Anish Kapoor Defends ‘Awkward’ London Tower

ArcelorMittal Orbit
The ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park, London, designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. Source: ArcelorMittal via Bloomberg.

On an overcast day in London, the city’s mayor, the chief executive officer of the world’s biggest steelmaker ArcelorMittal, and artist Anish Kapoor congregate at the top of the U.K.’s tallest sculpture.

They’re inaugurating the ArcelorMittal Orbit: a spiraling 114.5-meter (376 foot) lattice of dark-red tubular steel designed by Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond. The first view, even on a cloudy morning, stretches from the London 2012 Olympic Park across to the towers of Canary Wharf and of the City financial district.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty and Big Ben, twice as high as Nelson’s column in London’s Trafalgar Square, the Orbit has cost 22.7 million pounds ($36.5 million), of which ArcelorMittal funded as much as 19.6 million pounds. Elevators take reporters to a circular viewing platform at the top. The structure has drawn mixed reviews for its twisted contours. It is a third of the size of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“For ArcelorMittal, it clearly shows that we can demonstrate how the steel can be used,” says Lakshmi Mittal, whose company employs 260,000 people. “We have got the steel from every steel manufacturing unit of ours, so every employee feels they have participated in the London Olympics and Paralympics.”

“ArcelorMittal would not have sponsored it if it was not made of steel,” he says.

Davos Cloakroom

Moments later, Mittal joins Mayor Boris Johnson on the balcony, a wrap-around walkway of steel mesh, for a combined video interview. The two recall meeting in 2009 in the cloakroom of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the mayor buttonholed the billionaire.

“Lakshmi and I were both getting our coat back,” says Johnson, as Mittal stands smiling beside him, briefly resting a hand on his shoulder. “In the space of 45 seconds, Lakshmi agreed to fund the project: He said I will give you the steel.”

Did the mayor know the sculpture would be made of steel? “I didn’t,” says Johnson, “but I saw Lakshmi Mittal in the cloakroom, and I thought that steel would be a useful thing to have.”

Mittal says the idea, at first, was for him to “participate in a modest way” and “supply some steel” to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“I never dreamt that this project will become such a large project,” he says. “Boris was so smart, getting me into this discussion and forcing me to make such a big piece of art.”

Eiffel Horror

Earlier, Kapoor and Balmond present the landmark to reporters in a nearby hotel. Balmond says steel was not chosen because of Mittal’s sponsorship offer: It was the most workable material to create a tower that, rather than rest on four legs like the Eiffel Tower, was supported by orbiting around itself. Concrete would not have worked, he says.

Kapoor downplays the controversy around the tower’s look. He says he has researched initial reactions to the Eiffel Tower, and recalls the horror of observers such as author Victor Hugo.

“I think it’s awkward: It has its elbows sticking out, in a way,” says Kapoor. “It refuses to be an emblem.”

“I wanted us to make a work that’s really about experience,” he says. “It’s about going in, going up, being part of.”

To put his mark on a tower that otherwise looks like a feat of engineering, Kapoor has made it red -- a color he uses a lot -- and built a rust-colored steel canopy shaped like an upside-down cone that visitors have to stand underneath before going up the tower. The experience is meant as “a moment of darkness, of weight, perhaps even a little scary,” he explains.

Investment Area

The tower will cost 15 pounds to visit for non-ticketholders during the 2012 Olympic Games. It will then reopen in the first half of 2014 as a visitor attraction in a regenerated area that is receiving another 500 million pounds in investment.

Kapoor says he hopes the entrance ticket will be “as cheap as possible” because 15 pounds is “a lot of money” and it’s important “to make something properly democratic.”

The 2012 London Olympic Games run from July 27 to Aug. 12. Information:

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