London 2012 was a triumph. The best Olympics ever. Apart from the closing ceremony, of course. Oh, and one other embarrassment – that twisty-turny tower of bright-red girders that was supposed to be the centrepiece of the Olympic Park. Most of the time, the cameras managed to ignore it, but like the some drunken uncle in your wedding snaps it occasionally stumbled into view.
Officially known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the tower is not generally regarded as a great success. To be fair, there were some problems with the execution of the concept. Intended as a piece of monumental sculpture, it also had to function as a public building – requiring various design concessions to the health-and-safety police and all the rest of it.
And yet, the creation of a sense of imbalance was always the intended effect of the work. As such, it is not especially original – indeed it is thoroughly typical of the modernist tradition.
The latter is the subject of a superb essay in the New English Review, in which the authors – Mark Anthony Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros – contrast contemporary high culture with what preceded it:
- "Whereas earlier traditions of artistic creation embraced symmetry within complexity, modernism has embraced extreme simplicity, dislocation, and imbalance. Whereas earlier traditions sought to bring pleasure to an audience — "to teach and delight," as Horace’s famous dictum would have it — modern art attempts to "nauseate" or "brutalize" an audience (the terms are from Jacques Barzun’s The Use and Abuse of Art). Whereas pre-modern architecture employed scale and ornament, modern architecture aggressively promotes gigantisms and barrenness. Whereas classical literature was grounded in regular grammar and public imagery, modern literature routinely resorts to distortions of syntax and esotericism."
Though cultural modernism is often associated with expressions of anti-authoritarianism and disdain for establishments, Signorelli and Salingaros believe this to be hypocrisy:
- "Standing behind this aesthetic is an ideology supported by nearly the entire institutional structure of the Western world — the universities, the publishing houses, the galleries, the journals, the prize committees, the zoning boards. Books that evince a fidelity to modernist principles are the ones that get published. Buildings that conform to the brutal codes of modernism and its derivatives are the ones that get built."
In this respect, the Orbit serves as a case study – the nine member panel that chose the winning design reads like a Who’s Who of the cultural establishment.
Interestingly, the things that characterise modernism – "a hostility and defiance towards all traditional standards of excellence… a notion of the artist’s freedom as absolute… a refusal to apply the category of beauty" – while dominant in the sphere of contemporary culture are all but absent in the sphere of contemporary sport.
The things that took place beneath that ugly tower were overtly traditional, supremely ordered and, yes, beautiful too.