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Above: Heatherwick’s award-winning Seed Cathedral from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Photo by Steve Speller.
“Building projects are our main focus, but I’m not an architect,” says Thomas Heatherwick of his London-based design studio. This is a brave introduction from the British designer, given that he is the closing speaker at this year’s World Architecture Festival in Singapore. He need not make apologies, however; Heatherwick Studio – which works across design, architecture and sculpture – is the celebrated team behind the award-winning Seed Cathedral from the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the Rolling Bridge in London’s Paddington and the best-kept secret in the lead-up to the London Olympics: the Olympic cauldron. Heatherwick himself was named Wallpaper’s Designer of the Year in 2011, and is also an honorary fellow of the RIBA.
You might say that 2012 has been a bumper year for Heatherwick. His studio was the subject of an exhibition at the V&A museum earlier this year, coinciding with the release of a new book published by Thames & Hudson, Making. His status as a design luminary was cemented in July, when his studio’s top-secret design for the cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics was revealed at the climax of the opening ceremony. When the job was first proffered to the studio, however, the team felt uneasy about the task. “We felt this huge responsibility,” explains Heatherwick. Though always a focal point during Olympic opening ceremonies, the cauldron is something that has historically been instantly forgettable. Their challenge was to create an elegant and memorable solution that was more than just “a bowl on a stick with a flame in it,” he states. Instead, the studio wanted to create something ephemeral – working to find a solution that would represent the fleeting confluence of all 204 participating nations. The end result was a series of 204 miniature copper cauldrons, one for each nation, shaped like petals supported on long, slender stems. Each was laid on the ground, lit and then lifted at the opening ceremony to form one large ephemeral Olympic flame. Theatrical and poetic, the process of lighting the flame and the cauldron itself became the same thing.
In addition to his highly acclaimed work on the Olympic cauldron, Heatherwick has also left a longer lasting impression on London’s visual identity in the form of the new Routemaster bus. The first bus to be designed specifically for the capital city in more than fifty years, he was surprised to find very few design constraints: the main stipulation was that the new bus must be red. “The buses are part of the architecture of London, but there’s this relaxed view of infrastructure,” Heatherwick says. The new bus is shaped by user behaviour, and has been stripped of many of the chaotic, ugly additions that have appeared over the years. “I don’t use this word much, but there’s no thought given to the ‘dignity’ of the passenger,” he says of today’s buses – characterised by fluoro yellow handrails, strip lighting and moulded seats. Heatherwick Studio’s new design is asymmetric – clearly communicating the functionality of the bus. Three doors on one side are contrasted with the ribbons of glazing that define the two staircases on the other side, while rounded edges reduce the perceived bulk of the bus.
Heatherwick’s ability to create surprise in his work – see, for example, his Rolling Bridge in Paddington, which curls up into a ball to allow boats to enter the canal – is also evident in his distinctive Seed Cathedral, the UK pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The concept was to “try to do just one thing,” and offer a calm counterpoint to the cacophony of the other national pavilions. Side-stepping the obvious British stereotypes, the Seed Cathedral instead focused on the extraordinary collection of the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. A hybrid between sculpture and building, the cathedral is fluid and textural. “We wondered: ‘what is the most extreme texture you can achieve in a building?’” The result is a box punctured by sixty thousand 7.5-metre-long acrylic rods – a soft building that admits natural light into the interior through each of the rods. Though significantly smaller than many of the others (it occupied only one sixth of the site, with the rest of the area given over to landscape), the pavilion’s ‘wow factor’ was no less diminished by its scale. A fitting end to the talk, the project embodies the practice’s rational approach to design problems: it is the strength of an idea, rather than striving to be the largest or the loudest, that will have the greatest impact.