Peering up through a tangled and lofty mass of steel pipes rising from the ground in London, Cecil Balmond explains the ideas behind what could soon become one of the UK’s most internationally recognised landmarks.
Mr Balmond is the lesser-known partner in the two-man design team – whose other member is the celebrated artist Anish Kapoor – responsible for the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Rising 114 metres, or almost a third higher than the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Orbit will be a central feature of the Olympic site in east London, which will host most of next summer’s events.
Of its £22.7m cost, £19.6m is coming from the ArcelorMittal steel company. Its chairman and main owner, Lakshmi Mittal, was keen to bankroll the project to publicise his company and act as a showcase for steel.
One of the world’s leading structural engineers, the Sri Lanka-born Mr Balmond said a key part of the thinking behind the 2,000-tonne structure was to be “radical and different”.
“A normal tower is built with a stiff spine where every element is connected in a vertical plane. We turned to an entirely new idea, according to which the structure supports itself, but through a series of seemingly unconnected points in space.”
The 560-metre length of steel in the structure – broken up into a series of individual sections that form themselves into loops – traces a continuous pattern.
“If you follow the lines of steel on a piece of paper, you can move a pencil around the entire structure without taking the pencil off the page,” said Mr Balmond.
The 67-year-old engineer lives in London but teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the US and ended a 42-year career with Arup, the UK engineering services group, last year to start his own practice.
His best-known structure is the striking CCTV Headquarters in Beijing – featuring a huge overhang pushing out at right angles from two vertical blocks.
The crucial parts of the London structure are nine key “nodal points” in the steel web which are almost impossible to spot but keep the metal in it from tumbling to the ground.
“Rather than following a simple plan that is easy to understand, the structure makes connections where it can,” said Mr Balmond.
“You can think of it as a metaphor for the way people build up opinions and judgments through a series of jumps in thinking coupled with episodic observations.”
The ideas behind the tower, he says, fit in with modern “non-linear” thinking in disciplines as diverse as biology, economics and computer science.
Roughly two-thirds complete, the Orbit should reach its full height by the end of October, with final fitting out, together with the installation of a large viewing platform, capable of accommodating 5,000 visitors a day, due early in 2012.
Now, the tower’s exterior is obscured by giant cranes, with some pieces of steel left jutting out of unfinished loops at peculiar angles.
An informal poll by the Financial Times of 30 people passing nearby uncovered a resoundingly favourable view, with 25 expressing a positive response, and only five registering disapproval.
“In a place like London, if you have something that’s controversial and doesn’t really fit in, then it’s going to work,” said Paul Storrie, an art student. Zubayer Habib, a Tesco worker, said: “The tower is going to have massive appeal and I think will bring in visitors from everywhere.”
Architect Simon Loring was unmistakably negative – “I think it’s appalling, it’s the last thing this part of London needs” – but the view from Gill Watson, touring the Olympics site on a day out from Sussex, could hardly have been more upbeat: “This [the tower] is going to be part of the National Trust of the future.”
This article was amended to reflect the fact that Cecil Balmond teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, rather than at Pennsylvania University.