As the polished copper petals of Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron rose up to form a striking flaming dandelion in July 2012, gasps of awe and wonder echoed around the world at the structure’s startling originality. In the offices of the New York design studio Atopia, however, there were gasps of a different kind.
“We were absolutely furious,” said the practice’s co-director Jane Harrison. “It looked identical to something we had proposed to the London Olympic committee (Locog) back in 2007, after which we hadn’t heard anything.” Locog originally approached Atopia, whose motto is “anticipate the future”, to come up with ideas for a One Planet pavilion, a structure to embody the sustainable ethos behind the London Games.
“Our pitch was all about the story”, Ms. Harrison said. “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.” Atopia’s structure was designed to collect rainwater and generate power from solar cells rather than burning a constant supply of natural gas, but their sketches and models bear an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Heatherwick’s design. His flaming flower also used the narrative sequence of the 205 nations coming together, with the metal dishes returned to the competing countries after the Olympics. It was critically acclaimed, won several awards, and earned the designer a place in Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday honours list. His practice denies all knowledge of Atopia’s earlier design.
“This has come completely out of the blue”, a spokesperson for Heatherwick Studio said. “We have never seen this project before, nor were we made aware of it by Locog. The creative ideas for the cauldron were very much born from a conversation between Danny Boyle (artistic director of the Olympic opening ceremony) and Thomas Heatherwick.” Atopia is only now free to make its claims, having been gagged by a restrictive non-disclosure agreement since 2007 that prevented all companies from promoting any work related to the Olympics. The confidentiality agreement was lifted in January 2013 after a vociferous campaign and a government payment of £ 2 million to the British Olympic Association.
Atopia, which also produced a white paper on strategic sustainability issues which it says was taken forward by Locog’s contractors, has not received any payment for its work.
“It was a crushing disappointment,” said Ms. Harrison, a British-trained architect who has run the practice with David Turnbull for 10 years while also teaching at Princeton University. “We were led to believe it was a confidential presentation to the high-level board, so it was even more shocking to see the ideas had been taken forward by others without us. We are a small office, so we can’t afford to launch legal action.” Locog has been disbanded, but its former design principle, Kevin Owens, described the situation as “unfortunate”. “Atopia really are forward thinkers”, he said. “Strands of their work became part of what was taken forward, and I wish there was a way we could acknowledge that.” Mr. Owens said he had never seen images of their proposals, but that their strong narrative must have “stayed in the psyche” of his colleagues, who commissioned the opening ceremony. “We can only assume that similar conclusions were drawn by the designers,” he added.
Atopia’s accusations follow claims last year by Hull artist Lee Merrill Sendall that Mr. Boyle’s opening ceremony design was copied from a project he had submitted in 2009 to Locog’s Artists Taking the Lead competition. The artist proposed the construction of a 61m spiralling Neolithic mound in east Yorkshire, north England, to represent the UK’s ancient history. His images also featured a lake, farmhouse and fluffy white clouds, all of which appeared in the opening ceremony alongside a spiralling mound said to represent the hill, Glastonbury Tor, in South-west England.
Locog denied Mr. Sendall’s claim, saying Mr. Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony “was inspired by the Glastonbury Tor landmark and British history. The vision was Danny Boyle’s and his only”.
© Guardian News Service