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Delight & Design: "Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio"

Wonder and joy pervade the exhibition and enchant its viewers. Skip - don't walk - to experience it.

By Julie D. Taylor, Hon. AIA/LA
May 1, 2015

Delightful smiles are not always expected at an architecture exhibition (think: studied looks and squinted eyes), but at “Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio,” wonder and joy pervade the exhibition and enchant its viewers. The exhibition is currently at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through May 24th, and then moves to the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. Thomas Heatherwick the British designer known for the 2012 London Olympic Torch, UK Pavilion in Shanghai, and new Google headquarters in Mountainview, California (with BIG - Bjarke Ingels Group) exudes a wonder in life, purpose, and society in a non-linear display of selected projects. Models, photographs, materials samples, over-scaled images, videos, and life-size prototypes join with intriguing text for an immersive experience.


Visitors are first introduced to the work by a life-size segment of the New Bus for London in the corridor leading to the gallery. The next piece right inside the gallery is the Exhibition Brochure Machine, a contraption that allows gallery goers to turn a crank that powers rolls of printed paper, a narrow strip of which is offered to visitors to tear off and fold their own guide on demand. It’s a fitting participatory preview to Heatherwick’s focus on processes.


The exhibition itself is designed with a central spine accessed from all sides holding models and materials samples, as well as product prototypes. The back wall sports a similar one-sided arrangement. On the other three walls, large photos and renderings are arranged more or less connecting to the projects. Extruded benches and a case of whimsical holiday cards from the studio round out the offerings.


Curator Brooke Hodge (late of MOCA and The Hammer, and now at NYC’s Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum the next stop for the show) presents project explanations in the form of Q&A. Some of these literal provocations relay architectural goals: “How can a building represent a nation?” “How do you give individuality to the skin of an inexpensive building?” Some are about process: “Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube?” “Is it possible to make a bridge out of glass?” And still others posit possibilities: “Can a building stand up on the architectural equivalent of matchsticks?” “Can a giant sculpture fit through a mail slot?”


Presenting the exhibition labels in this way beautifully positions architects and designers as problem-solvers, not theoretical dreamers no matter how fanciful or abstract the questions. It is also a wonderful way to engage visitors, whether familiar with design vocabulary or not, into the process. Along with a few examples of built structures the concrete wonder of Singapore’s Learning Hub, the innovative and inspiring UK Pavilion, the expressively contextual East Beach Café the exhibition’s many bridges, household and fashion products, furnishings, and sculptures, may question the definitions of architecture, but never the crux of turning ideas into human-centered realities.


“When I was young, inventors caught my attention,” said Heatherwick. “They don’t have a style, they look for ideas.” Amid the wonder and whimsy are serious investigations of urban conditions, environmentalism, community, and culture. “I’m looking for the logic that drives everything,” he continued. “What’s the idea that has a logic to it?”


The Hammer show closes on May 24th and opens at Cooper-Hewitt June 9th. Skip don’t walk to experience it.


“Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio”; Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., LA, through May 24, 2015,; Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st St., NYC, June 9-October 25, 2015,



West Coast correspondent for, Julie D. Taylor, Hon. AIA/LA, is the principal of Taylor & Company, a public relations and marketing services firm for architects, and the editor of the Society of Architectural Historians/SCC News. She is the 2014-2016 Public Director on the AIA National Board of Directors.


Also by Taylor:


Drawing an Elegant Conclusion: Menil Drawing Institute by Johnston Marklee
Houston: In the somewhat arbitrary hierarchy of fine art media, where painting is king, drawing is often considered less valuable. The new MDI elevates the medium by providing a distinguished, respectful home.


Monterey Design Conference: 1 Mile of Beach. 3 Days. 20 Speakers. 50 Hours. 100s of Conversations. 1,000s of Ideas
The Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, CA, will be abuzz at the biennial event September 27-29, 2013.


The Blob That Could Eat Los Angeles
The history of our ill-fated Los Angeles County Museum of Art is told in "The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA": I'm a fan of Zumthor, but this building could be cool almost anywhere else.


Overdrive: L.A.'s Future is Present in its Past
Simultaneously hopeful and wistful, The Getty Museum's exhibition is about the evolution of a modern city seen through its architecture, confirming the truly layered nature of Los Angeles.


Report from IDSA 06: Elements of Change (and architecture)


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Brian Forrest

“How do you turn a paper mill into a gin distillery?”: Distillery, Laverstoke, England (2010-14), foreground. Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA, through May 24, 2015.

Julie D. Taylor

Thomas Heatherwick and Brooke Hodge at the Exhibition Brochure Machine at the Hammer Museum, LA.

Brian Forrest

“How can every country in the Olympic Games take part in making and lighting the Olympic cauldron?”: Olympic Cauldron, London (2012). Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA.

Brian Forrest

“Can a building help change the way we learn?”: Learning Hub, Singapore (2011-14). Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA.

Brian Forrest

“Can a London bus be better and use 40% less fuel?”: New Bus for London (2010-12). Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA.

Brian Forrest

“How can you make objects out of long pieces of zipper?”: Zip bags (1993-2004). Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA.

Brian Forrest

“How can a building represent a nation?”: UK Pavilion, Shanghai, China (2007-10), foreground cases. Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA.

Brian Forrest

Exterior Title Wall, designed by Heatherwick Studio. Installation at the Hammer Museum, LA.