This is a version of a Comment piece I wrote in Blueprint that must’ve been published in early 2010 about the design competition which led to the Arcelor Mittal Orbit and in which Boris Johnson, then mayor had a major hand. It has eerie parallels for the London Bridge process; a total lack of transparency and fairness. At the time, the tower on the Olympic site was treated as something of a laugh even by those who opposed it. In contrast to the dedicated way the Architect’s Journal news team have picked apart the process by which the Garden Bridge was commissioned, back in 2010 the editorial line about the Orbit was to find the whole thing a bit of a wheeze. Anyway I think we can see some consistency, if only because I don’t think anyone comes out of the Orbit or the Garden Bridge campaigns that well.
Well done, Boris. Well bloody done. Just when it looked like positive feelings towards the Olympics were building up momentum, the old Etonian patrician reveals his true tendencies and throws a good bit of autocracy into a process that was in real danger of becoming at least a bit democratic. His decision to hold a private, invite-only ideas competition for the Observatory Tower, by the Olympics Stadium may have now given us a design but the process by which it has been selected has fouled the waters and angered a professional group who were slowly coming round to the idea that the Olympics might just celebrate their craft.
Certainly Boris has not been helped by some spectacularly lazy journalism. Before the real shortlist was announced, the Architect’s Journal published a picture of Paul Fryer’s Transmission sculpture, said it was on the shortlist for the competition and asked loads of architects what they thought of it. It wasn’t on the shortlist of course, as we now know. Fryer, a relatively unknown artist and something of a chancer, had got wind of the approach that Boris’s Advisory Panel had made to around 30 artists and architects and decided to create a speculative entry. At no stage was Transmission ever included on any list, yet it didn’t stop the AJ and others making a logical leap that because Fryer’s project had illustrated earlier articles it was actually in the competition.
Why didn’t Boris’s press team point out the misunderstanding when it was first made? Because at that stage the Greater London Assembly (GLA) was still engaged in a secretive process to select a design for a vertical marker for the Olympics and would’ve had to have come clean. Certainly it has been a confused process from the beginning. The Mayor came to the idea late, and, given his normal tendencies probably on the hoof. An advisory panel drawn predominantly from a very narrow band of the art world then approached the gang of usual suspects that we saw on the shortlist.
Nick Serota, Julia Peyton Jones, Hans Ulrich Olbrist, ODA art wonk Sue Davis, an ex-CABE chief and an engineer: these are individuals who don’t need much encouragement to play safe. And play safe they did for no discernible reason other than an autocratic tendency that these Games can’t really shake off (a bizarre phenomenon given that London had the opportunity to set itself apart from its predecessor event in Beijing). The suggestion that there wasn’t enough time to set up an open competition is a convenient nonsense, designed to deliberately preclude ideas that are truly challenging. It would’ve taken a small practice no longer to pull together a team and an idea than it would an established one.
What makes this even more galling is that at the same time as undertaking this process the GLA was telling representatives of small and medium sized arts institutions how important they were to the overall success of the Olympics as they went public with the major components of the Cultural Olympiad. Indeed the GLA’s line on culture during 2012 is that it is an opportunity to celebrate the creative industries in London and how open they are to the ideas of small cultural enterprises. I am sorry, but the process of selecting this tower proves emphatically that this is untrue.
When it comes to the interesting stuff, elitist impulses emerge. How sad that the talented architects and designers of this country just weren’t allowed the excitement and engagement of creating a symbol for the Olympic Park. I wonder what architects like Amin Taha or Sam Jacobs would’ve made of building a 70m tower in an East London park. I wonder what Postlerferguson or OSA could’ve done with the Olympic Caldron. Most importantly, though I wonder about all the designers as yet unknown who could’ve given us a great idea and made their name. Putting aside the fact that the Mayor’s office are privately riding roughshod over the very procurement laws they support publicly, it has ignored the one thing that is actually a real quality of London’s creative industries. There is at least a democracy of ideas here. A good idea, no matter where it comes from, can thrive in London.
Certainly Boris is largely to blame for this but he’s not alone. It is clear that the GLA and the part of the ODA that is delivering the cultural elements are so far detached from the ideals of the Olympics as to be in another dimension. They joke that the sport is a distraction from the art and the ceremonies but actually these quips reveal a hidden truth. One senses instead in these organisations a genuine distaste for sporting ideals, particularly open participation. The cultural administrators are cynical about the idea of the Games as an open playing field upon which the world can participate and the best be rewarded. This will only end in bad art and bad design.