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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder