The Olympic Flame 2012 (Edmund Sumner)
For those of you who watched the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012 there is little chance you will have forgotten the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. One member of each of the 204 competing countries entered the arena carrying a copper torch which, when when lit and combined with the others, formed a massive flame symbolising peace and the unity of the Games. This unforgettable event was created by British design studio Heatherwick studio, of which Thomas Heatherwick is founder and design director.
He has an interesting background. His grandfather, Miles Tomalin, was a communist and musician who volunteered to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. His Jewish grandmother, Elisabeth Tomalin, fled from Nazi Germany and worked with emigre architect Ernö Goldfinger in London, subsequently setting up and directing Marks and Spencer’s textile design studio.
His parents were also creative. Stefany Tomalin, his mother, was a jeweller and painter and his father, Hugh, the son of a servant at Windsor Castle, played the piano, was a member of the Royal Marines band and a boxer. He was also pivotal in developing the Heatherwick Studio.
In 2013 I heard Thomas speak at Jewish Book Week. The designer, Sir Terence Conran, calls him the ‘Leonardo Da Vinci of our Times’ and, after hearing Heatherwick’s presentation, I understood why. My curiosity was aroused and I determined to visit as many of his creations in London as possible.
Bliegessen sculpture at the Wellcome Trust
I went first to the Wellcome Trust biomedical charity which commissioned Heatherwick to produce a sculpture for the eight storey atrium of their London headquarters. This spectacular 30 metre high artwork can be viewed at 2pm on the last Friday of each month. I duly attended and was completely taken aback, particularly after learning of the complex process that resulted in 142,000 glass spheres suspended on 27,000 high tensile steel wires – comprising 15 tonnes of glass and just under a million metres of wire. My rule of thumb when viewing art is whether it has the ‘wow’ factor – this piece undoubtedly does!
The latest Routemaster bus.
Moving from the aesthetic to the practical, I next ventured onto the new Routemaster bus. In 2010 Heatherwick studio joined a team to design a new bus for London – the first since 1968 when the old Routemaster ceased production. This new version entered service in 2012 but differs from the original being 3 metres longer and having three doors and two staircases.
Interior of the new Routemaster
Initially the new bus had fixed windows which proved to be a problem in hot weather – but travellers’ concerns were addressed and in future all buses will have opening windows.
At the back of the bus is an open platform, similar to those I remember hanging off as schoolgirl. Today, ‘customer assistants’ (no more conductors!) stand at the back to stop people hopping on and off at will, which spoils all the fun – although I concede that it probably improves passenger safety. I learned all of this from John and Liden at the Hampstead terminus. They were not only happy to tell me proudly about their buses but also agreed to photograph me sitting in the driver’s seat. No doubt they assumed I was just another Hampstead eccentric.
My next stop, travelling by bus, of course, was to Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral. This area had been the centre of the publishing trade before its total destruction during the WW2 Blitz. Amazingly, St Paul’s itself remained unscathed. Since the end of the war the area has been redeveloped, one scheme being championed by Prince Charles, and today the area is thriving. The London Stock Exchange is a major tenant and the place is alive with cafes, bars and shops. In fine weather city workers can play outdoor table tennis or relax in deck chairs during their lunch break, watching old movies on an open air screen.
The developers commissioned some impressive sculptures, including ‘Bronze Paternoster’ – Shepherd with his Sheep, by Dame Elizabeth Frink. Nearby stands a 23m high corinthian Portland stone column, boasting a covered flaming copper urn topped in gold leaf which is lit at night. Unexpectedly, this column also has a practical use, serving as a ventilation shaft for an underground service area. Another part of the Square houses a subterranean electricity station requiring the construction of air vents for its cooling system. Heatherwick Studio were commissioned to find a harmonious solution – functional yet aesthetic.
They produced a breathtaking 11m high construction comprising stainless steel isosceles triangles. It is hard to believe, but this impressive sculpture was inspired by a design created by folding paper, so before you visit the Square, you absolutely must look at the u tube video of the paper folding process! It is fascinating to learn how great designs originate.
Guy’s Hospital new frontage
I then continued south of the Thames to Guy’s Hospital to see another example of Heatherwick’s original approach. Previously, this was a derelict area, made worse by an unsightly and decaying old boiler house. Heatherwick again wrought his magic, wrapping the building in a specially designed cladding system of woven stainless steel.
However, of all Heatherwick’s work, my favourite has to be the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin, where his studio designed a bridge spanning an inlet of the Grand Union Canal to allow access for pedestrians. At noon every Friday the bridge rolls up until it stands, like a hamster’s wheel, on one side of the canal. The process takes minutes, following which it unwinds and returns to its use as a footbridge. It was built on the Sussex coast, floated up the Canal and attached to its hydraulic lifting system on site.
The Rolling Bridge, beginning to roll up.
The Rolling Bridge, rolled up.
A surprise treat for me was to discover that at 12.15, only 100 yards away, another bridge, the ‘Fan’, this one designed by Knight Architects, transforms and opens up like a ‘fan’ across the water. Then, just as elegantly, it reverses back to its original position. Another magnificent feat of design and engineering.
The end of the ‘Fan Bridge’ before moving.
The Fan Bridge, opened up.
I introduced myself to Sameer and Narayan who control the bridges. Sameer held a small insignificant key in his hand to start the hydraulics. Knowing my propensity for losing keys, I asked what would happen if he lost it. Pragmatically, he replied that its value was £10,000 for which he would be held liable. He then showed me a pair of larger keys, valued at £65,000 – for which he is also responsible – definitely not a job for me! Watching these bridges operating was mesmerising, beautiful and moving. Some youngsters standing with me were equally enthralled, reliably informing me that it was ‘totally cool’.
£65,000 worth of keys!
For those of you wanting something different in London, I recommend following this trail. It is free of charge, and provides an different and cheaper alternative to visiting Oxford Street. Heatherwick’s work is quite exceptional. Many of his pieces have won major awards and he has received Honorary Doctorates from four universities, is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and in 2013 was awarded a CBE for his services to the design industry.
I look forward to hearing of his future projects – one in particular being the construction of a Garden Bridge over the River Thames between Temple and the South Bank – the brainchild of actress Joanna Lumley. The initial designs show it to be a magnificent and unique addition to the London scene. With a bit of luck, as well as help with the funding, this bridge may open in 2019.
However yesterday questions were raised in Parliament from one M.P. urging Heatherwick to consider the bridge as a sanctuary for mammals, in particular hedgehogs – an endangered species. He requests that access points (which are currently lifts and stairs and definitely not hedgehog friendly), should be modified so that our spiky friends can get on to the bridge and enjoy its benefits. The organisers say they will be happy to discuss this and also where saucers of food should be placed for them. It is comforting to know that our government is paying attention to such significant matters in these days of Brexit. Let us hope that they will extend these privileges to other endangered species and will not establish quotas for the numbers of them who can use this facility.
Photo: Heatherwick Studio