focused practice Balmond Studio and to pursue interests in architecture, product design and art. Although the Orbit’s design is informed by Balmond’s fascination with numerology, articulated with clarity and charm in his book Number 9: The Search for the Sigma Code, the tower’s number-crunching was done by others, namely Arup and steel fabricator Watsons. ‘I found that other people too in ancient times and in other lands, understood numbers as secret and special and alive, and not as mere counters, not just fodder for tiring calculations,’ he writes in Number 9.

Whatever the Orbit is, it is not a highly efficient structure. Arup structural dynamics expert Dan Powell singles out the tower’s 40-tonne tuned mass damper, which counteracts its lively response to wind forces, as its most efficient feature, although it was never central to the design.

Nevertheless, the construction logic of the Orbit, which Balmond designed to be built without scaffolding, and in particular its structural concept, are extraordinarily imaginative. Balmond, taking Kapoor with him, wanted to challenge a number of orthodoxies. The first of these concerns the extent to which towers have to be pyramidal. He conceded that they have to be pyramidal, but proposed using the Orbit’s diagrid loops, which he calls ‘intestines’, to add stability.

However, it does not follow that all the components of the diagrid are necessary. There may well be a high degree of structural redundancy, for example in the Orbit’s topmost loop, and this may explain its inelegance. According to Powell, most of its stiffness comes from the central diagrid column surrounding the lift shafts. Balmond explains that the orbital diagrids were the result of the designers’ search for a metaphor embracing ‘the contemporary idea of flux’.

They also challenged the notion that towers should be symmetrical. There are, of course, historical exceptions, such as Tatlin’s Tower or the minaret at Cairo’s Ibn Tulun mosque, which both involve helices. This connects to the idea of an orbit and the designers’ interest in what Balmond’s calls ‘nonlinearity’, a theme explored in Number 9, which involves combining unstable elements to form a stable structure. There is an element of polemic in this exploration and also a certain degree of purity.

The Orbit is more convincing as art and, evaluated as such, it works on many different levels. It is rich in metaphor, although some of the sporting analogies suggested are rather forced and simplistic, and its forms are expressive rather than elegant.

‘It’s awkward,’ says Kapoor. ‘Its elbows stick out and it refuses to be an emblem. It keeps unsettling.’ This helps to distinguish it from an exercise in pure design and branding.

The visitor’s experience of the Orbit is skilfully handled, from Kapoor’s ‘moment of darkness’ as you pass below the sublime bell with its rim just two metres above ground, to the ascent through the tower, with glimpses of the ruby-red diagrid through the lift portholes, to the views across the park from the lantern, developed by Findlay to include walls lined with concave distorting mirrors.

The diagrid modules devised by Kapoor and Balmond set up elaborate and asymmetrical flowing landscapes of red steelwork and juxtapositions where it meets the walkways and the helical stair, which descends to ground level, with the perforations in its cladding forming a subtle gradation. ‘It isn’t an image you can grasp all in one go,’ says Kapoor. Balmond emphasises a similar opacity in the Orbit’s construction: ‘Ultimately it has to be designed, calculated, built and constructed, but you should not notice the effort.’ Nevertheless, the Orbit is more satisfying when explored at close quarters.

The Orbit is very different to Kapoor and Balmond’s previous collaborations, for example their 2002 installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and, especially in its skeletal form, to anything that Kapoor has done before. Kapoor found inspiration in the way Victorian structures are bolted together and the potential that modern technology offers to combine them in asymmetrical arrangements. The processional nature of the Tower of Babel was another reference.

Like Balmond and others involved in the project, he mentions the negative reactions to now-popular structures such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and the Eiffel Tower when they were first built, perhaps to ward off criticism, or perhaps in the hope or expectation that its reception will follow the same pattern.

This is like saying that if a coin is tossed and lands heads-up it is more likely to be tails-up next time. It might seem far-fetched to say that for this reason, as in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers, Kapoor and Balmond deliberately set out to design something which people would hate, but they could be forgiven for being a little surprised by the beauty of the completed project.

See AJ 23.06.11 for a technical study

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See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for the Orbit

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