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Row over Olympic Cauldron design settled

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London 2012 Games organisers have reached a settlement over claims Thomas Heatherwick’s designs for the Olympic Cauldron had originally been thought up by Amercian practice Atopia

Last year the US-based practice Atopia was reported in The Guardian as saying Heatherwick’s much-praised designs for the 2012 centrepiece looked ‘identical’ to a scheme it had proposed to the LOCOG four years earlier.

In a statement released today (23 July) by liquidators for the defunct organisation, LOCOG said it recognised that Atopia had been engaged in the design process for a scheme, known as the One Planet Pavilion for the Games, and spelled out the five principles of this design (see below). The Atopia concept featured 200 flower shaped forms, one for each of the participating nations, which would be brought into the opening ceremony by ‘bearers’.

Speaking on behalf of the liquidator’s Philip Sykes confirmed the settlement agreement ‘excluded any acceptance of liability on the part of LOCOG or any one else’.

Heatherwick has always insisted his studio had not known about the earlier Atopia concept. As news broke of the settlement, which the studio had been unaware of until earlier today, Heatherwick said the designs were ‘categorically’ those of his studio.

He said: ‘I knew nothing of this settlement until today and it has no implication for any of the creative team. As we’ve said before, the design process was categorically our own, from start to finish.’

Atopia’s proposals were developed with LOCOG between 2006 and 2008 when the practice was involved in the tendering and consultation for a pavilion showcasing sustainability at the London Games.

Atopia’s founders Jane Harrison and David Turner,admitted that their efforts to win acknowledgment of their ideas would be ‘emotionally risky, time-consuming and costly’ but that it was ‘essential in order to establish certain principles and rights’.

The pair said they were ‘relieved’ by LOCOG’s decision, and added: ‘A key component in the way we work is developing design scenarios and writing design-based narratives for clients that allow them to imagine possibilities years ahead of time and catalyse thinking within their organisations to deliver socially engaged innovation’.

The news comes as a new gallery housing the Olympic Cauldron is due to open at the Museum of London tomorrow.

Two sections of the cauldron, which was made of 204 copper elements, are to go on permanent display in a new gallery which tells the tale of its construction.

Heatherwick said he was ‘saddenned’ by the timing of the announcement: ‘I can’t help but feel saddened by what seems like cynical timing to coincide with the opening of the Museum of London’s cauldron exhibition this week.’

LOCOG’s statement in full

Statement issued by the joint liquidators of The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Limited (In Members’ Voluntary Liquidation)

LOCOG recognises that, between 2006-8, designers from ATOPIA LLC  (‘Atopia’) were engaged in the consulting and tender process relating to a proposed project for showcasing sustainability at the London 2012 Games (the ‘Games’) by means of a temporary structure that LOCOG referred to in its request for tender as the ‘One Planet Pavilion’.

ATOPIA provided LOCOG with certain submissions for this purpose. Specifically, Atopia’s submissions and One Planet Pavilion proposal included:

5 concepts that defined a framework for showcasing sustainability at the Games, namely:

  • ‘Beyond Zero’;
  • ‘The One and Many’;
  • ‘An Environmental Parliament’;
  • ‘The Acorn and the Oak’; and
  • ‘Because it’s worth it’.

5 features for the design scenario:-

  • the live-time construction of the pavilion in the opening ceremony for the Games; 
  • the pavilion being made from 200+ flower shaped forms, one for each of the participating nations; 
  • the flower-shaped forms to be brought into the opening ceremony by ‘bearers’ in each participating nations team; 
  • as part of the ceremony the ‘bearers’ to pass each flower shaped form to the ‘next generation’ to be ‘planted’ and ‘deployed’ as a pavilion; and
  • after the Games the flower shaped forms to be returned to the participating nations.

Dated this 18 July 2014

Further comments

Martin Green, former Head of Ceremonies, London 2012

‘Neither work by Atopia or anyone else played any part in the briefing I gave to Danny Boyle and Thomas Heatherwick at the beginning of the process to create the Olympic and Paralympic Cauldron.  The design for the cauldron came about solely from the creative conversations between Danny, Thomas and myself. Danny and Thomas have far too much integrity and talent to require using other people’s ideas in this way.’

Danny Boyle

‘We tried to acknowledge all inspirations and contributions, great and small, and whilst it’s inevitable some were innocently overlooked, can assure everyone, the public, Atopia, Locog’s liquidators, judges, lawyers, that at no point did any of the creative team involved in creating the Opening Ceremony see or hear about Atopia’s work. We studiously avoided any of Locog’s development work prior to our involvement precisely so that we could create an original ceremony, beholden to no one and based on what we saw as the best of British culture. It would beggar belief if we had taken, unacknowledged, an idea for so fundamental a part of the show from an American company.’

Previous story (AJ 28.06.13)

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.


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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