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London's Orbit completed

5/11/2012

LONDON -- Critics say it looks like a roller coaster gone badly awry. Fans say it's a landmark to rival the Eiffel Tower.

London got a towering new venue Friday, as authorities announced completion of the Orbit, a 115-meter (377- foot) looped and twisting steel tower beside London's new Olympic Stadium that will give visitors panoramic views over the city.

Some critics have called the ruby-red lattice of tubular steel an eyesore. British tabloids have labeled it "the Eye-ful Tower," "the Godzilla of public art" and worse.

But artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond, who designed the tower, find it beautiful.

Belmond, who described the looping structure as "a curve in space," said he thought people would be won over by it.

"St. Paul's (Cathedral) was hated when it was begun," he said. "Everyone wanted a spire."

He said if a groundbreaking structure works, "it starts to do something to you and your concept of beauty changes."

Kapoor noted that Paris's iconic Eiffel Tower was considered "the most tremendously ugly object" by many when it was first built.

"There will be those who love it and those who hate it, and that's OK," Kapoor said of the tower, whose full name is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, after the steel company that stumped up most of the $36.5 million cost.

"I think it's awkward," Kapoor said, noting that description was a compliment. "It has its elbows sticking out in a way. ... It refuses to be an emblem."

A little awkwardness is to be expected when you ask an artist to design a building. Kapoor, a past winner of art's prestigious Turner Prize, is known for large-scale installations such as "Marsyas" -- a giant blood-red PVC membrane that was displayed at London's Tate Modern in 2002 -- and "The Bean," a 110-ton stainless steel sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park.

Even for him, though, the scale of the Orbit is monumental.

He says the structure can only truly be appreciated from inside -- something most of the public will not have the chance to do until 2014, when it reopens as the centerpiece of a brand-new park on the site of the 2012 London Olympic Park.

Before that, it will be open to ticketholders for this summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games, who can ride the elevator to the top at a cost of $22 a ticket.

Kapoor said visitors would enter a "dark and heavy" steel canopy at the base before emerging into the light high above ground, where a wraparound viewing deck and a pair of huge concave mirrors create "a kind of observatory, looking out at London."

"It's as if one is in an instrument for looking," Kapoor said.

London Olympic organizers hope the Orbit, which can accommodate up to 5,000 visitors a day, will become a major tourist attraction.

It is, they note proudly, the tallest sculpture in Europe -- and 72 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. On a clear day, views from its observation deck extend for 20 miles across London and the green hills beyond.

The tower will be at the heart of a new 560-acre park, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which will include a lush river valley, biking trails and a tree-lined promenade. It is due to open in stages starting in July 2013 and finishing in early 2014.

London Mayor Boris Johnson takes credit for pitching the idea of a tower to steel baron Lakshmi Mittal at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 2009. He is a huge fan of the finished product.

"It is a genuine Kapoor," Johnson said. "It has all the enigmatic qualities of some of his great pieces."

And he believes other Londoners will come to love it, too.

"I think so," he said, then paused. "In the end."