From Stonehenge to the Pyramids, Trajan’s Column to the Eiffel Tower, the building of huge structures seems to be a universal human urge. But why do we still need to do it today? In an age of computer aided design and precision engineering, when we can see almost surreal architecture every day in our cities, what place does the monument have in the 21st century?

Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Stonehenge III' 1973
Henry Moore OM, CH
Stonehenge III 1973
Intaglio print and lithograph on paper
image: 321 x 457 mm
Presented by the artist 1975© The Henry Moore Foundation. This image must not be reproduced or altered without prior consent from the Henry Moore Foundation.

Officially launched tomorrow, Anish Kapoor’s Olympic sculpture, the Orbit will be a permanent artwork for the Olympic park at Stratford. Kapoor worked with structural engineer Cecil Balmond (as he has often before) to create the 115m high, bright red, looping steel structure.

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson explains his take on the project: 

We decided we needed something extra, something to distinguish the east London skyline, something to arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors …

Our ambition is to turn the Stratford site into a place of destination, a must-see item on the tourist itinerary and we believe the ArcelorMittal Orbit will help us achieve that aim.

He positions the Orbit squarely as a traditional monument – a powerful reminder (or reminder of power). Like the Eiffel Tower it will display mankind’s technological mastery or perhaps, like Trajan’s Column, it commemorates the power of an event or a person. The Orbit will be something very visible across London and technologically awe-inspiring. And you can travel up in the lift and get a great view of London (or even maybe even a peek at the men’s 100m final) from it.

Kapoor himself suggests something rather more epic and affecting for his tower:

There is a kind of medieval sense to it of reaching up to the sky, building the impossible. A procession, if you like. It’s a long winding spiral: a folly that aspires to go even above the clouds and has something mythic about it …

Traditionally a tower is pyramidal in structure, but we have done quite the opposite, we have a flowing, coiling form that changes as you walk around it. … You need to journey round the object, and through it. Like a Tower of Babel, it requires real participation from the public.

The Orbit was conceived by the artist as a piece of sculpture (you can see some of his process drawings and models). It clearly references Kapoor’s other works (in colour and from and even monumental scale) like Marsyas at Tate Modern.

Anish Kapoor Marsyas 2002 02
Anish Kapoor
Installation at Tate Modern

It is in the tradition of art on a monumental scale, from Michelangelo’s David (high art with a strong power message) to Richard Serra’s minimalist site-specific sculptures (where no clear message is built into the work), taking in participatory work like Carsten Höller’s Test Site slides. It looks directly at the idea of making a tower – like Tatlin’s Tower – and asks what a tower might be for today.

So what is this particular sort of public art for? Why do we need it, and keep commissioning it?

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Perhaps authorities still feel the need for public art as a means to show off to the world and Londoners alike that we can build big and build beautiful not for only the functions of architecture but for the folly (as Anish puts it) of sculpture and here, on a momumental scale. Not because we need to, but because we can. Also, where else in the world can you dine in a 115m high sculpture overlooking an olympic site? Answers on a postcard...

pglanville's picture

Nearly all monuments were built purely for show, that bad old competitive human nature again - "We're better than you". I've never quite understood the whole size thing, in my mind something that is more eloquent, clever, detailed or beautiful is far more impressive.. I guess - as usual - it's always more about how much it appears to have cost. As for making a place more of a "destination" why not do something more akin to a the Faberge eggs or Antony Gormleys standing about the place - a hunt for small hidden things is always far more broadly engaging that a singluar structure imo :)

Kirstie Beaven's picture

Interesting thought - perhaps monuments today should be small and detailed to pull in our interest. Some comments on Twitter also suggest that "big for big's sake" is a bit tired at the moment.

I'm really interested in what a monument should be - and also whether what Kapoor has envisaged in the Orbit should be seen in those terms at all?

I think the Orbit is a kind of anti-monument - not an icon in a traditional sense, or a "tower of power"; more like a wibbly-wobbly monument to instability -- a snapshot of the historical moment we're living in - a society in the process of transforming into something else (economic, political, digital, environmental), unsure what it will become, worried about the future, and struggling to remain on its feet.

Not exactly what I'd associate with the Olympics, but for a gigantic piece of expensive public art, it's pretty daring.

Whether we need monumental art or not is not a valid question. We need art, and art that finds it way into public spaces, does something important for those spaces. Our towns and cities are boring, the architecture is uninspiring, citizens are seeking refuge beyond the fringes, so, if art in the public domain takes on a monumental guise, it does a lot more for our public spaces than what we have at the moment. What we have at the moment are boring monuments from earlier periods, that seem to be of more interest to the tourist sector than anything else!