Heatherwick Studio “Provokes” Challenging Designs

The new exhibition, Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio, opens this week on February 20th at the Hammer Museum. We had a chance to sit down with the curator Brooke Hodge and get an inside look into the exhibition.

Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this exhibition? 

I first started looking at Thomas’s work in 2002, visiting his London [Heatherwick] Studio, and immediately saw how interesting and unusual the work is and how different it is from what other architects and designers were doing. The two key projects I was interested in from this early period were the Buddhist Temple project, the Rolling Bridge at Paddington, and the East Beach Cafe. I included several of Thomas’s projects in the London presentation of my Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture exhibition in 2008. That show was curated when I was Curator of Architecture & Design at MOCA in LA and it was presented in London at Somerset House. In about 2008-9, I approached Thomas with the idea of doing a monographic show of the studio’s work and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas agreed to be the organizing museum. I had left MOCA in 2009 and Jeremy Strick, MOCA’s former director, became the director of the Nasher earlier that year.


How did you decide which projects to include? How did you collaborate with Thomas Heatherwick? 

I worked very closely with Thomas and his studio throughout the process of putting the exhibition together. Much like solving a design problem, we brainstormed a lot about the focus/thesis of the exhibition and about how to show the work. I wanted to show a range of the studio’s work since it is not that well known in North America, although he and the studio are quite famous in Europe and Asia. I wanted to show how the studio works at a variety of scales—from the handbag for Longchamp to the Rolling Bridge to a large mixed-use development in Shanghai. I visited the studio many times over the past five years to see the new work, research earlier projects, and I visited the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010 to see his first large [scale] building in real life.
We settled on 42 projects that span the studio’s practice from very early student projects of Thomas’s to the most recent work, some of which is still in the design development phase. In the exhibition itself, I wanted to focus on what the studio is doing now and use the earlier work as an archive or foundation. So, rather than arranging the exhibition chronologically, we organized it by scale of project with the main cluster of projects, like a landscape or topography, being devoted to the built work and the most recent projects. The “archive” is shown in a slightly different, less formal way, against the far wall of the Hammer gallery.
The studio designed the exhibition for all three venues (Nasher where it opened in September 2014, Hammer, and Cooper Hewitt where it will open June 19, 2015) and we worked very closely with Jed Morse, the chief curator at the Nasher who became a key member of the team. The entire process was very collaborative and when we couldn’t meet in London or Dallas, we had weekly phone conversations to continue the working process.
How does this exhibition apply to the architectural landscape in Los Angeles? 
The interesting thing about Heatherwick Studio’s work is that it doesn’t have a particularly regional or British bent. Each project is the result of an intensive problem-solving, iterative design process that the studio goes through so that the project works seamlessly in its environment. The buildings are not singular statements in that the studio doesn’t have a signature style. They are interested in creating a better world for people, including a landscape around the UK Pavilion where people could relax after lining up for hours to get into the various expo pavilions, designing a bridge to cross the Thames that is a beautiful planted park floating over the river, thinking carefully about the scale of a massive [Moganshan] urban project for Shanghai so that it’s not just another series of giant blocks but is rather a stepped composition with ample plantings and open space around it. The new bus for London is another example—with the redesign of the double-decker bus, the studio created a much better experience for bus passengers [with] better lighting, better seating, a little glamour in the elegant rear stair.
I think there would be lots of opportunities for Heatherwick Studio to do something in LA, whether it’s designing a new freeway overpass, transforming the LA River, making a new museum out of an existing building, etc. I think their work shows that they can work seamlessly in an urban environment while creating a better experience for the city’s people rather than just making a singular object.
What do you hope local audiences will take away from the experience? 
I think of this exhibition as introducing the studio’s work to North America and I find it fascinating that a practice this ingenious is not better known here yet. This exhibition will change that. I hope that local audiences will see the potential of small interventions to make our lives better, the importance of incorporating the natural environment into projects to create better, greener (in the literal sense not necessarily the sustainable sense) spaces. I also hope that the exhibition will help people understand a designer’s creative process since I think for many that it’s still a mystery how buildings get to the stage of getting built.
The exhibit features a multi-media platform. Can you tell us how the different components augment the experience? 
The exhibition includes models, prototypes, full-scale mockups, large 2D renderings and photographs, inspiration objects and/or artifacts (i.e., two pieces of rock candy that were made by extrusion and that is the same process by which the extruded furniture pieces were made), a number of short videos that show how certain pieces work or were made, a video at the entrance featuring Thomas and several of the architects in the studio talking about the projects and the studio’s process, and a fantastic contraption called the brochure machine that dispenses the exhibition brochures. All of these work together to show the studio’s creative process and the range of scales at which they work. There are also about 20 Spun chairs that visitors can sit and spin in so that they can experience an actual Heatherwick project.
The exhibition is called Provocations because the studio asks itself a question or poses a design challenge
15984d1e-5c3e-41c8-b1b4-2cd381e0b4a6for every project it undertakes and these questions or “provocations” can be found on the exhibition label that accompanies each project as well as on the back of the exhibition brochure.
The exhibition was organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center, and is being presented at the Hammer Museum through May 24,  then travel on to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in June. Aram Moshayedi is the coordinating curator for the Hammer, making sure that everything fell into place smoothly on the ground in Los Angeles. Brooke Hidge is the curator of the exhibition, and serves as the Deputy Director at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York.
UK Pavilion and Double Decker Bus photos by Iwan Baan. Bridge photo courtesy of Arup.

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