The Orbit Tower — a swirling, 2,000-ton structure that resembles an ugly roller coaster — is London’s answer to Paris’ Eiffel Tower — although many still aren’t sure what purpose it serves.
LONDON — It’s been dubbed the Eyeful Tower, and the world’s going to be seeing a whole lot of it from Friday.
Looming large over the Olympic Stadium, the contorted mass of steel spiraling 115 meters (380 feet) up into the London skies is dividing opinions before the games have even begun.
The Orbit Tower was conceived as London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, having already beaten out the French capital to host the 2012 Olympics.
But to what purpose this crushed, swirling rollercoaster design by sculptors Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond? Ay, there’s the rub.
An observation deck? Maybe a mysterious monument to the Olympics, a la the Sphinx to ancient Egypt? Or just a piece of modern art?
From afar, the 2,000-ton structure resembles the heart of a theme park. But this is Olympic Park — and Britain’s biggest-ever piece of public art is, to some, just a complex platform providing vistas of the capital.
“People who see it from a distance see it as a rollercoaster and a ride,” said Oliver Wainwright of Building Design magazine. “I’ve heard kids saying they want to ride the Olympic rollercoaster. It promises to be fun, but you go up in a lift and down in a staircase.”
Quite simply, for Wainwright, the elaborate loop is a huge anticlimax.
“Half of the steel isn’t doing a job for the height,” he said. “It looks a contorted mass of entrails — being stretched and knotted into oblivion.”
It is more than twice the height of London’s iconic Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square and 72 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
London Mayor Boris Johnson pitched the idea of a tower to steel baron Lakshmi Mittal after the two men met at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 2009.
“After the effort put into creating the most efficient, leanest structures for an Olympics, the Orbit Tower is 2,000 tons of steel knotted and tangled into a gigantic totem pole for the richest man in the U.K. and the ego of our Mayor Boris Johnson,” Wainwright said.
But has the public just not seen its true purpose?
It seems to perfect to hold the Olympic cauldron.
Mittal, whose company donated the steel and is funding most of the 22.7 million-pound ($36.5 million) project, maintains there is no place for the ceremonial flame atop the tower.
But The Associated Press was told it could not access the looping structure this week because games organizers are preparing it for Friday’s opening ceremony and are trying to keep parts hidden from the public.
“It’s strange if there are no ties to the Olympic cauldron, to make sure when the flame was lit for the entirety it could be seen all around from an open area,” Anna-Maria Sponaski, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, said Tuesday as she peered up at the tower.
“The Eiffel Tower is awe-inspiring. You couldn’t say that about this. How much does it have to do with the Olympic movement? Could they have done something to do with the rings?”
The tower has also taken some of the focus off the Olympic Stadium, which was designed by architect Rod Sheard.
And Sheard takes a more measured view.
“There is no doubt that the park benefits from having a focal point, a visually dominant statement positioned for everyone to see. It helps build memories and aids orientation,” Sheard said in an email. “I love Anish Kapoor’s work and I think he will be remembered for this piece for many years to come.”
What of the daring design that continues to stir a debate?
“As simply a piece of art, everyone can be their own judge of that,” Sheard said. “The stadium, however, is a very refined machine that has a very specific purpose, and its simple elegance comes from its ability to touch the earth lightly. A famous architect, Le Corbusier, once said a house is a machine for living in; the Olympic stadium is a machine to compete in.”
An independent design review in 2010 questioned how the tower would blend into the Olympic Park.
A letter sent to the designers and seen by the AP, expressed concern about “unattractive spaces at the base of the Orbit” and at the summit. The observation deck has views of 32 kilometers (20 miles) across London and the green hills beyond.
“Faceted windows around the perimeter of the circular floor plan seem a poor relation to the complex geometry of the steel structure, as well as the convex mirrors which are one of the principle expressions of the artist’s vision,” said the letter from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.
The Orbit’s purpose after the games is less clear, although its restaurant could become a reason to visit.
“It looked more suited to a theme park,” said Londoner Noelle Skivgton. “I don’t think it’s got that extra appeal that people will come here just to see this.”
Whatever it is, it’s undeniably an attention-getter. Jed Kayode is one Londoner who won’t be climbing the tower, if only because he’s afraid of heights, but he’s impressed.
“If you look at other stuff here, this is unique and colorful,” Kayode said, scanning the Olympic Park. “It’s fascinating.”
The world won’t be able to avoid it, either, since the tower forms the backdrop of global television coverage.
And as Oscar Wilde said: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”