What the Heatherwick row tells us about attitudes to architecture

Apparently the story about accusations of plagiarism against Thomas Heatherwickcrashed The Guardian’s website, because there was so much interest. It was amazing to see it on the newspaper’s front page. In the world of architecture, such stories happen fairly frequently, sometimes with justification from the aggrieved, sometimes not.

The difference of course is that Heatherwick has become so high-profile, and the Olympic cauldron even more so. It may have been a quietish news day, but it is interesting to see how far up the news agenda the combination of a charismatic designer and a design that has been watched by millions can get. The cauldron may only have existed for a few weeks, but it looms larger in the public consciousness at present than almost any building.

The other odd thing is the timing of the story, driven by the ban on publicity, which prevented Atopia from speaking out until now. And one of the ironies is that the accusations against Heatherwick were made against someone whose entire career is built on thinking differently. An architect may design similar rooms and spaces and details over and over again – and borrow from the past – and be none the worse for this. Heatherwick, however, relies on thinking from scratch on every occasions, which is why his objects (including tiny buildings) tend to be more satisfactory than his major incursions into architecture.

Perhaps what this really tells us is that, even for a most original thinker, there are only so many ideas available. If Heatherwick, as seems probable, came up with a similar solution to Atopia’s without having seen the architect’s proposal, it does not make his achievement any the less. Even for somebody who trades on his originality, being able to sell and execute his ideas so triumphantly is a great achievement as well.






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