How successful is The ArcelorMittal Orbit as a legacy for the 2012 Olympics?
In 2012, London welcomed the Olympic machine with open arms, as it ploughed straight into the East End. However it wasn’t just a sixteen-day programme of sport. Along with it came a four-year programme of arts across Britain, also known as the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival was the climax of this. In total £55 million was invested into the festival with the Arts Council England as a primary funder to this, along with other sponsors such as BP, BT and lottery cash. The Arts Council (2012) claim that they are ‘championing, developing and investing in art and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives’. However, I want to look deeper into the public art created for the 2012 Olympics, and at how successful it is as a legacy to London in the aftermath of the games.
I want to first examine The ArcelorMittal Orbit, which was designed by Anish Kapoor and erected in 2012 as a backdrop to Olympic coverage and a symbol of the regeneration of Stratford. It’s now 2015 and, three years on, Lower Lea Valley is still being redeveloped. As Bob Stanley (2012) of The Guardian says, ‘The Olympics will be over in a matter of days – the transformation is for decades to come’. And there are certainly many debates over how successful the regeneration of Stratford will actually be. The aim of this long-term plan is for the area to be saturated with new job prospects, homes and environmental improvements. However beyond the looming presence of the new luxury apartment blocks, the huge Westfield and state of the art sport centres, in reality, little has changed for the local communities. Artist Laura Oldfield Ford (2012, pg 268) says that ‘the regeneration [is] basically a corporate land grab’ and therefore The Orbit, or The Olympic Park, has done little to create this successful area.
And I can see why this viewpoint is so often taken. The Orbit is situated in between the Olympic stadium and the aquatics centre, and from the viewing platform the bleak surroundings were even more noticeable. As I looked out across the London skyline all I wanted was to be back over there and not in the sad and desolate Stratford. Kapoor works on a grand scale and The Orbit is no exception. Measuring 114.5m tall, and with views of over 20 miles, soaring higher than the Statue of Liberty, it is Britain’s largest piece of public art. He intended to create an all-consuming experience for visitors, one where you can immerse yourself in the art as you ascend. It’s not just a mural or monument; it is supposedly something for you to go inside and feel. However looking back at my experience at The Orbit I really didn’t feel anything.
Whilst stood beneath the 84 tonne canopy, of The Orbit, I felt extremely small and insignificant amongst the echoes. The contrast between the darkness beneath and the light at the top of the viewing platform is quite stark. However I am sure I would feel incredibly small under anything that size. I feel the piece has let itself down. I had high expectations for the trip but instead I left feeling disappointed and annoyed that I wasted £6 and two hours of my life. I have heard there are plans to install a slide in 2016, designed by the renowned Carsten Höller, and maybe this will encourage more people to visit the attraction. Maybe I would pay another £6 for a go on the World’s longest tunnel slide.
In comparison to the Orbit, the 2011 SPACE commissioned project ‘The Cut’, involved a much higher level of participation with the local community. And not just the amount of money we poured into Kapoor’s piece. ‘The Cut’ draws attention to ordinary people’s heritage and the history of radical change in the area, in an attempt to preserve the already existing legacy of East London, before a new chapter of history begins. Local people volunteered to be trained as oral historians and contributed their piece to the three projects. Forty children from Gainsborough School also helped Daniel Lehan complete his work, a series of newspaper headlines. This direct input and collaboration means that the people of Stratford now treasure this project as a legacy, in comparison the forgotten Orbit.
Similiarly, looking at the work of Hackney-based artist Keith Wilson, and his project ‘Steles’, proves that not all Olympic orientated public art is an eyesore. Although I see little connection between 35 crayons positioned in the water and the Olympic Games; Wilson has used the five colours of the Olympic Rings in an attempt to make that link and to ‘provide a sense of place and occasion, anchoring memories of many a good day out’ (London 2012: Wilson’s Steles Crayons In Olympic River, 2012) I think they’re quite nice and more appealing than the sight of The Orbit
The Orbit was so essential in creating this permanent legacy to the Olympics, however the area was already so rich with industrial history, which has already been forgotten about. Stratford will now always be remembered for the Olympics and the largest urban shopping centre in Europe – lucky us. Sebastian Coe, (2006 pg, 272) ambassador of the board of the bid company for the 2012 Olympica, says that ‘Legacy is absolutely epicentral to the plans for 2012. Legacy is probably nine-tenths of what this process is about, not just 16 days of Olympic sport.’ However I didn’t even really know what The Orbit was before I went to visit it, so for me personally it has completely failed as a legacy. Its main financial contributor was ArcelorMittal but it also cost £3.1 million of public money, which we are losing at a rate of £10,000 every week. In a recent report by London Legacy Development Corporation, in 2014-2015 it lost £520,000 due to the lack of visitor interest to the attraction since The Olympics. It does not represent ‘beauty, strength and versatility’ (ArcelorMittal, 2012) it is purely an expensive vanity project which is leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, three years on.
As a legacy, The ArcelorMittal Orbit is a constant reminder of how much money was spent on the redevelopment of East London in preparation for The Olympics. It has been abandoned in Stratford along with the hope of a better future for the people of the East End. If we really wanted to support local art then maybe British art would’ve done better without being connected to the Olympiad at all.
ArcelorMittal (2012) How the ArcelorMittal Orbit evolved from a chance conversation into an iconic London landmark Available at: http://corporate.ArcelorMittal.com/who-we-are/ArcelorMittal-orbit (Accessed: 03/12/15)
Arts Council (2012) Our mission and strategic framework. Available at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/mission/ (Accessed: 29/11/15).
Halkon, R (2015) Olympic Park’s Orbit Tower slammed as ‘pointless vanity project’ after revalations it costs Londoners £10,000 a week Available at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/olympic-parks-orbit-tower-slammed-6677004 (Accessed: 03/12/15)
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