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Tuesday29 July 2014

The flaming dandelion

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By reinventing the question, Thomas Heatherwick has shown that the Olympic cauldron can be more than a bowl of fire on a stick

“It didn’t feel enough to just design a different shape of bowl on a stick,” says Thomas Heatherwick, whose startling Olympic cauldron design wowed 4 billion viewers around the world as the climax of Friday’s opening ceremony.

“We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn’t try to be even bigger than the last ones,” he says.

In typical Heatherwick style, his cauldron design reinvented what the bowl-of-fire-on-a-stick could be, by entirely rephrasing the question he was trying to answer: “We were trying to think from the most fundamental, ‘where’ and much as ‘how’ and much as ‘what’,” he says.

The resulting design comprises 204 unique copper “petals”, brought to together by the competing nations and assembled into one of Heatherwick’s trademark gigantic dandelion seeds - aka “one great flame of unity”. Fully erect it stands 8.5m high and weighs a total of 16 tonnes. It has also been dubbed “the world’s first low-carbon Olympic cauldron”.

2012 London1

2012 London – petals open

2012 London2

2012 London – petals closing

2012 London3

2012 London – petals closed

The copper petals, hand-made by car panel beaters in a shed in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, are plugged into stainless steel gas pipes, which are acid treated with a bluish finish, known as “bad black”, and arranged in ten concentric rings. A complex mechanism was developed which would raise the inner ring first, followed by nine outer rings so that in the time it takes for the first ring to become vertical, the final one is just lifting into the air. It took the seven young athletes 45 seconds to light the flames and then a further 45 seconds for the cauldron to be raised.

“It was technically very difficult to make it work,” says Heatherwick. “When it worked [at the opening ceremony], it was a huge relief.”
After the Games, the cauldron will be dismantled and each copper petal returned to each competing national Olympic committee, in a similar manner to how the resin-encased seeds of his Shanghai pavilion were distributed.

mechanism

The mehcanism which raised the 204 copper petals into place in ten rings.

copper petals1

The copper petals were handmade by car panel beaters.

copper petals2

Each copper petal was individually made and etched with the name of a competing country.


Despite its unsavoury associations with the Nazi Olympics of 1936 - which invented the torch relay tradition - the Olympic cauldron was first introduced to the modern Olympics in 1928 in the form of the Marathon Tower in the Netherlands, which was glamorously lit by an employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam.

This began the classic typology of the monumental bowl-on-a-stick, which evolved with little variation over the years. As you can see below, some countries opted for sober cenotaph-like edifices, others spindly tripods, some space-age flying saucers, until the bloated 300-tonne spiral of Beijing in 2008. By radically reinventing what a big bowl of fire can be, Heatherwick’s design stands out as the most elegant and innovative in 84-year history of this strange tradition.

1928 Amsterdam

1928 Amsterdam

1932 Los Angeles

1932 Los Angeles

1936 Berlin

1936 Berlin

1948 London

1948 London

1952 Helsinki

1952 Helsinki

1956 Melbourne

1956 Melbourne

1960 Rome

1960 Rome

1964 Tokyo

1964 Tokyo

1968 Mexico

1968 Mexico

1972 Munich

1972 Munich

1976 Montreal

1976 Montreal

1980 Moscow

1980 Moscow

1984 Los Angeles

1984 Los Angeles

1988 Seoul

1988 Seoul

1992 Barcelona

1992 Barcelona

1996 Atlanta

1996 Atlanta

2000 Sydney

2000 Sydney

2004 Athens

2004 Athens

2008 Beijing

2008 Beijing

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Kind of showed Anish Kapoor how to do something in the true spirit of the olympics.

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  • The climax of the opening ceremony was an incredibly moving moment. It is not everyday that such a powerful ritual is created, so why ditch it and try to come up with yet something different next time?
    The individual flames merging into a great fire, it was like looking into the sun, with the spokes becoming its rays. The sun is the cauldron we came from, the solar system is our future. The London olympics cauldron is the most potent metaphor of our common identity, and destiny, that I have ever seen, on par with the first images of the earth beamed back by the Apollo astronauts.
    I think the cauldron would be put to better use not only by being reused at ulterior olympic events, but by being replicated and installed in every nation, in a highly symbolic location. It would be lit at every great occasion, replacing the raising of the national flag.
    In times of increasing nationalism and tribalism of all sorts, such a powerful symbol is priceless, and merits to be experienced again and again.
    Please reconsider

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  • Hi Bob

    I kind of agree with what you're saying but unfortunately this would mean that future nations would not be able to creatively express their own interpretation of the unifying meaning of the cauldron. That is one of the honours bestowed on a host nation that should never be denied them.

    I do agree though that this cauldron has a timeless, classical quality and you almost think to yourself: this is as good as it can get so why change it.

    But I think the deeper point is that life always changes and moves forward, and so must, sadly, this olympics. The memories will live long though.

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