There are many iconic structures in London both old and new—from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace to the London Eye. But even though it towers over the city, the 376-foot ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture isn’t likely to be found at the top of any travel lists.
The problem isn’t just that England’s so-called answer to the Eiffel Tower is a massive, unloved piece of public art; as Cristina Ruiz at the Art Newspaper reports, it’s also millions of dollars in debt. While revenue for the twisting red steel structure constructed for the 2012 London Olympic Games was expected to pay back the original loan taken out to build it, today, it finds itself roughly $16 million (£13 million) in debt.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason the work—which looks like a roller coaster that went through a tornado—hasn’t been more popular. In 2010, back when U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson was mayor of London, he selected the artwork as the winning design to be built as part of the Queen Elizabeth Park, which was being constructed for the 2012 Games. At the time, expectations for the piece, by Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor and structural designer Cecil Balmond, were high. “He [Kapoor] has taken the idea of a tower and transformed it into a piece of modern British art. It would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel,” Johnson said of the work. “Of course some people will say we are nuts – in the depths of a recession – to be building Britain's biggest ever piece of public art. But both Tessa Jowell [the late British politician and minister for the Olympics] and I are certain that this is the right thing for the Stratford site, in games time and beyond.”
The critic Kieran Long, writing at Architect, reported that Johnson believed the attraction would draw people to the redeveloped area of East London well after the Games ended. “This is a very hard-headed venture, because we need to justify the huge sums of money that we are investing in east London,” he told a radio program. “And so we need to make sure people come to east London for generations to come.”
But the Orbit’s reception was lukewarm. Critics weren’t won over by it, and after the Olympics, Londoners and tourists continued to show ambivalence toward it. Maybe it was the work’s complicated design or its bright color or antipathy toward Johnson, the piece’s most prominent backer. Or, perhaps, that it promised to do too many things at once. “It is a self-proclaimed regeneration tool, moneymaking visitor attraction, corporate logo, monument to sporting achievement, ‘icon,’ piece of structural innovation, steel catalog, and monument that its authors hope will rival the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and so on,” as Long commented.
Whatever the reasons, its attendance fell well below the forecast of 350,000 annual visitors. In 2014-15, when it operated as an observational tower, the BBC reported it was already operating at a loss of more than $600,000. In an attempt to make it profitable, the tower was then reimagined as the world’s longest and tallest slide. But even 584 feet of spiraling plastic, as designed by artist Carsten Höller, has not been able to make the structure popular. Ruiz of the Art Newspaper reports that in 2016-17, when the slide debuted, 193,000 tickets were sold for the tower. That number dropped to 155,000 in 2018-19. The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), which runs the attraction, estimated that the Orbit ran at a deficit of about $71,000 (£58,000) over the last year.
As a point of comparison, roughly 7 million people per year visit the Eiffel Tower and about 4.5 million visit the Statue of Liberty. About 2 million people per year visit the Tower of London and the London Eye attracts about 3.75 million paying customers per year.
Plans to increase visitor interest in the Orbit remain forthcoming. “The visitor attraction market across London remains challenging,” a spokesperson for the LLDC said in an interview with Ruiz, adding, “like many other attractions we are constantly reviewing the operation to find ways to increase revenue.”