Beyond Buildings


Thomas Heatherwick: Spinning into Control

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Thomas Heatherwick is today’s Calatrava. He is making contributions to architecture out of an understanding of engineering and image-making without bothering to care about the discipline’s obsession with space, planning, and the primacy of functionality and cost. Unlike Calatrava, however, Heatherwick has no pretentions to create great civic buildings that look like they are desperate to take flight like birds frightened by the spatial consequences of what the Spanish master has done.

This last week, the London transport system put Heatherwick’s streamlined version of the double decker bus into service, bringing some style and convenience to what had become a romantic remnant of previous ideas about public transportation. I have not yet had the chance to experience these moving spaces, but, if you hurry, you can still experience his latest experiments in forms at the New York gallery Haunch of Venison (through March 3).

Image credit: Haunch of Venison

The most striking objects in “Extruding and Spinning” are the four extruded aluminum benches or, if you prefer, pieces of sculpture. They represent a new way of making sculpture that brings some of the conceptual thinking that has been commonplace in other media to bear on the making of evocative objects. In each case, Heatherwick did not so much design or even shape the actual thing, as he created its possibility by designing the funnel through which the metal was extruded. As the heavy machinery (of course located in China) pushed the molten material through this opening, it not only took on a braided shape, but also twisted and turned as it cooled. Three hundred hours of polishing later, and these horizontal beams twist through the gallery space with sensuality and grace.

I guess you can sit on these frozen vectors, though the gleam of their surface and the gallery setting both discourage such a mundane action. These are more objects of contemplation. That is not the case with the “Spun Coriolis,” the “spun chair” Heatherwick developed with the Italian furniture company Magis. Inspired by the technique used to make drums, the designer created Pop Art-scale stools whose beauty comes as much from their use as from their form: lower yourself –gingerly—onto the concave surface, and you start to rotate around but, miracle of miracles, do not tip over. Using the same principle as a Sippy Cup, the chairs keep you in balance, observing the world from your unstable position with increasing insouciance as you spend more time on the pieces. Your sense of space changes as radically as your assessment of form does in observing the extrusions.

Image credit: Haunch of Venison.

In the case of these chairs, Heatherwick actually separated out the prototype, which sits resplendent on a pedestal, as a piece of sculpture, leaving you free to use the limited-edition “functional versions.” Does it matter? Should we care if an object is one of contemplation or use? It would seem that only the economics of the gallery space make that distinction.

This raises the point of what Heatherwick’s work means. So far, it has consisted of tricks, like the folding bridge in London, hypnotic images, such as the “porcupine” British Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo, and functional objects. Several things that look an awful lot like buildings, such as a power plant, are in the works. Some of the objects are occupiable, most have a complex relationship between form, structure, and use, and all are beautiful. None drown their effect in either building or disassociated image and form. They occupy that difficult space that makes us wonder about space, function, and form.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.