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Provocations: The architecture and design of Heatherwick Studio

Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York City Through January 3, 2016

To fully appreciate Provocations, one might first take a trip a few miles south to the Morgan Library. Here, another exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The shifting scales and fantastical juxtapositions from the mind of author Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, seem to be embedded in Thomas Heatherwick’s own design DNA, as do Dodgson’s interest in puzzles and scientific experimentation. The title Provocations refers to the challenging questions Heatherwick develops for every project, both as a guidepost and a kind of riddle to be answered.

The London-based studio’s work would look just as intriguing through a microscope as it might through a telescope, and even a small sampling of Heatherwick’s material choices can tell a big story. The prize-winning UK Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Seed Cathedral, is represented with a handful of the structure’s 60,000 anemone-like quills. Look closely, and each of these fiber-optic rods has a different kind of seed suspended in its tip. And the architectural models on display aren’t just the typical 3-D sketches in foam. These studies are meticulously detailed and occasionally even come to life —  a model for a Rolling Bridge transforms with the turn of a crank, the two sides curling up like twin caterpillars. (Heatherwick’s original 2004 Rolling Bridge near Paddington Station in London was one of his first projects to receive international notice.)


The UK Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Photo: Iwan Baanion.

The show, which originated at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and then traveled to UCLA’s Hammer Museum, was tailored to fit the Cooper-Hewitt’s third-floor gallery by a Heatherwick team. The most exciting aspect of the exhibition and, for that matter, of Heatherwick’s 20-year-old practice, is the trajectories of long-term thinking that are laid visible across projects of all scales. The undulating topographic staircase for the Longchamp boutique in New York echoes the more diminutive design of the stairway in a reimagined double-decker bus (set to hit London’s streets next year).The idea for 240 individual copper cups that composed the 2012 Olympic cauldron resurfaces in the concrete underpinnings of the proposed Pier 55 in Manhattan, a design for man-made landscape that evokes a futuristic Ridley Scott set.

Simultaneously cinematic and tactile, Provocations offers visitors a rare gift: a sense of wonder.