Friday, 23 January 2015

The Longlist: Cloud Gate aka The Bean

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, Chicago's Cloud Gate, aka The Bean.

Well, what's this? The artist calls it "Cloud Gate"; everyone else calls it "The Bean." "I'd just as happily do without a title," the British artist, Anish Kapoor, a former Turner prize winner, has said about it, "Except that it suggests a possibility of interpretation. In this case, the work is clearly reflecting what's around it, picking up the Chicago horizon, the Chicago skyline - bringing it into itself, in a way. And it is a gate - a gate to Chicago, the poetic idea about the city it reflects. To call it something else damages the potential for a different way of thinking about the piece." That's lovely, but unfortunately for Kapoor, he can explain all he wants - the people of Chicago aren't listening. The millions of tourists aren't listening. It's a bean! (He should have been a bit quicker naming it - by the time he'd officially got round to calling it Cloud Gate, the media had got in ahead of him and dubbed it The Bean.)

And that's because it looks like a giant silver bean, no other way around it. Or perhaps a blob of mercury, as though we're witnessing the non-Arnie Terminator from Terminator 2 in mid-morph. Given the size of the thing - it's about 10 metres wide, 20 metres long, and 13 metres high - it would either have to be one really big Terminator or a whole load of them in some malfunctioning orgy. "Terminator Orgy" - just be pleased they went with The Bean if I were you, Mr Kapoor.

The Bean is terrific. It was finished in 2005 and has been an instant hit, with the public and with the critics. Nobody seems to mind that it cost $23 million rather than the initial estimate of $6 million. When things are good, people don't mind spending a little extra, and The Bean is very, very good indeed. I visited it not long ago, in August, and like the crowd of people around, was quite taken by it. It has a mesmeric quality,  seeming almost natural in its bean-like form, yet utterly alien and metallic. It's perfectly reflective, but the constant curves distort the reflections, bending the Chicago skyline and your own image alike. I have seen nothing else like this, anywhere. As Kapoor intended, the clouds indeed drift by, bent in reflection, although the gateway idea isn't so immediately apparent. But when I was there, nobody seemed to care about any of that. They were too busy enjoying themselves, taking photos and looking at various reflections, and wondering how on earth the thing was made.

Perhaps The Bean's oddest quality - and it has several - is that it appears seamless. Before it was built, many people thought that thus couldn't be done. Massive, and weighing the same as about a hundred cars, visually it looks wholly believable that it could be a single blob of molten metal. It's not of course - the outside surface is 168 stainless steel plates welded together. This skin is attached to two internal steel rings, and this allows the metal to expand and contract depending on the temperature (Chicago goes from extremes of -30 to +40 degrees Celcius). The welds have to be near invisible and were done by a British engineering firm called Atelier One (who later did the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics). Just doing some very careful welding wasn't enough, The Bean took around nine months of subsequent polishing to make the seams invisible. I can imagine these nine months dragged a little: "Good day at work honey?" "Just eight hours of bloody polishing again, sweety-sue." It was worth it - I truly couldn't tell where the joins were. The Bean looks like a single blob of metal has fallen from the sky and just happened to land in Chicago.

Despite being a very new kid on the block, The Bean has immediately become a highlight of Chicago, and the main attraction of Millennium Park (which until 1997 was just railways and parks). It's got many of the hallmarks of a Wonder - distinctiveness, technical expertise, a strong visual appeal, and is rapidly becoming an icon. But it lacks on one crucial element - size. Size isn't everything, but for a Wonder it's important. 10 by 20 by 13 metres just isn't big enough to shock and awe. The Bean is great fun and hugely intriguing, but it's a work of art rather than a grand world monument. That's not a criticism, it's simply the reason The Bean doesn't make the shortlist. It remains a terrific and unusual highlight of a great city - whether you consider it a "possibility of interpretation", or just a giant silver bean.


  1. Kapoor seems to very much be "on" or "off" with this a big "on". I've seen a reflective metallic one of his that absolutely amazed me, whilst other pieces have left me cold (that tower at the Olympic park?).

    1. I applaud his ambition. The AncelOrbit tower or whatever its called might not work (I haven't seen it in person, in fairness) but it's different. Sometimes different ends up as stupid annoying rubbish, sometimes it ends up as a beloved work of genius. The Bean is a splendid one-off, and I'd forgive Kapoor ten stupid towers for it. But no more than ten.

  2. When he's genius, he's genius. I saw this one and absolutely loved it:

    1. Yup, that's pretty cool. He should definitely stick to shiny stuff.


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