How Celestial is the ArcelorMittal Orbit?

image via: londonist

A few weeks ago the ArcelorMittal Orbit was unveiled to the press and it will soon open for the public. The Orbit is a spiraling 114.5 meter lattice of red tubular steel designed by Anish Kapoor and engineered by Cecil Balmond.  The public sculpture is located between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre and it has cost 22.7 million pounds, 19.6 million of which were funded by ArcelorMittal, a company which belongs to the Indian tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, who is the world’s 6th richest man and the chairman of the ArcelorMittal steel company.

The construction of the Orbit took 18 months and like most monumental public pieces of art, the Orbit so far has been scrutinized and admittedly at first glance it is not particularly charming. In an attempt to gravitate towards the Orbit, I shall venture to examine the ArcelorMittal Orbit under the six Keplerian elements that describe a celestial orbit:

Inclination (i)

Unsurprisingly the Orbit’s inclination is not towards an abstract ecliptic but towards being London’s Eiffel Tower. Although it is just a third of the size of the Parisian symbol, the comparison between the two is inevitable. Steel was used for both the Orbit and the Eiffel tower to formulate a lattice structure that would provide a platform to gaze at the city.

The fundamental difference between them is that the Orbit intentionally inclines towards becoming an icon of London’s urban landscape. It is worth to note that the Eiffel Tower was a temporary structure, which people initially hated but grew to love it so much that it stayed there ever since and became the most iconic element of Paris. I cannot help but wonder when has anything iconic acquired its status while having such an unashamedly admitted intention?

Longitude of the ascending node (Ω)

The longitude was not really taken into consideration as with the Orbit it is all about the latitude i.e. the height. Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor who commissioned the project, specified that it had to be at least 100 meters tall so no one seems to care about the 560 meters of tubular red steel that were required to form the lattice superstructure of this ascending node.

The Orbit might be the UK’s tallest sculpture but this discussion with regards to its height makes the Orbit sound passé. Even though playing with scale typifies a lot of Kapoor’s work and certainly scale can have a truly significant meaning in art, the construction world is so accustomed to superstructures that when it comes to buildings, size really does not matter anymore.

Argument of periapsis (ω)

The point at which an orbiting object is closest to the body it is orbiting is called the argument of periapsis. In this case the entrance of the Orbit is the point that is closest to the body it is orbiting, which metaphorically is the city of London. The entrance space of the Orbit is a canopy shaped like a cone that visitors have to stand underneath before going up the tower. This conical entrance indicates that one of the Orbit’s strongest “arguments” is the experience it provides to its visitors. Anish Kapoor explains that the experience is meant as “a moment of darkness, of weight, perhaps even a little scary”. Therefore, the Orbit is not just about the view from the two observation platforms, the journey to these platforms is meant to be part of the Orbit experience. As the artist himself explained the Orbit is all about “going in, going up, being part of it”.

Eccentricity (e)

When almost nothing truly shocks anymore and everything seems to have already been done, it is quite difficult to be eccentric and one would need quite a mastery to achieve a truly eccentric piece of art. The Orbit is great piece of engineering whose controversial design should not be mistaken for eccentricity.

Semimajor axis (a)

Frequently the Orbit has been described as a “vanity project” as there have been claims that building an observation tower in a recession was unnecessary, especially since the London Eye offers a similar experience. However, the Orbit’s “semimajor axis” is to contribute to the regeneration of East London, as landmark structures are very frequently associated with culture-led regeneration. Red is a colour that Anish Kapoor uses a lot and quite appropriately it is the colour that defines London the most. Therefore, installing this huge red public sculpture in East London metaphorically signifies the fact that East London is ready to be fully integrated with the rest of the city.

Mean anomaly at epoch (M0)

The “anomaly” of the Orbit is that apart from being a great public sculpture, a pioneering piece of engineering, an observation tower and a tool for urban regeneration, it is also an advertisement of its sponsor. Essentially the Orbit is a billboard disguised as a gigantic red steel lattice. It is a great marketing strategy as no other company’s banner or billboard will have a more prominent or visible position during or even after the London’s Olympics.

Back in the 90s the size of the water feature outside a company’s granite clad headquarters would define its status. Nowadays it seems like the uber status symbol for a company of ArcelorMittal’s caliber is to install an 114,5 m height public sculpture in London’s townscape…

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