The exhibition “Provocations”, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, is a comprehensive view of the different scales and forms made at Thomas Heatherwick HQ to date.
She was into them before they were big. Brooke Hodge, deputy director at The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, first became interested in the work of Thomas Heatherwick in 2002, when, on a recommendation, she visited the then-small studio just 8 years into its groove.
After years of observation and interest, and the inclusion of one of Heatherwick’s works in the fantastic 2006 show “Skin+Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture” (which Hodge curated), she planted the idea of a U.S. solo exhibition in Heatherwick’s ear in 2008. That wasbefore Heatherwick became known for global hits, such as the UK Pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the New Bus for London.
The way Hodge tells it, Heatherwick wasn’t psychologically prepared for a solo show in the United States back then – he wasn’t sure enough people would know who he was across the pond. Today, Heatherwick Studio consists of a team of 160 designers, architects, and creators and whatever questions remain about crossing ponds, they tend to be about, say, designing a new kind of bridge.
At the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, I recently visited the materialization of all those years of work between Hodge and Heatherwick. The exhibition, “Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio”, is a comprehensive view of the different scales and forms made at Heatherwick HQ to date. The show will be up at the Hammer through 24 May (with a talk by Heatherwick on 30 April), before it opens at the Cooper Hewitt in New York on 24 June. Prior to that, “Provocations” showed at The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, which organized the exhibition.
Moving from one state to another, “Provocations”transforms in meaning and impact, even in composition, as Heatherwick Studio continues to grow and add more projects to its resume. Major announcements make the exhibition more urgent; chief among them, grand reveals that Heatherwick will be designing the much-anticipated waterside park, Pier55, in New York, and that he will work with BIG on the new Google campus in Mountainview, California. The exhibition’s rhythm is in sync with that of the studio – an unusual faculty developed around the unpredictable nature of the work displayed and analyzed. This is not a show that looks back on a career in retrospect; rather, it demonstrates a studio moving forward, open to change.
Architecture and design produce many loose ends in the course of people trying to tie them: some projects are put on hold, others develop in unexpected ways, and new ones spring up along the way. The pace of architecture is rarely described as “quick,” especially relative to other forms of creation, but the ideas and ambitions that develop around architecture and design are oftentimes rapid-fire. “Provocations”allows viewers a unique chance to feel these different rates of invention. The show allows built and unbuilt to feed off of each other, and works of different scale to speak from the same podium – there is a relationship between Christmas cards developed by the studio and the UK Pavilion, after all.
At The Hammer, where the presentation or “Provocations”was also overseen by curator Aram Moshayedi, Heatherwick’s edited oeuvre is fit into one room. In other words, an elaborate story is immediately visible on one page. In close quarters, the bonds and breaks between Heatherwick’s extremely varied projects are made evident upon first view. The show’s physical presence gives the accurate impression of an energized practice bursting with multiple ideas at once. A closer look reveals that each didactic is actually presented in the form of a question: Can a London bus be better and use 40% less fuel? How can you make a newsstand quicker to set up? How can a new building fit into the atmosphere of a busy old district of Hong Kong?
In its opening text, the exhibition emphasizes the Rolling Bridge near London’s Paddington Station as a pivotal work for Heatherwick: the first project to really draw international attention in 2004. From that initial greeting, it’s possible, but not mandatory, to see the chronological order of the exhibition, and to trace the year-to-year narrative of Heatherwick Studio. Much more interesting and special, however, is to see the show as an impressive web of answers that stretch across the room in response to the questions posed in the didactics (and, of course, in the studio itself). The models, photographs, materials, and objects composing the show are not always complete answers, but they are satisfying ones, demonstrating the rather optimistic notion that great solutions are fluid ones, adaptable to new or changing questions.
When I meet with Hodge in New York, she observes that, broadly speaking, people “understand what painters or sculptors do to create their work, but not necessarily what architects do to design buildings.” The method of asking questions, resulting in much experimentation and some answers, is also a representation of the design process. For Hodge it was also important that models weren’t pressed up against the walls – “I wanted people to be able to see everything from all sides, because that’s how you would experience a building [or object] in real life.” The structure of the exhibition itself, though slightly different in each city it visits, always allows viewers to stand at any corner and see “communications across the room and across different projects that connect to each other,” says Hodge. “In that way, people start making their own connections, too.”
The exhibition is used to some level of flexibility. “Provocations” was already very much in the works when Heatherwick was selected to create the 2012 Olympic Cauldron and Victoria and Albert Museum in London approached the studio with the idea of a show to coincide with the Olympics. “Provocations” was postponed for two years. In that time, both the studio and the show grew tremendously, as did Heatherwick’s global recognizability. “If I went to him now, I would be competing with a million other curators trying to get him to do a show,” Hodge says.
Jeremy Strick, Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, can comment on the exhibition in hindsight, since it moved on from Dallas in early January. He prefaces by saying something we already know to be true – “architecture exhibitions often have a limited audience,” typically composed of people with some preexisting relationship to architecture and design. “Heatherwick is really different in that way,” Strick says. Calling the exhibition “a huge success,” he tells me that “not only did a lot of people come, many of them came multiple times.” The talk that Heatherwick gave at the Nasher was “one of the most well-attended” the institution has had. Of those in attendance, many did not have a strong prior knowledge of their subject, says Strick. So how does he explain the popularity?
“The thing I came to realize is that Heatherwick represents a way of thinking, an approach and inventiveness that many people can find inspiring, regardless of their specific interests,” he says. “People had a very emotional response to the show.” In other words, it provoked a human response.