Out of orbit

It started with a chance conversation in a cloakroom at the Davos economic forum. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, bumped into steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, and the two men spent “about 45 seconds”, as Mittal would later recall, talking of mutual needs. Johnson wanted a monument for the Olympic Games; Mittal was interested in supporting the event, and had steel to spare.

The result is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the twisting tower designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, that has been winding around itself in the Olympic Park for the last couple of years, to the general bemusement of onlookers. It makes an unlikely monument. Blood-red, serpentine, asymmetrical, it lacks the thrusting majesty of the world’s most famous landmarks. Johnson wanted something that would challenge the Eiffel Tower. Kapoor and Balmond, by contrast, used the Tower of Babel as a reference point. The Orbit would celebrate instability, transience, plurality. It would take some of the bombast out of London’s Olympic venture. At the sculpture’s unveiling in 2010, Johnson made little attempt to disguise his befuddlement, labelling it a “super-sized mutant trombone”. The mayor’s intention was to provide a viewing platform in the Olympic Park. He could never have imagined that he was also launching a philosophical inquiry into the aesthetics of form.

“We wanted to celebrate the flux and the contemporary edge of London,” Sri Lanka-born Balmond – an engineer and designer who has collaborated with some of the world’s leading architects and artists, and who recently set up his own practice in London – told me in his studio some days ago, twirling a model of the sculpture in his hands. “That is why Anish and I work and live here. If we had been Swiss, I don’t think we would have come up with this.”

From the higher of the Orbit’s two viewing platforms, some 80m in the sky, there is, as the literature has it, a “dramatic view” of London’s skyline. But London, as its natives know, is not that kind of city. Its drama is reserved, understated. The British are a pragmatic people, with little tolerance for grandiloquent projects. Nowhere is this more evident than when you look down from the Orbit into the Olympic stadium itself, an edifice that seems determined to go down in history for its resolute plainness. Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium seems an epoch away, while the extravagant twin arches of Athens’s Olympic arena, designed by Santiago Calatrava for the 2004 Games, has become a visual cliché of that country’s hubristic intentions and subsequent decline. London has played it the safe way, true to its ingrained scepticism. The Olympic stadium is a stadium like any other, no more, no less.

Look to the left from the stadium, and the no-frills approach to urban planning speaks ever more insistently. The cluster of skyscrapers that mark the City is dominated by two modern buildings, the Gherkin and the Shard, the sharpened point of which is today hidden by cloud. Its architect Renzo Piano once told me that skyscrapers, far from displaying phallic exuberance, in fact represent our humble and ultimately frustrated efforts to reach towards the divine. But from this vantage point, the dome of St Paul’s seems conspicuously tiny, dwarfed by anonymous corporate structures that preach a different system of values. Further to the left, another cluster: the buildings of Canary Wharf, bunched like asparagus. But the rest of the east London skyline, pocked by nondescript tower blocks, serves as a reminder of why regeneration has been such a prominent theme in this Olympic campaign.

Truth is, the real drama of the Orbit lies inside itself, from Kapoor’s ground-level canopy that deliberately obstructs the structure from those queuing to take the escalator to the top, to the writhing steel wrap-around that brings fresh meaning to the word pythonesque. Inside the viewing platform there is a hole that looks down to the ground, and two of Kapoor’s signature sky-mirrors, which will flood the space with light. The ascent to the top is, as Balmond describes it, a “series of episodic moments”. Everything has been planned here to disorientate the visitor, denying him or her the comforting clarion calls of important architecture. “It takes uncertainty as a given,” says Balmond, “but it doesn’t make it a panic situation. It takes it and wraps it up into certainties.” The Orbit, in other words, obeys many of the principles of contemporary art, playfully subverting its antecedents and wilfully confusing its audience.

This summer, it will make a telling counterpoint to the action in the stadium down below. Inside that cauldron, reputations will be made and shattered according to millimetric measurements. Nothing could be more cut and dried. Races have a beginning, a middle, and an end, in that order. But the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the super-sized trombone, the giant treble clef, the shisha water-pipe (music and soft drugs seem destined to be its metaphorical moorings), tells a different story: of fluidity, change and divergence of viewpoints. It is both a subtle and a disarming message. The abiding symbol of the London Games will tell the world that nothing is forever, but everything is possible.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit opens on July 28. Tickets go on sale at 11am on May 29, but only those who have a ticket to the Olympic Park will be able to apply for an Orbit ticket for the same day as their visit; £15, £7 concessions. www.tickets.london2012.com

Photographer Nadav Kander was awarded the Prix Pictet for his ‘Yangtze, The Long River’ series and was named International Photographer of the Year at the 7th Annual Lucie Awards in 2009. He will be exhibiting at the National Portrait Gallery as part of its ‘Road to 2012’ project

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