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Whose idea was the Olympic Cauldron anyway – and what does it really matter?

Authorship is a prickly topic, yet practitioners know that design emerges through debate, says Rory Olcayto

Great Britain’s own Leonardo, Thomas Heatherwick, a copycat?

I don’t believe it. That was the general reaction last week when The Guardian published a story in which American firm Atopia said Thomas Heatherwick’s 2012 Olympic Cauldron looked ‘identical’ to a pavilion it had proposed for the Games four years earlier. A photo of a model of the Atopia scheme, a cluster of trumpet-like poles with furled petal tips, placed alongside a photo of Heatherwick’s cauldron, whose flaming petals on spindly stalks brought global fame and a CBE to the London-based designer, seemed to prove Atopia’s point.

Furthermore, Atopia claimed its original pitch to the organising committee, Locog, had been appropriated too, and once again without recognition: ‘We devised a structure of petals on tall stems, which would travel from all of the participating countries, then be brought into the stadium by children. The petals would be assembled during the opening ceremony to form a flower-like canopy, and distributed back to the different nations after the Games,’ said Atopia’s Jane Harrison. As anyone who witnessed the opening and closing ceremonies can attest, this matches the assembly and post-Games plans for Heatherwick’s Cauldron. The usually modest, pacific, self-proclaimed inventor was quick to respond, rejecting the claims outright in the Evening Standard: ‘Nonsense,’ he said. ‘I have never copied anyone in my life.’

Who should we believe? Heatherwick was also supported by the Games opening ceremony director Danny Boyle. ‘Thomas and I evolved the idea for the cauldron over many months of discussions,’ he said. ‘I categorically deny that Locog briefed us to work with, develop, or implement any pre-existing idea that had been presented to them.’ Yet Locog’s former design principal, Kevin Owens, appeared to support Atopia’s claims when he told The Guardian that ‘strands of their work became part of what was taken forward’ and that their story pitch ‘stayed in the psyche’ of his colleagues.

heatherwick

Evidently Thomas Heatherwick designed the Olympic Cauldron. Or rather Heatherwick Studio did. Despite the commonly held belief that Heatherwick is a kind of lone wolf designer who does every single thing on every single project himself, it’s not the case. Blame Alan Yentob. He sainted Heatherwick as Britain’s Leonardo da Vinci in a 2006 BBC documentary, way too early in his career and with too few great projects in his portfolio to justify such a lofty comparison.

Those who have worked in Heatherwick Studio know it’s built upon collaboration. One former colleague I spoke to recalled design sessions where it was common for six or eight people to sit around a table, with Heatherwick acting as a director of the discussion. He was not necessarily the instigator of all the studio’s ideas, although occasionally a sketch he’d done would spark a project idea.

Authorship is a prickly topic, yet practitioners know that design emerges through debate, refinement and iterative improvements. You can understand why Heatherwick said he’s ‘never copied anyone in his life’, but it’s verging on the petulant. For a more nuanced understanding of how design works, his extended quote in the Evening Standard is revealing, in a Freudian way: He said of his studio: ‘We are known for developing ideas’.

Still, Heatherwick’s dismissal is genuine. The Dandelion Seed Cathedral in Shanghai is an obvious precursor to the cauldron: both feature disparate multiples aggregated into a whole object. There is the matter of scale and function, too. Atopia’s design was for a much bigger pavilion, whose canopy would shelter events - it’s not a fiery cauldron with lots of moving parts. Nevertheless, Atopia’s soppy narrative, very much in tune with London’s inclusive theme for the 2012 Games, was, as Locog’s Owen says, influential. Heatherwick and Boyle may not have been directly exposed to it with an official briefing - but it was definitely in the air.

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