From the foyer, you can hear the squeals of delight echoing from the garden of the Nasher Sculpture Center where visitors have climbed into the spool-like creations known as spun chairs. They are on display as part of Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio, an exhibition that surveys the work of the UK designer, known for approaching projects by asking questions.
It's an atypical design exhibition, as its neither a retrospective (at just 44, Heatherwick has projects planned for years to come) and it doesn't come bearing the signature of the architect. There are no sketches leading to models, culminating in buildings, many of which look alike. Certainly this is the way many architectural firms work. Thomas Phifer and Partners, for example, designed restaurant and pavilion at Klyde Warren Park. If you Google, "Thomas Phifer," you'll see an array of buildings that look vaguely familiar. Walking through Provocations at the Nasher, the only thing you'll see repeated is the question mark. And to really engage with the exhibition, start with the questions.
"Each project, you start to figure out what the real question is and when you do, the answer usually comes pretty fast," says Heatherwick. "For my team, we do a verbal sketch, as in we're together, discussing something and out of that discussion comes a good idea. And all those provocations [in the exhibit] are very real and they then helped us to get to a final answer."
Heatherwick considers himself an inventor as much as an architect, because he's more interested in the ideas than creating a "Heatherwick signature.
"I think that there are people who design buildings, who come up for an idea for a visual style and they apply that style to everything they do," Heatherwick explains, during his three-day visit to Dallas for the exhibition opening. "I slightly feel that's rude to a place. To do something that's the same on every part of the planet there. And also, I feel like life is too short to repeat the same project. The luxury is grappling with something new."
For Heatherwick, in every project, he focuses on creating something meaningful within its milieu. He's interested in what he calls the "human scale," and it's this humanism that he believes gives his projects an authenticity, whether he's designing the olympic cauldron for London 2012 or a Longchamp zip bag, or recently the new London buses.
"We weren't used to working with buses so we can ask questions like, "Why do buses have to look like that?" he explains. "I try to use that naivety or lack of knowledge, because what I do trust is the human experience. We all have our first impressions. You don't have to have studied art history or have a degree in architecture to feel something when you go into a building or onto a bus. Sometimes it's trying to distill what it is that people actually do feel. If they don't feel comfortable, or there's an absence of beauty or they bump their head, or it's smelly, whatever it is."
And it's this kind of accessibility that makes Provocations one of the most irresistible design exhibitions you're likely to see. Curated by Brooke Hodge and designed by the Heatherwick studio, it balances small projects with big projects. You'll see impressive, award-winning commissions, like Heatherwick's design for the UK Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo, next to projects like the Spun Chairs, which came from meeting a man who makes Timpani drums for symphony orchestras.
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"We were curious could the bit that your bum goes on be comfortable on your back?" Heatherwick asks. "There was something that seemed like it might work, but I didn't realize it would be such an enjoyable object to sit on. We knew it might rock, but we didn't know it would do this whole rotation without chunking you out."
Although much of his work derives from asking what's wrong with a place, there's a hopefulness to his practice that seems insistent on humanity's ability to make the world a better place. Perhaps this exhibition can serve as a beacon for Dallas, which constantly seeks what this city could be, with dreams of a walkable city, but can't seem to respect where it's been.
"My dream would be to be commissioned to do a project here and try to help if that's the real interest: how to pull it in, give it the human scale," says Heatherwick, saying that like everything he thinks Dallas could learn to ask itself what the real problem is. "Without the right questions, nothing ever happens."
See Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio through January 4, 2015. Admission to the Nasher Sculpture Center is $10.