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Heatherwick Studio, East Beach Café, Littlehampton, UK (2005–07) (photo by Andy Stagg, all images courtesy Hammer Museum)

With its new show, Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio, the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, portrays itself as a kind of exploratory museum. The exhibition’s texts and labels, posed as challenging questions about form and content, engage its audiences with philosophical conundrums with far-reaching consequences upon the landscapes in which the speculative becomes reality.

The propositional construct of this show, based on a long tradition of architectural and industrial designs that might never come to fruition in the real world, provides it with a gravitas of potentiality that softens the problematics of actually constructing the imaginary.

Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube? That’s the question the signage asks as we approach a large slab of metal that clearly serves as a bench, one end of which has been crimped as if it had been tailed off from a vast extrusion. If the ugly and unappealing bench suffers for its lack of aesthetic values, it certainly proves that a chair, of shorts, can be “squeezed” from a vast forge for production—although it is never explained to what advantage.

Can a drawbridge open without breaking? The display proving that, with Heatherwick’s mechanized structure it is indeed possible to build a flat bridge that can roll up into a circular, snail-like form. How long it takes to for this bridge to transform itself and whether or not it is usable in everyday life is not thoroughly explained.

Heatherwick Studio, Learning Hub, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (2011–14) (rendering: Heatherwick Studio)

In an intriguing small exhibit off to the side, the designers wonder how they might send their annual notes of appreciation using the very materials from which it was constructed as both container and holder of stamps. It is hard to imagine how the various solutions to this problem (a box in the shape of a small gem studded with stamps or a circular package expressing its sentiments across its surface) might make it through the U.S. mails—I should imagine that all them would be returned as undeliverable—but evidently the more eccentric-friendly British mail system had no problem delivering these fanciful annual thank-yous.

Many of the projects the Heatherwick group has worked on are located in Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and other cities of the Islamic world, so it was natural for the firm to attempt to wonder What a twenty-first century mosque might be like? Unfortunately, the beautiful gathering place they created was deemed too postmodern for actual construction, but we can only imagine how lovely religious shrine might someday be if it were someday built. But if the art cannot be matched to the needs of religion, the design is inconsequential.

In short, several of the seemingly profound questions posed by the innovative Heatherwick Studio seem to have more to do with a playful and self-satisfying sense of possibility than providing any truly consequential social or environmental product.

Of course, as the Heatherwick group proved, You can make a park out of the desert, creating a public recreational park, Al Fayah in Abu Dhabi, where the underground plants and trees are able to survive out of reach of the intense desert sun. And, as they show us through the stunning “Learning Hub” they built for the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, A building can change the way we learn, although we can only imagine that such a structure is a success because we cannot attend the university to discover whether the structure itself actually produces results.

Heatherwick Studio, New Bus for London (2010–12) (photo by Iwan Baan)

Their design for new buses for the city of London represents a sleek, airy and open glass-enclosed machine that literally draws the rider into the interior and up the stairs to the second deck. Photographs appear in the show, and a partial reconstruction of the bus stands just outside in the museum’s open plaza. I can’t wait to return to London to try these out, but, I wonder, will my arthritic legs carry me there? How do these buses deal with their numerous elderly passengers?

I am just as impatient to see in situ How you can make a newsstand quicker to set up? The model and photos of this new construction again reveal the studio’s ingenuity and graceful design elements, which allow the newsstand to swing shut from either side while leaving most the magazine racks in place with their journals and newspapers intact. But what happens, one wonders, to these lovely wooden structures after a few weeks in an urban environment filled with graffiti artists and pyromaniacs?

London is also home to the beautiful Garden Bridge, which spans across the Thames River, creating a kind of floating paradise that might recall the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon, but one ponders how such a creation might survive in a drier climate, especially my water-starved Los Angeles, whose citizens clearly desire such succulent plant life.

Heatherwick Studio, UK Pavilion, Shanghai World Expo (2007–10) (photo by Iwan Baan)

While England might indeed feel fortunate to have as its citizen Thomas Heatherwick, who with his forward-looking associates created the startling building known as the Seed Cathedral, built of thousands of illuminated rods for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo—a structure visited by thousands of tourists—government authorities were criticized for choosing the same group’s design for a dazzling cauldron with blazing ceremonial lights for the 2012 Olympic Games in London after the New York design studio Ahokia claimed they had submitted a similar design to the Olympic committee in 2007. Heatherwick insisted his work was original and was based on a student project he done in 1993.

Wherever they go, the designers of this studio seem to have the ability to create such new forms and concepts as expandable and collapsible purses and bowls, rocking and rolling plastic cast chairs, and giant sculptures that can fit through door slots.

The purses and bowls, however, seem somewhat awkward and complex with their multiple zippers, and are too connected with commercial ventures for my taste. The rolling chairs were fun for a few moments, but were surely not meant to sit on for long periods of time and seemed far too dangerous in their tipping and toggling for older and younger idlers. How many times. we might question, does the need arise to develop an entire design solution for a sculpture where, some might complain, has no reason in which to exist?

Heatherwick Studio, Spun Chair (2007–11) (photo by Susan Smart)

Can a whole boat be made of its hull? Most definitely, and breathtakingly so. A plank of wood can be made into a piece of furniture—but again, one wonders, to what purpose? Imagine a world, this architectural firm asks where even ventilators and electrical generating equipment stand out as spectacularly lovely sites that help to benefit their environment.

Goggle has chosen Heatherwick (along with Bjarke Ingels) to create their new campus in Mountain Valley, California, one that supposedly will help to interconnect its numerous far-flung employee. Will anyone except the company executives, however, ever know whether that that interchange has resulted in more creativity or productivity? And in what terms will those evaluations be made?

If one is awed by the Heatherwick Studio’s ambitions and imagination, this show does not quite go far enough in explaining how the results of their activities are evaluated and how the aesthetics of their various creations might come to be judged. If the large, deeply attentive audiences drawn to the Hammer are any indication, we can imagine, at least, their future architectural projects and designs of everyday objects will continue to fascinate and delight.

Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio, organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, will continue at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, Los Angeles) through May 24.

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Douglas Messerli

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press,...

2 replies on “Imagining the Ordinary: Heatherwick Studio at the Hammer Museum”

  1. The Garden Bridge is just a proposal (a controversial one, see http://www.dezeen.com/2014/12/22/sam-jacob-opinion-heatherwick-garden-bridge-social-criticism-london-money-power/) and you misspelled “Google”. Despite these errors and somewhat confusing points I too feel as though the exhibition too blankly champions a design firm without discussing any social context of the projects. This is especially concerning given the strong thread of corporate capitalism and hyper-nationalism permeating most of Heatherwick’s work. Is this a practice that a nonprofit institution needs to be promoting, only lending more cultural cache to something that is explicitly run as a business and not a conceptual/critical investigation?

  2. There seems to be some confusion about what a design studio’s responsibilities are. Are they responsible for teaching kids in the learning hub or can the simply provide a surrounding that might be beneficial for learning? Should someone not create a better news-stand simply because graffiti might occur or arson? The bags seem commercial because they were made for a handbag company. The bus has two levels which means people with bad arthritis aren’t required to climb up anything. What is Goggle? Lastly does a museum need to address social or environmental critiques with every exhibition? Perhaps some wonder and possibility still has some room at the table as well.

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