Spotlight on…ArcelorMittal Orbit architect Kathryn Findlay



This month our spotlight is on British architect Kathryn Findlay, who recently worked on Britain’s tallest sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Kathryn is from Scotland and spent more than 20 years working and teaching in Japan where she raised her two children.

Kathryn studied architecture at the Architectural Association and University of Tokyo. On citing what led her to go to Japan, she says “I loved Japanese contemporary architecture and went to work for Arata Isozaki”. She formed the architecture practice Ushida Findlay in 1986 and was an Associate Professor at the University of Tokyo, the first woman academic in the department of architecture and the first foreigner to teach there since Josiah Conder in the Meiji Period. She returned from Japan in 2001 and is now based in the UK. Undoubtedly there are strong ties between Japan and the UK in the field of architecture and Kathryn attributes this to the love that both cultures have for unique non-formulaic designs.

During her time in Japan, Kathryn’s most notable projects were the Truss Wall House and Soft and Hairy House. Speaking about how her experience of Japan influences her work nowadays she says “I have a love of natural materials. There imperfection gives them a hand-crafted feel, which I love. They make buildings more than mere diagrams and achieve a beauty which grows over time.” Kathryn Findlay's practice, Ushida Findlay, is now regarded as a pioneering force in British architecture and has an international reputation for innovative design. Findlay was the first architect to build contemporary curved architecture and now designs by combining unusual materials with traditional crafts, such as bringing thatch into the 21st century. Her style has been called ' future-rustic'.

Ushida Findlay was the appointed architectural practice for Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's ArcelorMittal Orbit based at the heart of the Olympic Park in Stratford. Regarding the opportunity to work on such a high-profile project, Kathryn told us that “It was a life-time experience to work with Anish and Cecil. Sharing their insights into experiential space and non-linear geometries was inspiring.” However, she faced many challenges in making the sculpture into something that people can inhabit. “There were very many pragmatic issues that we had to deal with and minimise their effect on the sculptural form and experience for the visitor.”

The Orbit has indeed been a huge success with thousands of spectators in the Olympic Park having visited the attraction. Kathryn’s own thoughts on what impressions she thought that people would take away from the Orbit were ‘fushigi na keiken…..” (a mystifying experience), and she also hoped that people consider “how many ephemeral impressions they gained from such a monumental form”.

Kathryn's hopes for the future of the Olympic Park are "that it becomes a catalyst for economic and social benefit in east London. That it becomes a place of enjoyment for local people and a place which attracts and entertains overseas visitors".

The Olympic and Paralympic Attaché at the Embassy of Japan, Tsuchiya Daisuke, visited the ArcelorMittal Orbit during the Games and gave us his first-hand impressions. “The view of London from the Orbit, with East London close by and Central and West London in the background, curiously reminded me of the view from the Tokyo Skytree which also opened earlier this year. Although entirely different in size (the Skytree is 634m tall) and shape, both are at the centre of regeneration of the East End of both of these great cities. Both are extremely popular attractions now and hopefully will remain so long into the future.”