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Blood Red, Steel Tower Honors London Olympics


London is having a lot of fun this summer. This past few days, it brought parades, concerts and a 1,000-boat flotilla down the Thames, celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Next month, the Olympic Games begin.

From time to time, NPR's Philip Reeves sends us a letter about the preparations for the games. This is his latest.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: When you consider all the money and work that goes into them, it's strange to think the Olympics only last 17 days. Their legacy will last far longer. The British have already made sure of that. London has done what all great swashbuckling cities do when they're determined to make history. It's built an enormous monument right next to the Olympic Stadium. It's made from blood red steel.

You'd think London has enough towers already - what with Big Ben and Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. But those are in glamorous Central London. The Olympics are based in East London, in what used to be city's malodorous backyard.

The mayor, Boris Johnson, hopes its tower will become a globally-known icon forever, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Officially, it's named the ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower. Most of the money came from Britain's richest man, the steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal. It's 377 feet high, making it Britain's largest public work of art. That's a fair bit taller than the Statue of Liberty and Big Ben and completely dwarfs poor old Admiral Nelson.


REEVES: But its size doesn't matter nearly as much as its looks.


REEVES: I am in a black cab driven by Andy Tibbott. And we've come to have a look at this tower that's been built as a lasting monument to the Olympics, which is being held right here. And the tower, and we can now see the tower beneath a grey sky rising up, a great swirl of metal; enormous steel knot.

Tibbott, the driver, has worked these streets for years.

ANDY TIBBOTT: It looks like a winding snake coming out of the ground, with a sort of helter-skelter like structure and the viewing tower. It's something completely different that I think nobody has ever seen in the world before.

REEVES: Britain's architecture critics are divided. Some are very impressed. A generous drunken party animal of a building, said one. Beautifully fractious, said another.

But listen to Oliver Wainright, of Building Design Magazine, speaking to the BBC after the tower was officially unveiled last month.

OLIVER WAINRIGHT: You know, in this case, it's a whole contorted mass of entrails, as though the intestines of some strange steel monster have been ripped out and, you know, stretched and knotted into oblivion. The way it towers over the stadium is particularly objectionable because the venues in the Olympic Park are kind of models of lean, stripped-back examples of engineering.

REEVES: The creators of the tower don't seem greatly bothered by criticism. Towers need time says co-designer Anish Kapoor.

ANISH KAPOOR: Eiffel Tower was hated by everybody for a good many years - 50 years or something like that. And now, of course, it's a mainstay of what - it's how we understand Paris. I'm sure - well, we can't tell. You know, we'll see what happens here. But discomfort is OK.

REEVES: East London is not Paris, alas. All the same, let's have a round of applause for London and its towering optimism.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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