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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.