Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studios

Provocations Sculpture

Heatherwick Studio, Garden Bridge, London, 2012–Rendering: Arup

Currently at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Provocations delivers behind-the-scenes access to the creative process of Heatherwick Studios in London.  Beyond this individualized perspective, the exhibition offers the viewer a rare glimpse at the generally secret workings of an artist and designer. Incorporating maquettes, material testing and others elements of the design process,  Provocations does exactly what it states; it provokes insight and a deeper thought into the creative process of designing for technical and aesthetic solutions for public spaces.

The artist, semi-mythical character and modern-day alchemist, magically converts material into the physical manifestation of an idea derived from pure ether. Or so it would seem. The inherent disconnect between the creative individual and his peers is understandable yet troubling at times, with art acting with self-affirming importance. Heatherwick Studio’s design of structures and objects stands as a foundation of culture, approached as both pragmatic and aesthetically challenging while closing the gap of plebian understanding and appreciation. Even with the transparency of information in the exhibition there exists a mystery to the process that gives it the raw touch and edge of an artist.

Provocations Sculpture

Exhibition view. Photo by Jake Weigel

A great comparison for Provocations is the Isa Genzken retrospective across the street from the Dallas Museum of Art. The explorations of architecture and design are most prevalent in Genzken’s early series with concrete and resin-coated steel structures. Both exhibitions offer greater depths of thought from the artists; the retrospective over a longer period of time and  Provocations through visual information or documentation. Genzken never made her architectural renderings as anything other than a socio-political statement or art. In contrast Heatherwick Studio’s tells a more honest tale of the designer as artist, architect and maker of functional space.

Provocations Sculpture

Megan Radke in a Spun chair at the Nasher Sculpture Center – Photo by Evan Chavez

But forget the final products for a moment. The most intriguing elements of  Provocations are not the large-scale photographs of the final projects realized, or the precise mode for structures, but the relics of trial and error and the process itself. The regularly cast away mistakes displayed expose a clarity of thought and emotion, standing stark against this principles of economics and commodification. Great examples include the steel cladding crumple machine used for Artists’ Studios (2008), the prototypes for Spun (2012), or the extruded aluminum bench that was pushed to the limits of the machine. These, among a myriad of other examples, show how the creative process can produce an object of significance that could be placed in a gallery or museum.

Provocations Sculpture

“Artists’ Studios” Steel cladding crumple machine, 2008
Steel, wood, neoprene, and plywood. Photo by Jake Weigel

This idea is reinforced by the curatorial decisions for the work on display in the two rooms. The entrance space greets visitors with an interactive device that churns out the exhibition program with four other large objects and minimal design, each piece holding a monumental space of prominence as artifact and art. However, in the second room the remaining work is piled onto white pedestals in the center while large photos line the walls. This presentation brings to mind the studio environment with piles of half finished ideas, materials and supplies but is also overwhelming and takes away from the individual processes and objects. It will be interesting to see how the two upcoming exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York City are seen in different spaces.

Provocations: the Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studios was organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center. The exhibition runs from September 13, 2014 until January 4, 2015 and will continue onto the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from February 15 – May 24, 2015 and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum from June 19 – October 25, 2015.

by Jake Weigel

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