Just in time for the Olympics, Britain has unveiled the design for its biggest piece of public art ever: a 130 yard tall twisty metal, uh, thing, that will be the centerpiece of London’s Olympic park. Via the Guardian.
The big twisty tower is officially called the ArcelorMittal Orbit, named for Europe’s richest man and the tower’s financier, Lakshmi Mittal, and was designed by Anish Kapoor. London Mayor Boris Johnson said Kapoor “has taken the idea of a tower and transformed it into a piece of modern British art. It would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel.”
Yes. Well. No doubt.
I feel there’s a paradox to great buildings these days: they are easier than ever to construct, and yet harder than ever to find a place for. There’s still a tremendous audacity to building something that’s over the height of a football field and will not hold a single office or serve a single, definable practical purpose, of course, but it’s a different audacity in the 2000s than it was in the late 1800s. It’s an audacity of opportunity cost. Couldn’t that park hold a skyscraper? Couldn’t it hold some trees? That London is willing to dedicate a giant space to a permanent art exhibit is quite admirable, really, and I applaud that part of it. I just find myself… not that impressed.
This may be because I find myself less and less impressed by gigantic sculpture and tall buildings. Maybe it’s become too easy for us to build such monuments. Part of the glory of the Eiffel Tower (and I say this as one who’s never seen it up close, but only in photo postcards and chase scenes in movies) is that it was constructed in the days before widespread automobile technology, before computer drafting, before massive cranes. Pieces were assembled off-site and brought to the construction site on horse-drawn carriages, then hoisted using steam-powered winches and cranes. The drawings that went out to the public in advance — widely panned — were replicas of Eiffel’s hand-drawn sketches.
The Eiffel was a huge leap forward in technology from the construction of other monuments, of course, so it’s not fair to call it the crown jewel of pre-modern construction or anything. Yet it seems more impressive. Maybe it’s the crowd it commanded:
From the day the tower opened to the public on May 15, 1889, it was mobbed. The Prince and Princess of Wales, the Shah of Persia, Lily Langtry, Annie Oakley, a shepherd on stilts, minor royalty of every stripe, politicians, scientists, artists, tourists from the farthest corners of the globe, everyone had to ascend La Tour Eiffel. On the cool August morning when [Thomas] Edison ascended, the famous inventor’s party emerged from the elevator to find an unlikely group of fellow American sightseers: Chief Rocky Bear and several dozen Sioux Indians from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, one of the great sensations of that World’s Fair summer. The Indians, their long hair entwined with feathers, rushed over, whooping a welcoming chant to a startled Edison, who gathered his wits to ask how was Chief Sitting Bull?
Gustave Eiffel, away at a spa in Evian, missed Edison’s first visit. Subsequently, Eiffel hosted a festive champagne luncheon on the tower for the American inventor, his wife Mina, daughter Dot, and a few French engineers. Afterwards, all repaired to Eiffel’s private apartment atop the tower, where Edison demonstrated his new improved talking phonograph, one of the other huge sensations of the fair. Eiffel, who had spotted Charles Gounod dining at a nearby table in the Café Brebant, invited the composer of Faust to join them. High above Paris, Gounod serenaded Edison and played the piano until late into the evening.
For a tower that soon became relentlessly commercial (Citroen began advertising there in 1925) and overrun by tourists, that’s a strangely charming anecdote, and one that I doubt could be replicated at the new London piece. Maybe that’s in part because this work won’t feel innovative; it won’t prove any new capability; it won’t cross any technological bridge. It will be big and probably remarkable, but I don’t know that I think it will be amazing.