Thomas Heatherwick RA, London 2012 Olympic Cauldron
Thomas Heatherwick RA, London 2012 Olympic Cauldron

London 2012 Olympic Cauldron, 2016-2017

Thomas Heatherwick RA (b. 1970)

RA Collection: Art

Thomas Heatherwick’s Diploma Work, London 2012 Olympic Cauldron (2016-2017), showcases the designer’s practice, which combines architecture, sculpture, and form to create inventive design. The work consists of a single copper ‘petal’, made from a sheet of metal hammered by hand and mounted on a powder-coated steel support. The petal in the RA collection is a replica of one of the stems that formed the Olympic Cauldron which Heatherwick designed for the London 2012 Olympic Games. It is a copy of the petal that was carried by Colombia during the Opening Ceremony but it has been stamped with Great Britain in order to differentiate it from those used.

In 2010 Heatherwick Studio was invited by the creative director of the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony to design a vessel for the Olympic Cauldron. Rather than create a single bowl, Heatherwick chose to create a mass of copper petal-like forms on top of steel stems which, when ignited together, would form the Cauldron. Heatherwick selected copper, rather than gold, silver and bronze which are traditionally associated with Olympic medals, due to its warm colour and the way in which it reacts and changes when heated. Copper develops intricate surface-patination after heating, meaning that each torch would have a unique and enduring patination as a result of burning the Olympic flame. All 204 competing nations carried a unique metal petal during the opening parade, signifying their equal status and unification for the duration of the games. A further 164 petals were created for the competing nations of the Paralympic Games. Each of the torches in the cauldron had its own gas supply, igniter and burner head, and was individually operated by a standalone lever and pivot, the overall cauldron comprised over a thousand moving parts and weighed over 16 tonnes.

Heatherwick Studio focused on the ceremonial and theatrical roles that the Olympic Cauldron has traditionally played in the games. Historically the lighting of the Cauldron was the last stop of the Olympic Torch Relay, where it would burn for the entirety of the games. Concerned that past Cauldrons had been forgotten after the Olympics ended, Heatherwick created a Cauldron which focused on the act of lighting rather than the object itself and that could be dismantled at the end of the event. The performative nature of the Cauldron became clear during the opening ceremony of the Games: each country was led by an athlete carrying the national flag and a child carrying their unlit torch. Each torch was then subtly placed in the centre of the stadium, attached to a slender rod arranged on the ground. Once all 204 countries had attached their torch, seven young athletes lit the individual torches, which were slowly raised to come together like the leaves of a flower, forming a central cauldron with a single Olympic flame that symbolised the peaceful gathering of nations. At the close of the games, each country was able to take their own torch as a sign of continuing connection with the Games and a national memento of the event.

Discussing the expectation of such a visible work, Heatherwick said:

“Every project I've ever worked on, there has been a huge of element of fear. You don't know at the beginning of a design process what you are going to do at the end. And you feel phenomenal responsibility when something is in the public realm at all in any way. And so it might sound strange that, yeah, there was a billion people watching that. It compared to the fear of a project where you are building in a part of a city. Maybe a billion people are not all looking at the same time, but you feel the weight on your shoulders of that importance of something’s presence, of something to really earn its right to be in the landscape that we inhabit. My passion is that public realm. Your fear is tempered with an excitement because you are dying to see a project realised and happen.“

Thomas Heatherwick studied three-dimension design at Manchester Polytechnic and at the Royal College of Art. The designer Sir Terence Conran became a mentor to Heatherwick after seeing his degree project, proclaiming the young designer ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of our times’. In 1994 he founded Heatherwick Studio, where he and his team explore innovative design beyond traditional categories. Notable works have included B of the Bang, a 56-metre steel sculpture at City of Manchester Stadium in 2005, the design for London’s new Routemaster buses in 2010 and the Vessel, a network of interlocking staircases in New York’s Hudson’s Yard Public Plaza. In 2010 the studio’s design for the UK Pavilion, known at the Seed Cathedral, was winner of the RIBA International Award at the Shanghai Expo.

Object details

London 2012 Olympic Cauldron
Made by
Object type
Copyright owner
Copper, stainless steel and powder-coated steel

500 mm x 500 mm x 500 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Diploma Work given by Thomas Heatherwick RA accepted 19 June 2017
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