Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An army missile turret and the unveiling of The Orbit have dominated U.K. headlines this week.
Britain’s Olympic headlines have been fixated with two new towers this month. One is The Orbit, the new sculpture-cum-observation deck designed to pack in tourists and shoot down criticism of the Olympic Park’s otherwise muted appearance. The other is an army missile turret perched on a nearby apartment building, intended to secure the Olympic Park and blow anything that might attack it out of the East London sky. Whether either tower will fulfill its mission remains unclear, but the blend of excitement, satire and suspicion with which London has met news of both is telling. Half willing and half reluctant, this summer’s Olympic city is still waiting to be persuaded that its games will be worth the price.
If success can be measured by public attention alone, then the Orbit at least has earned its keep so far. This asymmetrical tangle of blood-red metal and concrete looks set to be London’s most discussed Olympic landmark, its largely private funding shielding it from some criticism. A sign of its acceptance is that Londoners have been trying out official nicknames for it ever since plans were published by designer Anish Kapoor, a favorite sport in a city that has re-christened recently built landmarks as the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, Isengard, and the Testicle. London’s newly re-elected mayor, Boris Johnson, favors the "Hubble Bubble," while sci-fi writer China Miéville has dubbed it a "Gaian Hernia." Early favorites "The Colossus of Stratford" and "The Tangled Earphones" seem to be waning already, while new coinage the "Double Dipper" is on the up, linking the tower’s rollercoaster looks neatly with Britain’s recent return to recession. And while comparisons with Paris’ most famous landmark seem optimistic, they’ve at least inspired a name referring to the Orbit’s intestine-like metal scramble – "The Offal Tower."
When the Orbit opened to invited guests last week, Britain’s critics remained divided, but have softened since plans were published. Some raved, calling it a "generous drunken party animal" and praising its "anarchic, near random spiralling of red geodesic mesh." Others, however, claimed that it "represents the archetypal 'turd on the plaza,'" while this video suggests that locals are none too impressed either. The Orbit may yet win the public over, but learning that they’ll have to pay £15 to climb the tower hasn’t softened their skepticism. With the pay-off a sweeping but slightly sullen view of workaday East London, this is a bit like charging high prices for a peep show only to present viewers with little more than a well-turned ankle beyond the curtain.
Meanwhile just down the road, some of the area’s wealthier citizens are revolting over alarming plans for their roof. Residents of the Bow Quarter, a gated development in a former match factory, have learned that the army want to turn their water tower into a high velocity missile base protecting the Olympic Park, a decision presented to them as a done deal. Locals are understandably angry at being billeted with an enforced army base, and became angrier still when soldiers turned up and left what looked like missiles lying around unattended in a courtyard. This mix of official highhandedness and incompetence has given ammunition to those who claim the summer games are providing an excuse to run London by martial law. If the army’s missiles remain unfired and the Orbit’s prices drop after the summer, locals may be won over to the games yet, but for now any sense of pre-Olympic euphoria in London still seems far off.
A police officer stands guard under the shadow of the Orbit Tower inside the Olympic Park in London May 4, 2012. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)