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London's New Olympic Tower

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 1, 2012 07:30 AM

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The London Olympics have given the city a controversial new architectural statement: the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a huge tower designed by the British sculptor Anish Kapoor and the designer Cecil Balmond. At 377 feet tall -- 72 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty -- it's the tallest piece of public art in Britain; it hosts two observation platforms, and cost about £19 million, with £16 million donated by Lakshmi Mittal, who is Britain's richest man and the chairman of ArcelorMittal, a steel company.

Reactions have been mixed, to say the least. Writing in the Independent, the architecture critic Jay Merrick called it "beautifully fractious, and not quite knowable"; on the other hand, the art critic Brian Sewell says it's a prime example of "fascist gigantism," and other critics have compared London mayor Boris Johnson, who commissioned the tower, to Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Ozymandias. One thing's for sure: It's a one crazy looking tower.


Image courtesy of ArcelorMittal.

To really appreciate the tower, it seems that you have to go inside and make your way up to one of the two observation decks, which are equipped with mirrors which juxtapose your own distorted reflection alongside the scenery. In a great "Lunch with the FT" interview, Kapoor explained his sculpture this way:

“It’s a bit of madness,” Kapoor laughs. “The canopy is dark and menacing. I’m interested in this journey from dark to light -- you go into this dark heavy object, then up the lift and you’re tipped out into an observation platform with two concave mirrors, so you’re in a kind of instrument for looking. You’re inside a telescope ... I’ve been looking at this for two years and it still looks uncomfortable. That’s the point. I can make long, sleek elegant things, but this object needed to be the opposite.... Orbit's bolted steel is a 19th-century method, [but] it’s a 21st-century result, it’s asymmetrical, it’s tipping, a mess of a knot, the elbows sticking out.... the Tower of Babel, an ant’s nest, people storming, climbing all over an object. It’s the idea of participation, performing, you act it out, you go up.”

I'm convinced! I can't wait to check it out. But I would've liked to see the runner-up, too, proposed by the sculptor Antony Gormley. According to Chris Gourlay and Cristina Ruiz of the London Times, in an article which is now behind the paywall, this was Gormley's proposal:

Antony Gormley, the sculptor behind the Angel of the North, planned to build a 390ft naked statue of himself to tower over the London Olympics. The £40m steel colossus would have stood next to the main athletics stadium, pointing east to face the rising sun. The public would have entered Gormley’s “body” through his feet and scaled the structure inside to reach a viewing deck in the head.... The Olympian Man would have risen to a height just short of the Great Pyramid of Giza and was meant to represent the bond between humanity.

Gormley's proposal is pretty much an artwork in itself about the absurdity of lavish public art projects -- which doesn't mean it wouldn't have been amazing, had it been built. Apparently, it was too expensive. "The mayor shied away from disclosing Gormley’s design," the Times reported, "saying the public 'should not attempt to second-guess the wisdom of the judges.'" You can see an extensive image gallery at ArcelorMittal.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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