When art at cutting edge is just too sharp

Spines on new Heatherwick sculpture may be unsafe, say experts &ndash; like <i>B of the Bang</i>

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Friday 19 December 2008 01:00
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When the designer Thomas Heatherwick first unveiled plans to create a giant illuminated cube glittering with 60,000 swaying spines, few would have said it was not eye-catching enough to represent Britain at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.

But two years before the design is installed at the premier international fair, it appears to be attracting attention for all the wrong reasons. The £12m cube's spines have apparently become a source of concern over safety.

Consultants on the Shanghai project are understood to be worried following the design problems that surrounded Heatherwick's B of the Bang sculpture, according to Building magazine. A week before the 184ft steel work – commissioned to mark the Commonwealth Games – was unveiled in 2005, the tip of one of its many giant spikes fell off.

Nine more were subsequently removed from the work, dubbed "Kerplunk" by locals. Last month, Heatherwick's studio agreed to pay Manchester City Council £1.7m in an out of court settlement over the problems.

Now attention to safety also appears to be on the minds of those giving the green light to Heathwick's current architectural vision, which involves the British pavilion in Shanghai being sheathed in thousands of 8m long spines.

Heatherwick's project team is currently embroiled in meetings with the Britsh Government, which has commissioned the structure, just weeks before construction is due to begin.

A spokeswoman at the government body, UK Trade & Investment, confirmed that safety meetings were taking place but denied that they were connected to any specific concerns or to the B of the Bang structure.

But a source close to the project told Building magazine: "When the problems in Manchester happened, you had the costs people saying, 'Let's just change the thing and simplify it', but Heatherwick's team said, 'Let's manage the risk and make sure nothing like this could happen here'. Heatherwick won't oversimplify because he knows he's on a strong wicket here and he has had the client's ear all along."

Lai Pak Hung, managing director at Davis Langdon & Seah, which is working on the Shanghai scheme, reportedly said: "We can't say we don't have any worries. Given it's the Expo, it's not just about safety – it's political. It could affect the UK's relationship with the Chinese government." The design team had already made changes, including reducing the number of spines on the project and making them from aluminium instead of bamboo.

The project was rumoured to be beset by a clash of ideas between Heatherwick's team and its creative consultant, Philip Dodd. Under the architect's guidance, the cube would have been reminiscent of a jewel.

Heatherwick's studio declined to comment yesterday.

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