Take another journey
Pierre Engel is the man tasked by ArcelorMittal with ensuring the building of the ArcelorMittal Orbit runs smoothly. As Chief Project Engineer, he explains what it is like working on the construction of a lifetime
Tell us about the team that is building the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
The team putting the structure together on site is not very big – it’s about four to six men. The structure is being manufactured in Bolton, in Lancashire, and brought by lorry to the Olympic Park. We have to bolt it together on site and lift the heavy pieces by crane to get the construction erected without scaffolding. Because of this, we can’t afford to have a lot of people working on site.
The ArcelorMittal Orbit is quite unusual in that you are working with more than a team of architects and engineers, you’re also working with an artist, Anish Kapoor, who designed the structure. How does that change the experience of the project?
The fact that we are working with an artist makes this different. Normally, when you build a building, you have an architect. The architect makes the plan and you build the building. Here, we are building a sculpture, so what we have to satisfy first is the artist’s vision. So working with an artist makes a difference, but it’s also interesting because we would never build a building in such a way. A building is straight, horizontal, vertical but there is nothing straight about the ArcelorMittal Orbit – everything is curved.
You’ve worked in the steel industry for many years. In your mind, how does the ArcelorMittal Orbit compare with other structures that you’ve worked on?
I began working in the steel industry as a welder, which was a wonderful experience because you learn to master the material. I’ve also participated in building construction. The last project I worked on was the Luxembourg Pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010. That was a fascinating experience, but the ArcelorMittal Orbit is different. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a piece of art by a leading sculptor. A project of this size you probably don’t do twice in your lifetime. You can build sculptures but you don’t very often build a 115m high sculpture. To be part of transforming Anish’s art into a sculpture is something extraordinary. It’s a wonderful experience and I wish every young engineer had the chance to do something like this. We’re working as a team to make something very interesting happen.
How is the ArcelorMittal Orbit pushing the boundaries of engineering?
Well, the boundaries of engineering are not known. Tomorrow you will do things you couldn’t do yesterday. With the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the boundary that we pushed first is that we are building a 115m high structure without scaffolding. Second, with a sculpture, you don’t ever have one part identical to another. It is a very asymmetrical structure. So of course, engineers are not used to creating so many different shapes, but the tools we have to do this are good. That, for us, is pushing the limit.
And what sort of challenges has pushing those limits presented for your team?
The technical side in a project always contains problems and solutions. So once you have a problem that has been set, you find the solution. I’m not saying we’ve reinvented structural engineering to make the ArcelorMittal Orbit, but it’s a suite of design and construction problems that we’ve solved and it’s quite new to transform a very small, tiny piece of art into a huge sculpture.
You’re very closely involved with the ArcelorMittal Orbit – do you feel as if you’ve developed an emotional attachment to the structure?
I don’t think you can work on the ArcelorMittal Orbit without developing an emotional attachment. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is, as I said, art. For me, art is emotion. So already when you see the model, you say: “Wow, what has he done?” and then when you start to see the construction, it’s like a baby growing. We started in January 2011 and every week the structure is growing. So it is emotional. It is also emotional because it is built in the Olympic Park and the Olympic Games are something exceptional. They are universal and I think, as a global company, we at ArcelorMittal identify with that universality. We produce steel in many parts of the world and we aim to benefit the communities we work in and work with. I’m very proud of that and I’m proud of our association with the Olympic Games and the Olympic ideals.
When it is completed, how do you hope Londoners will feel about the sculpture?
Well I think when the ArcelorMittal Orbit is completed, London will own an icon. Sometimes people compare this tower to the Eiffel Tower but the Eiffel Tower was just built to be a temporary tower. The ArcelorMittal Orbit is sculpture, a piece of art, and it has been designed to stay there, so Londoners are going to have to learn to live with and get used to this piece of art. They will go in it and view their city from the east, which is quite an unusual point of view to see London. You see it now from the London Eye, but you are in the middle of the city there. The ArcelorMittal Orbit will offer a completely new perspective of central London, from the outside.
Not everyone is so positive about the project. What do you say to those people who don’t like it?
When something’s new, you have people against and you have people for. Either way, you are responding with an emotion, you have an opinion and I think this is part of the game. When Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers built the Centre Pompidou in Paris, people weren’t crazy about it. Today, it is the most visited building in Paris and everybody finds it completely wonderful. So you have to give Londoners a bit of time to experience the ArcelorMittal Orbit, to accept it, to see it, to walk in it and with time, I’m sure they will be as proud of it as we are.