A sculpture to commemorate London 2012 was the brainchild of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London. Here, he tells us how his vision became a reality
Where did the idea for building a sculpture to commemorate the Olympic Games come from?
The Olympic Park has lots of fantastic buildings in it. You’ve got the sports venues and an incredible shopping centre in Westfield, but we felt that it really needed something extra – it needed a landmark for the east London skyline. I wanted something that would serve as a visitor attraction both in Olympic Games time and in legacy and after 2013, so that Londoners, their families, visitors and tourists – everybody from around the world – will come to this site for generations to come. So I thought what do other people do when they have a fantastic world expo, or Olympic Games or a world fair? They have some kind of structure that people want to take their kids up to and look down from. So that was the idea.
How did ArcelorMittal, the sculpture’s sponsor, come to be involved in the project?
The difficulty was that we didn’t have the funding to do this because we were in a recession and the public sector was terribly squeezed. Nobody would have thanked me for taking out the Greater London chequebook and writing a cheque for a great new ziggurat in east London – that was absolutely clear. So the first thing we had to find was a sponsor, someone sufficiently philanthropic to do this for London.
Is it true that you secured the support of ArcelorMittal’s Chairman and CEO, Lakshmi Mittal, in a cloakroom in Davos?
It is absolutely true. I happened to be in the cloakroom at the World Economic Forum in Davos, getting my coat and I bumped into Lakshmi Mittal. It was the first time in my life that I’d met him. I said hello and we had a very friendly conversation that lasted approximately 45 seconds. In that time I explained the idea and he said: “Great, I’ll give you the steel.” That was the beginning of a conversation that went on for many months. ArcelorMittal gave considerably more than the steel, and I’m very, very, very grateful because without that private donation it’s perfectly obvious that this thing could never have happened.
Tell us about the competition you launched to design the sculpture.
We decided that this was going to be such an important thing for London, and for the whole country, that we should make sure we made the concept known to the greatest artists in the world. So together with some leading experts from the London art world, including Nick Serota [director of the Tate Gallery] and Julia Peyton-Jones [co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London], we launched a competition and we had some incredible ideas coming in, really knockout designs. My original idea, I have to confess to you, was an extremely modest affair. With numbing predictability, I thought we should have a Trajan’s column with a winding frieze of 21st-century Londoners, but these other guys came up with totally mind-blowing concepts and it was very, very hard to make a decision between them.
What do you think of the winning design?
This structure for me is an extraordinary thing because Anish and Cecil have taken the fundamental concept of the tower and done something with it that no previous artist or architect has done. Nobody has taken the idea of a big vertical tower and turned it into whirling convolvulus tubes and gleaming red trumpet flowers. I think it would blow the imagination of the Romans if they could see it and it would certainly boggle the mind of Gustave Eiffel if he could see it. The more you look at it, the more it sticks in your mind.
What role do you think the sculpture will play in the legacy of the Olympic Games?
I do think it will be something people will want to come and look at and they will want to take their kids up there and therefore I think that it would serve its function as a landmark beacon in the middle of the Olympic Park. It is a way of inviting people to come from all over the city and all over the country to see what we’ve done in Stratford. That will be a great thing for Stratford and the surrounding area.
What long-term value will the ArcelorMittal Orbit bring to east London?
ArcelorMittal put £19.6m into the Olympic Games and we wanted to see long-term value from that for east London. These are parts of the city that have been neglected for generations. It’s time that they are given the kind of chances that other parts of the city have had and it is time that they have the investment that they need. If you’re going to translate that Olympic Games time investment into long-term growth and long-term prosperity, then you need people to go there and you need people to think about it as a destination. That is the objective of creating the Olympic Park and putting this landmark in it. As far as I can understand, it was the single biggest public art project ever done in this country. People will question why we did it then. I think the answer is: because London is the greatest city on earth. We also wanted to express our pride in the city as well as our belief that that we should be showing off a masterpiece of London art by a world-class team.