Thomas Heatherwick designed the Olympic cauldron for the London games, made up of over two hundred individual cone-like petals, it rose from the ground at the climax of the idiosyncratic opening ceremony.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather dozed off during the extraordinarily long parade of athletes, wondering how many countries there could possibly be beginning with the letter G…. or J, and hoping there couldn’t possibly be one starting with X, could there? But then, when the small individual flames were lit and then started to move, forming first into a flower shape and then the bowl of the fire itself, I was leaning forward on the edge of my chair, wondering at how they achieved the effect.
Each pipe must have to have been exactly the right length, each petal its own exact and unique shape, all for those few moments of wonder. I really wanted to know how they achieved it, and so when I saw a piece about the exhibition on the work of the Heatherwick Studio at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I had to go.
The exhibition has been on since the end of May, but only since the opening ceremony have they had the information about the cauldron on display. I think I would have been a bit miffed if I’d gone to see the show in June or July and there had been a space where the scale model of the flame stands no, but having said that, there are so many other fascinating things in the show.
It starts in a quirky way, in that you are invited to take your catalogue by turning a crank handle to produce a long printed sheet off a great roll loaded onto a Heath Robinson type contraption. Inside there were models and explanations of several of Heatherwick’s buildings and constructions, including the back-end of the new London Routemaster bus as well as the material designed for the seat covers, reflecting the contours of a seated person.
Much of the work comes out of a study of the way materials work; by watching what happens when hot materials dry rapidly, or how flat things curve when pressure is applied, and by testing what it is possible to do with anything, including things which might otherwise only be one small component. This led them to making a bag out of zip fasteners, and what looked like a plank of wood, but which, because of some carefully angled joints could be turned into a table or a stool simply by folding.
I particularly liked a slatted table which could be turned from a circle to an oval by simply pushing the sides.
Their buildings and bridges are curvy and angled, and some of the wonder of the models for me was in working out how they stand up, because for all the design aesthetic, they are clearly also heavily engineered.
The whole thing was fascinating.