For the London Olympics, copper torches carried into the stadium by each of the 204 participating nations were lit and raised into one great beacon using a mechanism that worked perfectly (for the first time, said Heatherwick). A billion people watched the spectacle on television; at the Hammer you can see how it was done and view one of the patinated copper torches close up. In Shanghai, Heatherwick persuaded British authorities to forgo all the clichés and allow him to do one thing well. Constrained by a budget insufficient to build out the site, the studio chose to place a cube at the edge of a raised park, with meeting rooms and infrastructure concealed below. A quarter of a million seeds from the Millennium Seed Bank were embedded in the acrylic tips of 66,000 rods that radiated out like the quills of a porcupine, pulling light into the interior, and glowing from within at night.
Brooke Hodge, who is now deputy director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, brings these projects to life in a brilliant installation. She illuminates the creative process in labels that state the problem, and a layering of models, mockups, videos, and stills that explain the solution. The exhibition is much more than the sum of its parts. Dramatic shifts of scale and perspective, and the alternation of kinetic and static exhibits, heighten the impact of each project and avert museum fatigue.
“As a kid I was inspired by inventors who solved problems,” said Heatherwick, and he demonstrates that skill in everything he designs. A footbridge over London’s Grand Union Canal rolls up to allow boats to pass, and that prototype has seeded a more ambitious project for a double rolling bridge, which is now searching for a river to cross. It is infrastructure as performance art, and sure to enliven any waterway. Another footbridge that should soon span the Thames is conceived as a garden, stitching the two banks together and providing a place to linger and admire the views, like the High Line in Lower Manhattan. Two flared concrete supports rise from the riverbed and are clad in warm-toned nickel-copper, molded to animate the surfaces as viewed from the shore or a boat passing below. The supports conceal planters that will sustain mature trees, and the bridge widens at the center to accommodate the crowds that are sure to flock here.
Courtesy Heatherwick Studio; Andy Stagg
As its fame grows, the studio should receive a swelling stream of commissions. Already it is building on five continents, and the roster includes Africa’s first museum of modern art to be housed in a Cape Town grain silo, a mixed-use project in Shanghai, and Pier 55 on New York’s West Side. “I have a romantic attachment to small projects,” said Heatherwick, “but even our larger projects are made up of many smaller elements. Without that, they would lack soul.” He cites Pacific Place in Hong Kong where the toilet stalls are enclosed by curved wooden doors. His team spent six months devising a hinge.
In a digital age, it’s a tonic to encounter work that is hand-made and flaunts its physicality. The exhibition plays up this aspect of Heatherwick Studio, greeting visitors with a machine they can hand-crank to produce a flier from a large printed roll. For the little kid that lurks in each of us, this has to be more satisfying than a touch screen. The title, Provocations, has two levels of significance. Heatherwick is provoked by diverse challenges, and his solutions should provoke us to reconsider the buildings and products that we take for granted. Why do so many fall short, in appearance and performance? That realization should inspire every architect and designer to strive for something better.