I want to say something about the history of the relationship between towers and the Olympic Games, leading to a few comments on the outpourings of disgust around the ArcelorMittal Orbit. It is often forgotten that this began with the Eiffel Tower.
Although Eiffel established his company to design, construct and operate the Tower for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, he gave his progeny an extensive overhaul for the 1900 event. This Exposition was of course the umbrella event for the second Olympiad, of questionable success in itself to the Olympic movement but which secured the Games as an ongoing event. According to Bertrand Lemoine, the tower was repainted in orange-y red. Electrical flood lighting system and hydraulic elevators were installed and over one million visitors attended it. By this time, Eiffel had made a second fortune from the tower and had secured its position as a much loved object. Yet it had always been that way. Before it had been completed the Tower was derided. On Valentine’s Day in 1887 before the Eiffel Tower was completed a number of writers, including Guy de Maupassant wrote the Artists Protest an open letter complaining about the Eiffel Tower. They wrote: “in the ignored name of French taste in the threatened name of French art and history against the erection in the very heart of our capital of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which popular ill-feeling so often an arbiter of good sense and justice has already christened the Tower of Babel. Is the city of Paris any longer to associate itself with the outlandish mercenary fancies of a constructor of works of engineering?” They then strove to outdo each other in description of the Tower. Leon Bloy called it “this truly tragic street lamp” whilst Paul Verlaine went for “this belfry skeleton”. “This high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders” wrote Guy Maupassant. “This funnel shaped grille” wrote Joris-Karl Huysmans. Although the Realist tradition in literature was slowly dying, many of these writers – Verlaine aside – operated within it. The realist tradition in the novel asserts the writer as a compiler of a total artistic vision. The style of writing is exhaustive, that is, including or considering all elements. The writer has the privileged position of looking down on the city.
In his essay The Eiffel Tower, Roland Barthes explains the success of the eponymous structure in a number of ways. Barthes strips away the ways in which the Tower appeals to us the way it has been at various times through history “a symbol of Paris, of modernity, of communication, of science or of the nineteenth century.” Rejecting Eiffel’s own insistance that the tower was useful for scientific experiments as a post-rationalisation and irrelevance, Barthes comapres the tower to “a phenomenon of nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable” . In the tower he finds a symbol at once open and totalising; operating not just on an urban level but on an international one. Quoting the famed story that Maupassant liked to lunch in the restaurant so he couldn’t see the tower, Barthes says: “this pure, virtually empty sign, is ineluctable because it means everything. In order to negate the Eiffel Tower… you must like Maupassant get up on it and so to speak identify yourself with it.” The success of the tower, according to Barthes is its uselessness. Of course the tower had one function which does not detract from Barthes point. Rather than to offend stuffy writers, a good enough reason to exist, it was also added to the exhibition site to show to visitors where the new Exposition site was – a fact that does not detract from its symbolic openness. Since then the Olympic movement has repeatedly championed that urban intervention, that useless architectural gesture, the Tower. A structure devised solely to be looked at and to look from. Something that promises a universal opportunity to constitute the city in ones own way. As time has gone by the Tower has become ever more complex as the need to innovate compels architects ever further. The Berlin Bell Tower and the Finnish Olympic Tower, both cuboid structures appended to the stadium; solid, monumental and enigmatic. The Haymarket Tower in Melbourne which was effectively a reworking of the Skylon as seen at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Most beautiful of all, and a sign that the accumulative pressure to innovate is a positive. the Olympic Memorial Tower Tokyo, slabs of concrete, piled high to create a structure that is both an accumulation of members and a distinct object in itself. Later more sculptural inventions that pushed technical possibilities beyond their limits. Both the Montreal Leaning Tower and the Montjüic Communications Tower for Barcelona were either delayed or had their original designs altered, but they both share a kind of technological primitivism. They are both made by architects appropriating the techniques of modernist sculptors: taking forms, such as the leaning tower and the spear, as symbolic on an almost mythological level and reworking them. Whilst this is a problem when architects do this with a building. Gehry’s Guggenheim at Bilbao being an example, it works with a tower, useful only in the terms Barthes describes, to look at and look from.
This is partly why we are witnessing such a critical hand-wringing over the ArcerlorMittal Orbit. Here is a structure which is in the conventional architectural sense ‘useless’ and therefore outwith the usual critical strictures of architecture. Instead the tower is based on a relationship with the viewer that is largely based on ascribing a symbolic value to the structure, even if it has none itself. To suggest that the symbol is a working out the Olympic symbol, or a physical extrapolation of the torch is the same as saying it looks like a hookah pipe or a roller coaster. What is more interesting is that there is now an additional dimension to the Tower. Barthes describes the dual relationship between looking at the tower and looking from the tower at the city, reconstituting making it ones own. There is now the other dimension of time added to the Tower. This I think is best exemplified by a piece by Olly Wainwright in Domus who has genuine misgivings about the structure yet imagines a popular turn towards the tower in the future, as happened with the Eiffel Tower. As it happens I don’t agree with Wainwright’s assertion that there is universal critical revulsion at the Tower but his own feelings are clear. I think perhaps as Kosmograd has questioned: “Should we hate the ArcelorMittal Orbit just because we don’t like its provenance?” he strays a little towards his dislike of corporate sponsorship. in the way he describes the “bloated lunacy” of the structure. I am not sure that a critic can go around the world today, disliking a building on the relative morality of those that commissioned it. Indeed for once Owen Hatherley is able to separate the political origins of a structure with its aesthetics and comes down in favour of it. (Kind of.) However, I think Wainwright is telling in his final paragraph.
Strangely, the Orbit it is so wilfully grotesque that it is almost likeable. Given the lack of site access (it won’t be fully complete until next spring), all assessments have been made at arm’s length—little different to the scaleless perception of the original rendering. Given time, it may well garner a cultish following—and, providing 20 mile vistas across London and a thrilling view straight down into the stadium, no doubt enjoy the traditional volte-face in the press.
Here we have an honest appraisal of the situation: a tower which is almost designed to scramble our aesthetic sensibilities in looking at it, preparing us for the aesthetic act of reconstituting the city from a new view when we go up it. Critics who hate towers tend to be onto a loser as Wainwright acknowledges. Towers tend to be very good at their basic function: to be looked at and to look from. As Barthes also says, the tower is a journey, climbing it is the akin to the country boy coming to the city and claiming it as his own. Indeed Wainwright is the first writer, despite himself perhaps, to touch on why I don’t hate the form of the Tower. Indeed I am totally ambivalent about it. The one problem that has occurred with the passing of time is that viewers are more wise to the game of imagining a symbolic purpose and are less likely to go along with it. In addition what we have already is only half the journey.