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'B' for bother?

Razia Iqbal | 13:57 UK time, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

B Of The BangIt's not a good day for the artist Thomas Heatherwick, who, along with his sub contractors, must find £1.7m to pay damages to Manchester City Council for his disintegrating sculpture, B of the Bang.

I met Thomas in 2005. That was when B of the Bang was touted as one of the most exciting pieces of public art around. He was so enthusiastic about the piece. And he had good reason. Named after something the athlete Linford Cristie had said about leaving the blocks "on the 'B' of the Bang" of the starter pistol, it is a 180-tonne starburst of metal spikes, redolent of that explosion of energy at the beginning of a race.

heatherwick.jpgIt looked like a major engineering feat, but then bits started falling off, and a public work of art had to be cordoned off for the safety of the public. Around that time, Heatherwick was being talked about by many as a man with a glittering future and international commissions were coming his way thick and fast.

It is hard to categorise Heatherwick: his work involves artistic ideas, innovation, engineering and design knowledge. This is a major blow to him and I suspect he is profoundly disappointed. The damages alone could set him back years, though it's not clear how much he has to pay and how much the sub-contractors will pay.

But it doesn't have to be disastrous in creative terms. Heatherwick is an original thinker and this setback shouldn't prompt people to write him off. I'm hoping to speak to him this afternoon so I'll update you later.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is not a good day for him....

  • Comment number 2.

    Quote: "...his work involves artistic ideas, innovation, engineering and design knowledge."

    Apparently not.

  • Comment number 3.

    As a Chartered Engineer I find it dissapointing that such a structure couldn't be designed correctly. Perhaps the artist or the manufacturer didn't understand the loading correctly or used inappropriate construction methods/materials. It really doesn't matter how good the sculpture, or for that matter a building, is if ultimately it doesn't survive.

    I think rather than suggest this individual is an 'original thinker' he should be consider a failure in this instance. How good the art is is irrelevent.

  • Comment number 4.

    Until today I'd never heard of the B of the Bang. So I had a look at some of the photos of looks amazing!

    I hope that the sculpture is repaired/made safe, as it would be a shame to see such an immense structure go.

  • Comment number 5.

    Visualy this is a great peice of public art; it looks stunning at this time of year when the sun is setting - It's such a shame that it has been fenced off. I have to agree with the comments from 'tenigineer' and wonder why it wasn't designed correctly in the first place - Can it be fixed?

  • Comment number 6.

    "It looked like a major engineering feat, but then bits started falling off ..."

    What a telling symbol of the world's finance industry! It should be installed permanently in the City of London. I suggest that leading City bankers might raise £1.7m from their private resources to meet Heatherwick's liability.

  • Comment number 7.

    If this piece had been artistically poor nobody would be blaming the engineers or constructors. Why then, is Heatherwick footing some of the bill for what looks to be an engineering or construction failure?

    And why does Tengineer point the finger at Heatherwick not his colleagues in engineering and construction?

  • Comment number 8.

    This does rather raise a wider question which has been kept under wraps to a large extent by the art establishment.

    If someone pays x million pounds for a Damien Hirst shark, what happens when, despite all the pickling, it decays ?? Would recreating the 'same design' be considered the 'original art' as it conforms to Mr Hirst's original spec ??

    Or is it part of the x million pounds paid for the originality of it being the one he physically has worked on ? A 'sentimental value' if you will ?

    I suspect many who have coughed up the readies for such artwork will be looking at the 'warranty agreements' they signed up to a lot more closely after this episode.

  • Comment number 9.

    The structural design is certainly near the limit but then it had to be in order to create a sculpture that appears to defy gravity.
    The core fabrication and construction have been deemed sound too. The failure was down to poor field welding of some of the spines.
    Most professional engineers who study Heatherwick's respect him. Most of the people who worked on the project are justly proud of their achievement.
    The problem of the B of the Bang is a perverse one. It's meant to look precarious, and now the public is persuaded that it really is.

  • Comment number 10.

    In answer to the shark question- it is re-pickled! But my main point isn't a comment about originality, but one which asks the question: what has gone wrong at Heatherwick? This is not the only public sculpture from Heatherwick which is not the quality one would expect- his Blue Carpet in Newcastle has a number major of flaws (great concept, terribly executed). Questions arise relating to the commissioning of the pieces, including: was the allocated budget sufficient for the projects?; has there been a proper maintenance agreement, and who has responsibility for this?

    Ultimately, Heatherwick is to blame for the failings of his studio/subcontractors- he has the final responsibility for the quality of the work on all levels, though he is doubtless guided by qualified professionals. I'm curious about the experience of the commissioners- a project of this kind needs extremely experienced and astute handling on behalf of the commissioning body- not just in the contracting, but also in quality control.

    Just wondering.

  • Comment number 11.

    I pass this nearly everyday. Its a fantastic piece of work ad its a shame that everyone didn't get together and solve the problem instead of suing. How American.

  • Comment number 12.

    I have always liked B of the Bang, it looks great in the backdrop of the City of Manchester stadium. It kind of ruins the illusion though with a fence around it!

  • Comment number 13.

    I agree with #3. Looks like art was more important than sums. Fortunately Anthony Gormley engineered the Angel of the North a little better.

    Its a shame really- you can see B of the bang from the train going into Manchester Piccadily and its an impressive looking sculpture.

  • Comment number 14.

    Heatherwick is a shark notorious in the business for using slave labour. Most of the people at his studio are unpaid, work experience schoolkids or interns supporting themselves in the hope of a job that never materialises. The project I personally worked on was heavily sabotaged by dissastisfied workers I wouldn't be surprised if the same didn't happen here. That or his penny pinching finally caught up with him!

  • Comment number 15.

    I've only seen pictures of it, but I have spent quite a bit of my life helping to design things that take off and land at Manchester airport (and touch without bits falling off them, touch wood!)

    Quite possibly, a bit of money could have been saved at the "engineering" stage by using this as a "design and make" project for apprentices and trainees at a company that DOES know how to do high-tech engineering that works, like BAE or Rolls-Royce.

    50 or 100 young engineers just starting their careers would have been able to say "I did a bit of that" for the rest of their lives, everybody involved would have had a real interest in "doing it right", not in cutting corners save a couple of quid or just through ignorance (if, as #10 implied, it was built mostly by low-skilled labour).


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