Take another journey
Leading architect Kathryn Findlay has helped to make the ArcelorMittal Orbit – a sculpture – double up as a public building. She says she can’t imagine a project this ambitious happening in British construction again
How did you first become involved in the ArcelorMittal Orbit project, and what is your role on it?
I first became involved on a Saturday afternoon, 24 April 2010, when I got a call from Cecil Balmond to ask me if I would join the team as the architect.
Ushida Findlay Architects has a reputation for working on innovative projects that involve experimental design and progressive technology. What, in particular, made you want to take part in building the ArcelorMittal Orbit?
For three reasons: first, I’m a huge fan of Anish Kapoor’s work; second, I’m a huge fan of Cecil Balmond’s work and I’ve worked with Cecil in the past; and third, the piece was just enigmatic, it was amazing, and I thought it would be a huge challenge.
How did working on the ArcelorMittal Orbit compare to other projects you have worked on?
Normally, I work as a lead or concept architect but I’m the Delivery Architect on this project. What I liked about my role was that they have a design intention, and I wanted to respect their intention as much as I like to respect mine when I’m the lead designer. It was just about balancing the need that they had against the needs of the operator and the client to make it work. They designed the sculpture but it became a building so it has to comply with building regulations and be safe. So there was this balance between the artistic vision and the practicality. That was, I think, the most fundamental challenge. The will of the artists was strong and the planning constraints and the needs of the operator were practical, and my job was to mediate between these – sometimes I felt like the fun police.
Some critics have struggled to understand whether the ArcelorMittal Orbit is art or architecture. What’s your view on this debate?
It’s never been intended to be a logical piece of structure. It’s meant to challenge the notion of what a sculpture is. The artists’ idea of a line – a point in space that orbits – that becomes a sort of frozen line that becomes a structure is a completely different way of looking at a sculpture. The range of skills and talents required to build this are far greater than a standard observation tower or building. That’s one of the most satisfying things – the artists, the engineers, the architects, the contractor and the steel fabricator – each one brings the highest standards in the industry and the arts together to create something that won’t happen again in British construction.
From an architectural perspective, what is your verdict on the ArcelorMittal Orbit?
What interests me is that it’s a skeletal frame and it links a whole series of space, so my job as the architect is to design or enable people to visit it in the way that the artists have intended. They see it from a distance, they’re drawn to it, they go close to it, they go underneath it, they go into the lift, they go up in this confusing structure, they go out and they enjoy the view, it’s linking all of these spaces. The hard architectural work goes into what you don’t see in terms of the detailing and actually enhancing the power of the sculpture and the structure.
You have worked with Cecil Balmond, the co-creator of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, on previous projects. What is unique about what Cecil brings to a project of this nature?
Working with Cecil is unique. It defies definition because the way that he thinks about structure is special and creative and you can’t say he’s just an engineer, you have to think that he’s a special creator.
How has working with renowned artist Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond changed the experience of working on a construction project?
What has been fantastic is to see how they work together. They’re always very charming and they were always trying to not challenge other people first, but challenge themselves. To be part of that expanded my idea of what was possible at that kind of scale.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit will be one of the star attractions in the Olympic Park. What do you think of the other architecture in the Park and how do you think the ArcelorMittal Orbit complements it?
I don’t know if it complements; it really stands on its own. It’s interesting to see how it relates to the main stadium, which is a very beautiful, quite self-effacing structure and then you’ve got Zaha Hadid’s much more expressive structure. All the structures of the Olympics do their own thing. They’re put there for a very unusual reason and then they have to live together and grow after the Olympics have finished.
London already has a reputation for being architecturally innovative – the Gherkin and the Shard are examples of this. What effect do you think the ArcelorMittal Orbit will have on this reputation?
How do I think the ArcelorMittal Orbit fits into the landscape of British buildings? I think that the British have a fantastic reputation for being highly inventive, eclectic, eccentric, but uniquely original and this sculpture certainly is part of that tradition. Something like the Shard is very beautiful but quite a pure shape that floors and spaces fit into and similarly with the Gherkin you’ve got a nice shape, but with the ArcelorMittal Orbit it’s the shape, the individual shape of the spaces that’s completely random and chaotic and unique and I think in that sense the sculpture stands out. The favourite bit for me was the staircase because it was so unloved and overlooked. It was the bit that really was, I suppose, quiet. We just took that part and loved it, in terms of choosing the materials and creating an experience and making it part-connect with the overall form of the structure to make something as complementary as possible.