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The ArcelorMittal Orbit: London’s Eiffel Tower?

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

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

“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.