The ArcelorMittal Orbit: London’s Eiffel Tower?

The two towers are closer in ideology than iconography, but still worlds apart.

“The Eiffel Tower was hated by everybody for a good many years – 50 years or something like that – and now it’s a mainstay of how we understand Paris.” So Anish Kapoor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme when discussing criticisms of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, which he co-designed with Cecil Balmond, and which stands outside Stratford’s Olympic Stadium, first opening to visitors during the Games. “It’s controversial and that’s a place to start.”

Kapoor is right that fin-de-siècle Parisian tastemakers hated the Eiffel Tower, opened in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) to commemorate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille and showcase modern Paris. Author Guy de Maupassant dismissed it as “a high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders”, claiming to eat in its restaurant every day as this was the only place where he could not see it.

Despite this opposition, the Third Republic government decided not to dismantle the tower popular with the fair’s international audience, as planned, and it took less than half a century for Paris’s writers, artists and filmmakers to embrace it. Joining the Army and declaring his love of the French capital to prove his patriotism, émigré Modernist poet Guillaume Apollinaire used a representation of the tower in "2d Gunnery Driver", a typographical experiment in Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War 1913-1916, the words at its base reading "Oh Paris sticks out and always will AT THE GERMANS". Later becoming central to the plots of films from René Clair’s Paris qui dort (1925) to Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro (1960), the tower is now widely accepted as a masterpiece. Its move from embodiment of the destruction of the Parisian arcades to symbol of the artistic freedom and political libertarianism under fire from the Kaiser and then Hitler’s Germany has often been forgotten: Kapoor asks the Orbit’s critics to compare the structures on an aesthetic level (and many have, unfavourably) but to examine the political impulses behind them is more instructive.

Then the world’s tallest building, designed to dwarf Paris’s religious buildings as the secular government fought to separate church and state, the Eiffel Tower showed the Republic’s commitment to technological advance. After the radical council in Bourganeuf electrified the town as a physical representation of the Enlightenment, Paris followed suit; the government also named streets after Louis Pasteur and, under President Jules Ferry, introduced compulsory primary education and worked towards universal literacy.

However, with no parties, just elected deputies, the Republic’s succession of short-lived (and notoriously corrupt) administrations were awkward mixes of radicalism and conservatism, rarely satisfying radicals or conservatives. Just before the Fair, the Republic survived General Boulanger’s botched far-Right coup, but it came into being amidst the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, the most socialistic of the revolutions and counter-revolutions that followed 1789. Neither the Commune and the army’s brutal response nor the Republic’s victory over Boulanger could have happened without the autocratic Second Empire that preceded it and especially the Empire’s reshaping of Paris, directed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

The 1848 revolution swiftly deposed the restored monarchy but when most French men were enfranchised, 400,000 voted for Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte to become President of the Second Republic. Four years later, he declared himself Emperor Napoléon III, scrapping all elections, and in 1853 asked Haussmann to cut through Paris’s medieval centre with a network of boulevards that would clear slums, allowing green areas like those fashioned in Victorian London and unbroken movement across the city. The aim was to stimulate expansion of local businesses, which would cover the demolition, construction and compensation costs, and manage the city’s population, which had doubled from 500,000 in 1789 to over a million by 1835, and continued to grow, with municipal buildings and luxury homes reducing housing stock. As well as facilitating modern traffic, the restructuring pushed the poor to bigger slums further into Paris’s expanded boundaries and provided broad corridors where troops could more easily destroy insurrectionary barricades.

Haussmann’s plans met little resistance. Paris’s poor had endured typhus, syphilis, tuberculosis and cholera – an outbreak of which killed 19,000 in 1832 – and welcomed the large-scale public building works, including a city-wide sewer system, which addressed their unemployment. But although novelist Émile Zola and others saw in these reforms the destruction of architectural relics and the intent to silence dissent, they had unforeseen consequences. In All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman noted that the boulevards ‘inadvertently broke down the self-enclosed and hermetically sealed world of traditional urban poverty’ and created a new ‘primal scene’ where social classes mixed freely for the first time. This led artists and writers to integrate with popular culture rather than remaining detached from it, giving rise to new perspectives in poetry, painting and politics.

Some of Haussmann’s projects continued after the Franco-Prussian War, the collapse of the Empire and the crushing of the Commune, with the Fair aiming to present the progressive elements of the Republic’s heritage to the world. The modern Olympic Games are a product of this period, with global sporting competition being proposed by Pierre de Coubertin in 1889, but besides this, the main links between Eiffel’s Tower and Kapoor’s are the gentrification, social cleansing and militarisation that provide their cultural contexts – the ideas behind them are otherwise very different.

Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the ArcelorMittal Orbit has been built with eyes on its own legacy. One press release used the word "iconic" six times: but London is already full of distinctive landmarks, including the Eye that, as John Graham-Cumming pointed out in The Guardian, already offers panoramic views of the city, fulfilling the Orbit’s main role for tourists. Cumming also explained how the Eiffel Tower had unique utilitarian potential, being used for early radio experiments, and how Eiffel’s awareness of the problem of wind resistance influenced his design, leading to a sense of integration with its environment.

Considering its incongruity with its surroundings, architecture critic Douglas Murphy has written on how the Orbit signifies "nothing but its own potential to be iconic". Britain’s largest piece of public art, the Orbit references (or pastiches) not just Eiffel but also Vladimir Tatlin’s Monumental to the Third International, a Constructivist hymn to the revolution chosen to become the Comintern headquarters but too ambitious to be built. With its funding and name coming mostly from billionaire Lakshmi Mittal’s integrated steel company, who provided up to £19.2m towards its costs, with the rest given by the London Development Agency, the Orbit is less a radical structure than an utterly conservative one. In saying that it would pay for itself through the renting of private dining spaces at its summit, Boris Johnson may have said more about its legacy than he planned when he described it as a “corporate money-making venture”. In that, Kapoor and Balmond’s Orbit captures the spirit of its time and place as much as Eiffel or Tatlin’s designs – but perhaps not quite as they intended.

 

The ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture in front of the Olympic Stadium: Photograph: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation