London faced enormous budgeting, planning and construction deadlines for the 2012 Summer Games: Design and build an Olympic Stadium and Olympic Village, ready dozens more venues and configure complicated transportation. It had to arrange for ticketing, security, the world's press and the ceremonies. Those were obvious. But on top of them, London got a bright red symbolic structure costing $36 million: the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
In 2008, newly elected London Mayor Boris Johnson determined that the Olympic Park site required "something extra" on the East London skyline. A panel was formed, and 50 designs were submitted, all their creators hoping to meet the general specifications of an icon to rival to Paris' Eiffel Tower. The steel company ArcelorMittal offered to donate the 1,500 tons of metal and much of the funding for a structure that would mix art and function, and the London Legacy Development Corporation, responsible for continuing maintenance of the Olympic site, pitched in for the rest of the cost.
The committee selected a design by Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and structural designer Cecil Balmond. Does it resemble a giant pipe or a treble clef? Some say it looks like a super-sized mutant trombone, or a tornado slide at a fair, or a roller coaster caught up in a spaghetti junction. Others call it the Eyeful Tower. Perhaps, suggests The Times of London, it is "like an enormous wire-mesh fence that has got hopelessly snagged round the bell of a giant French horn."
While it's been derided by some, others have praised the tower design, saying that it symbolizes the continuous energy, effort and drive of an Olympic journey. The BBC suggests the design incorporates five Olympic rings. Speaking in its defense, Boris Johnson did concede, "Some people will say we are nuts — in the depths of a recession — to be building Britain's biggest-ever piece of public art." Others are less reserved with their praise. One fan wrote, "Only in East London could such an iconic piece of sculpture be created... it's cool, crazy and fits."
The tower is scheduled to reopen to the public as a tourist attraction in July 2013. For £15 ($23), visitors will be able to take in the views of Olympic Village and up to 20 miles beyond from atop the 455-stair, 377-foot-tall wiry structure of bright red twisted tubular steel. The giant sculpture is the tallest in Britain and taller than the Statue of Liberty. If stretched out, would be as tall as the Eiffel Tower. For the record, the Eiffel Tower is 1,050 feet tall, about the same height as London's other new tower that also complete with an observation deck: The Shard.
Former Olympic sites and stadiums often turn into ghost towns. The 2012 Olympic site in East London is well off the beaten tourist trail, so there is a risk. Politicians suggest Orbit will be a focal point for a permanent tourist destination after the Games, "like honey to bees for the millions of tourists." The mayor says, "It's the perfect iconic cultural legacy." ArcelorMittal says Orbit has the potential to attract up to 5,000 visitors daily. Time will tell.
by Laurie Jo Miller Farr
Top: The ArcelorMittal Orbit tower rises next to the Olympic Stadium and at the Olympic Park in London. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Left: Commuters walk across London Bridge with The Shard — London's other tall structure with an observation deck — in the background. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)