"People will make the ArcelorMittal Orbit their own"
The ArcelorMittal Orbit is designed by Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor, the world-renowned British sculptor. Find out where his ideas for the tower came from and his hopes for the visitor experience
How did you first get involved in the project to design the Orbit?
The Mayor [of London] and his team invited a number of artists, architects, etc. to come together to collaborate on proposals for a tower on the Olympic Games site. Cecil [Balmond, the ArcelorMittal Orbit’s co-creator] and I have worked together over a good many years. We have worked on a project in the north of England in Middlesbrough and we’ve done various other things together over the years. We are really interested in geometry and the way the form of geometry gives rise to structure. That is something that is an ongoing debate between Cecil and me from our very different perspectives. So tower structures are something we have thought about and played around with for a long while. It seemed natural to us in some way to take this on and try to understand what a 21st century tower could be like.
So what does a 21st century tower look like?
Tower structures, on the whole, are pyramidal – their sections mutually support each other. What we tried to do is rethink the tower as something that doesn’t mutually support; where the whole of the structure, if you like, is in a twist, always off, never quite vertical. That takes a certain kind of engineering to put together, but it also gives a certain kind of form. What we’ve done is twist the form and then open it up at the top and open it up again at the bottom. So these two sorts of inverse cones ground and terminate, if you like, the structure up and down, with this winding form in between.
How did you come up with the name “Orbit”?
Well, the form is generated by an orbiting line, a line that sort of does a double loop on itself, and so it seems normal and natural to have the word “orbit” as part of the title.
Talk us through the ideas behind your designs.
I felt that what I wanted to do was try to make something that was processional – a medieval idea of a kind of folly that aspires to go even above the clouds, but has built into it something mythic. One of the references was the Tower of Babel. While there are 19th century precedents, we wanted to work through taking this thing properly and truly into the 21st century. The notion of a journey that takes you up to a viewing platform means the structure lies more in the territory of architecture than natural sculpture.
What do you hope the experience of going up the structure will be like for people?
I hope people will feel that they’ve never seen a form like this before. There is a sense, I hope, of wonder at what it is and the scale of it. The experience will be about winding up and up and in on oneself. It is a long way to walk and it’s pretty steep. It takes you, of course, through the form so you are completely bodily enveloped in the experience, to the top where there really is a spectacular view, which offers a completely new perspective of London. You want to forget the construction and engage with what you’re experiencing. People will make it their own.
What does being involved in this project mean to you?
I think it is a rather amazing opportunity to put something quite different on the skyline of London. It is not an office building. It isn’t, if you like, anything other than a sort of set piece of work that is about the experience of being there and climbing or taking the lift up to the top. So in a way it is a different order of object to the ones that arise over London. And I think that sort of sets it apart in a way from what we’ve seen thus far. The only comparison, or the best comparison, of course, is the Eiffel Tower. It took a certain cultural confidence for those that allowed it to be built to see that right in the centre, in the heart of Paris. Can we do the same?