Into Orbit

In an essay about F. Scott Fitzgerald's heavily criticised first novel, the celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote " This Side of Paradise ... does not commit the unpardonable sin: It does not fail to live. The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life."

Such a comment might be equally applicable to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the winning design for monument for the London 2012 Olympics, revealed last month. Commissioned by Mayor Boris Johnson, designed by the artist Anish Kapoor, working in conjunction with Cecil Balmond and a team at Arup, and bankrolled by billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, it's not hard to find faults with this project.

There's the dodgy backstory, the tale that Mittal and Boris Johnson love telling about how they met in the cloakroom at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and in a minute's conversation had agreed to create an Olympic monument funded by ArcelorMittal. Boris would like to think this story makes him seem like a go-getting, seize-the-moment kind of chap, and Mittal as a big hearted fella fond of grand whimsical gestures, instead they both come over as opportunistic creeps prone to making hasty decisions, guffawing loudly, Masters of the Universe in the rich and powerful gentleman's club. Perhaps Mittal shutters steel works and devastates communities in other such moments of folly, and who knows what other momentary lapses of reason Boris might have had. (For a previous rush of blood to the head, see here). Crikey!

Kapoor's got form too, with the occasional gem amongst some clunkers, and there is always a sense of doubt when sculptors and artists turn their hands to large scale structure (Thomas Heatherwick's "B of the Bang" debacle springs to mind) or inhabited space - this is after all, the province of architects.

Fast forward a few months, and the announcement of the winning design, the ridiculous name, the overblown sense of self-importance, and a design that looks like nothing ever built before. It's not helped by a terrible render, the key image used in almost all the press coverage that makes it look like it has been plonked down next to the Olympic stadium with barely a thought, set against a oversaturated sky. It gives no sense of its scale. Surrounding the structure is a totally unnatural crowd scene, a SketchUp rent-a-mob. Here Arup must take some responsibility; there's no way that Hadid or Foster, for instance, would let an image like that out in public. Arup has misgauged that modern architectural criticism for the Dezeen generation is the about the consumption of images rather than the consideration of form.

And yet, it does not fail to live. Considered as a modern folly, I think it performs quite admirably. The echoes of forebears such as Tatlin's Monument to the Third International and Seattle's Space Needle resonate, but really this is like nothing else ever seen before. Aesthetically, it leans towards Constructivism, recalling Shukhov's Tower or Chernikov's architectural fantasties, though we should argue that Constructivism is a lot more than how it looks. As Entschwindet und Vergeht says: "it's a piece of public art which signifies nothing but its own potential to be iconic". The renders from different viewpoints, or when viewed side on, look much better. Perhaps to be a truly iconic structure, it needs to be 3 times taller, in order to become a British version of the Eiffel Tower, but even that was hated by many when first built.

For all of its flaws, the level of vitriol and snark the ArcelorMittal Orbit has inspired amongst the architectural cognoscenti has been unprecedented, but it's difficult to determine whether the criticism is due to a dislike of the protoganists Mittal, Johnson and Kapoor, the work itself, or a combination of both. Should we hate the ArcelorMittal Orbit just because we don't like its provenance?

In the days of instant Internet commentary, snark and dismissal seem to be the default reaction. How lazy to type an offhand 'meh' comment in Twitter or try to find a funny epithet. What would the Twitterati have made of the London Eye?

Architecture is a whorish profession, as are the careers of artists such as Kapoor who wish to engage in large scale works. You know art is in trouble when you can't tell the artists apart from their patrons, as in this picture:

Still, I have faith in the one person in the frame with a great track record of producing beautiful structures that work, Cecil Balmond. As long as Boris, Mittal, Kapoor and the rest of their coterie can leave Balmond and his team at Arup to get on with it, I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a building that London can be proud of, and become as popular and well loved as the London Eye.

Making it stand up is the simple part. Turning a sculpture into a habitable, navigable space is a big ask. Adding fire escapes, step-free access, handrails, signage, refuse disposal, toilets, food service lifts, ticketing facilities, queue control measures will all diminish the sculptural purity of Kapoor's artwork. Many visions have failed in the transition from an artistic napkin squiggle into a functioning building.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit could well turn out to be awful. Yet I'm hopeful it will be an uplifting experience - preposterous, yet animated with life. I'm looking forward to be able to take my kids to the top of it, allow them to discover that great architecture too can provide thrill power. As Robert L Stephenson wrote: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour"