The ArcelorMittal Orbit was "a challenge that was impossible to resist"
Cecil Balmond collaborated with Anish Kapoor on a number of projects before they co-designed the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Cecil Balmond explains why he enjoys working with him and why he is confident the sculpture will become a new icon for London
What attracted you to the Mayor of London’s challenge to build a sculpture for the Olympic Games?
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was looking for an icon for the Olympic Games, so, as a designer, the challenge was impossible to resist. We used the Eiffel Tower as a reference; it was a temporary structure at the time and has now become an icon. So I wanted to see how we could challenge ourselves.
What does the ArcelorMittal Orbit mean?
I took a pencil and traced the line, and everywhere it overlapped itself I connected it. That is what keeps points in space connected. We called it the ArcelorMittal Orbit and it stuck. It was a working title but I think a very apt one because it truly is: what you see goes continuously in one line, it just happens to be cut off at the ground and cut off at the top, but if you kept going, it would come back through the ground. It is one orbit, one line of form, one line of structure.
What is the significance of the material used in constructing the ArcelorMittal Orbit?
The ArcelorMittal Orbit could really only be built in steel, to give the minimum thicknesses and the maximum strength. I didn’t really think of any other material. Actually, you couldn’t really do this coiling structure in anything else.
How would you like people to feel when they experience the ArcelorMittal Orbit?
That they’ve been transformed by space. We don’t normally have entire fixed places, but here it is orbiting around you. I would like people to feel excited and transformed by the journey and then come back again.
You’ve worked on some very high-profile structures. Can you draw any comparisons between some of those and what we see in front of us?
I’ve worked on a variety of high-profile forms because my primary interest is in form and structure as part of the enabling process. Each structure is unique – for instance, the Chinese Central Television Tower is a big loop in space that comes back down. That was the first time a tall building had gone that way, shifted, and come back to the ground. But there is no comparison with the ArcelorMittal Orbit: I think this is original.
You’ve worked with Anish Kapoor many times. What do you like about working with him and why do you think the relationship is a success?
I first met Anish in 2001 when we worked on the red fabric sculpture for the Tate. This was a first because normally fabric sculptures are made with all kinds of props, but this was very seamless. We got on very well and had a good collaboration. Anish as the sculptor can see in three dimensions, and I, making form, space and structure, have to think in 3D, so we found a real synergy in the thought process but also a contemporary idea for form. I like Anish’s attitude towards fundamentally looking at the form and we work hard to establish basic truths by asking: “What does it really mean? Is there anything superficial? Is there anything extraneous we should cut out?” So I like the position he takes of pushing things to their core value and asking “what is the bedrock of the idea?” We have a similar take on forms that are on the edge of stability, that give attention to the viewer and that are not boringly adequate. He challenges your perception, as his art shows.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit has attracted criticism in some quarters. How do you respond to negative comments?
A new piece of work will always attract criticism but I think that’s a good sign. I take it as a plus, in that it is provocative, it is changing perceptions and I also take heart from the fact that St Paul’s was vilified when it began its life – people wanted a spire, not a dome, they thought the dome was ugly. The Eiffel Tower was hated by most Parisians. So it’s part of the territory. If you’re trying something new that’s outside some people’s comfort zone then London is the right place. London is a very vibrant city that is constantly reasserting itself. Normally, you need to see a work like this finished because it has its own serenity and power when complete, but there was a poll conducted recently and about 70% of people asked were in favour of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which is a very good sign considering it’s not even finished.
How is the ArcelorMittal Orbit going to contribute to the Olympic legacy?
The ArcelorMittal Orbit will become one of the icons of London, just like the London Eye. Its height and pre-eminent views across London will be a hit.
How do you think that art and sculpture play a role within regeneration?
I think major artwork contributes hugely to regeneration. One only has to look at the Angel of the North and the visitors it has attracted. The last sculpture Anish and I did in Quayside [Middlebrough] has already increased land value in the area. Good art attracts people – it’s inevitable. In a derelict place, or a place that didn’t have a good economy, it definitely helps the area.
What has been the most exciting part of the project for you so far, or do you think that is yet to come?
One exciting part is actually seeing it every time I come. It is different. You can’t second-guess it as you build. I drew it on a small scale, but when I see it actually happening it’s always wonderful. I think the very beginning was exciting when we came up with the ArcelorMittal Orbit, but it was a notion, an idea to attack the problem. But I think bringing my family here and having a look across London will be the most exciting thing.