Designed by Heatherwick Studio itself, with graphics by Here Design, the show at first seems deceptively small, located in the V&A’s Porter Gallery, to the left of the main entrance. However, there’s a huge amount to see: maquette after maquette, materials and inspiration piled up in non-linear, non-chronological clusters ordered by process, form, material or theme.
It’s an exhaustive and enormously in-depth study of the relatively young practice, spanning two decades from Heatherwick’s university projects from Manchester University and the RCA, to as-yet-unrealised propositions and recently completed works.
The most visible of these to Londoners, of course, is the shiny curved sides of the new Routemaster bus , currently sailing along the busy 38 route. The show features a section of the bus itself, highlighting its curved window and rounded sides designed to disguise the fact that the bus is bigger than its predecessors.
The show celebrates the versatility of Heatherwick Studio: from mind-blowing bridges to the bus to the furniture there are also some rather surreal commissions. As well as a stunning Buddhist temple, there’s the Towers of Silence project, commissioned by the Bombay Parsi Puchayter. Parsis practice the Zoroastrian faith, which upholds a tradition that when followers die, their bodies are placed in Towers of Silence (dakhmas), where they are exposed to the elements and consumed by vultures. In recent years, due to dwindling numbers of both Parsis and vultures, the ritual is under threat, and thus Heatherwick Studio was drafted in to design a custom-built dakhma aviary to house the birds.
Among numerous highlights is the rolling bridge in London’s Paddington Basin, with a live demonstration of the model showing the visually arresting curl into a strange organic form. Despite the thematic arrangement, works like this often subsume smaller projects, such as the zip bag, making them look perhaps unfairly unremarkable.
While pieces like the Extrusions seat, a shiny curved form created from a single piece of metal, function as works in their own right, the scaled-down models take on a new aesthetic quality when displayed in a gallery setting – and would sit as well is a fine-art sculpture show as a demonstration of the process and engineering that went into their realisation.
The exhibition is successful in demonstrating the process behind creating these often hugely complex structures, showing the initial ideas, materials testing and the problematic technical troubles these can often raise. It’s a refreshingly honest unveiling of the trial and error approach – we see how Heatherwick often finds shapes through processes such as dropping molten metal into cold water, or drawing inspiration from very site-specific events, such as the ‘wood slick’ that inspired the shape of a Worthing leisure centre.
Left until almost the very end of the exhibition, a model of the famous Seed Cathedral (UK Pavilion) for the Shanghai World Expo 2010 is resplendent in its odd, anemone-like splendour; and some of the Perspex rods that housed the seed are also presented. To return to the idea of playfulness, we also see a rather idiosyncratic inspiration source for this, and the ‘hairy buildings’ built by Heatherwick Studio: the Play Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop.
Experimentation is at the heart of the studio – whether in material or form – and it’s fascinating to see how something as commonplace as a photograph of a man holding a row of books aloft, pressed together with his hands stems into a prototype for a glass bridge, which would use the same principles of compressing to form a glass bridge at London’s King’s Cross.
Projects often begin regardless of whether or not there’s a client or brief in mind – forms and fabrication techniques are tested relentless. It’s described as a ‘purposeful aimlessness’ in the show notes: ‘a way of thinking through making’ which obviously works very, very well.
Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary runs from 31 May – 30 September at the V&A V&A, Cromwell Road, London, SW7
The exhibition is accompanied by a Thames & Hudson book designed by Caz Hildebrand, Thomas Heatherwick: Making, available now priced £38