Heatherwick Studio: Seed Cathedral, Shanghai World Expo

Work / Architecture

Thomas Heatherwick retrospective at V&A gives a fascinating insight into his design process

The power of a good show is to make visitors of all levels of expertise feel as though they’ve gained a secret drip of knowledgeable nectar or nugget of understanding. That’s exactly what happens at the Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition on at the V&A now, which gives us wonderfully detailed access to Thomas Heatherwick’s workshop and all the wisdom that dances inside.

On entering it’s like a vaulted archive, dimly lit with spotlights focusing on large photographs, prototypes and perspex boxes filled with preliminary models and material fragments like piles of well-designed treasure. Everything has this glimmer and beauty to it, with ‘do not touch’ signs dotted around, pushing my magpie instincts to the limit.


Heatherwick Studio: V&A Installation view


Heatherwick Studio: V&A Installation view

Grouped in clusters there’s no chronology or strict path to follow in the exhibition, rather it focuses on loose themes like design process, materiality and fabrication and the structures and form of buildings. It’s a real insight into how his workshop operates, highlighting the importance of investigation to the studio as whole and their experiments in which they consider the physical behaviour of materials and how they can be used to define the form of a building (not just provide surface detail or decoration).

Shown are the details of some of Heatherwick’s most impressive structures, like the rod tips of the Seed Cathedral that have a different seed suspended in each of them like ice cubes and the Play Doh advert that inspired the whole project to begin with. It’s these touches that condense everything into manageable portions.


Heatherwick Studio: Bleigiessen, Wellcome Trust

But there’s a part of me that did want to see all these magnificent structures and installations stacked up together in real life, like spokes of the B of the Bang or the ribbon staircase of the Longchamp store, as it was sometimes difficult to really immerse yourself in everything with the plinths and boxes preventing true walk-around freedom. However smelling the wood of the scale-models and gazing at the cool glazed glass spheres of the Bleigiessen lined up in an egg box-like container were beautiful and will have to suffice for now until a guided world tour of his works is available through Thomas Cook.

With the breadth of work on display it’s a real celebration not just of Heatherwick’s work but of British design as well. Collated together you realise that the work Heatherwick Studio have produced and are in the process of creating is remarkable and with more of an understanding of their design practice, it’s increased my appreciation tenfold.


Heatherwick Studio: V&A Installation view


Heatherwick Studio: V&A Installation view


Heatherwick Studio: V&A Installation view


Heatherwick Studio: V&A Installation view