Wednesday, 21 April 2010
Ewww'll Be Sorry
Kosmograd's thoughtful and provocative post about the ArcelorMittal Orbit earlier today has reminded me that I promised to return to the subject, talking specifically about the structure and not about its imagery or the reaction to it. As Kosmograd says, the Orbit is a little more palatable when viewed side-on as a model, and not through the trippy Tim Burton-esque lens of Arup's absurd renders. From that perspective, it is possible to make out something almost Tatlinesque about it.
But there the constructive comparisons with constructivism must halt. I'm still not a fan. I hate what this monument represents (the thought of visitors in 2052 traipsing past a display praising Mittal's "vision" and "generosity" makes me sick to my stomach) and I dislike it as a form; its structural loops and swirls don't really appear to stretch the boundaries of the possible so much as show off how easy it is for us to build something unusual at this comparitively modest height. Still, K'grad's chiding of instant snark make me feel like I have little new to add to what has been a spectacular outpouring of denigration and disgust on the part of the commentariat, so I'll leave it there.
There is, however, something else going on, something that I think is interesting. Over the past few weeks I've tried to confront and interrogate my own distaste for this structure, feeling very uncomfortable about my dislike for it. The root of this disquiet is now clear. A lot of the Orbit's defenders - or at least the wait-and-see contingent - have made the point that many much-loved buildings and structures (the Eiffel tower, to take Kosmograd's example) were opposed and derided when they were new. This is true; indeed, it's a point familiar to modernists justifying groundbreaking structures to a conservative audience. Pugin and Barry's Houses of Parliament were widely hated. Pugin himself deplored the ugliness of the Victorian city against the beauty of the medieval city. So it goes.
I realised that I was frightened of being caught on the wrong side of history, of being one of the reactionaries who booed Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. This is not healthy. My only motivation for revising my opinion would be so I did not look like a stick-in-the-mud in the eyes of a future generation of Londoners who hold the Orbit to be magnificent, and who are proud of it as a symbol of their city. Obviously I would prefer to be on the side of the bold, the brave, the new.
But in this case that would be dishonest. As it is, the prospect of the Orbit rising over the East End fills me with gloom. Once the thing is up, perhaps familiarity will soften it. I don't know. Familiarity is the magic ingredient here, though. Come 2052, if the Orbit is still standing, I'm sure many Londoners, perhaps the majority, will like the Orbit and feel proud of it. This won't be an aesthetic judgment in most cases - it will simply be a product of familiarity, of being used to a structure and associating it with their home city. There's nothing wrong with that reaction, but we shouldn't lie to ourselves about it now out of fear of being caught on the wrong side of that future consensus. I wonder if the Orbit's defenders are (consciously or not) writing themselves into the desirable role of the visionary, farsighted minority who saw the potential of this structure when the herd around them pooh-poohed it; and if so they are acting against their own aesthetic judgement. (I don't mean to malign anyone in this, my own experience related above tells me how strong this desire can be.)
This nervous desire to second-guess posterity feels like a new phenomenon, a product of the modernist supremacy slipping into the past and the immense power of the "they laughed at Columbus" meme in a relativist age, or part of the same queasy cultural acceleration that means some artists and comedians now see outrage as a form of acclaim. Maybe it doesn't exist, and I'm projecting my own insecurities onto the critical scene. Still, if it is out there, I think it's worth marking it down as undesirable - it's as weary and irrelevant to today as knee-jerk appeals to historical precedent. It is looking into the rear-view mirror not to see the road behind but to see what the kids in the back seat are doing. Keep your eyes on the road.