"The Olympic Games is phenomenally
religious" - Thomas Heatherwick


London 2012 Olympic Cauldron by Thomas Heatherwick

News: the lighting of the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron was conceived as a religious ceremony, designer Thomas Heatherwick has explained.

"The Olympic Games is phenomenally religious," said Heatherwick, who designed the cauldron. "The liturgy, the ceremonial dimension, is incredibly similar to a religious service."

Speaking about his cauldron design at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore last month, Heatherwick compared the Olympic stadium to a temple and the cauldron to an altar.

"There's very precise ceremonial aspects and a gravity to that process," he said. "In a way, the stadium represented the temple to that, and this funny faith that is an Olympics also has miracles that actually maybe you do believe in. You're not sure that someone ever did walk on water, but you do see this guy, who somehow is able to run faster than anything, and it's like miracles."

The Olympic opening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle, was today cited by Monocle magazine as a key reason why Britain is now the most powerful cultural nation on earth.

Heatherwick decided to place his cauldron in the centre of the Olympic Stadium after working with Benedictine monks in England whose altar is at the centre of a circular abbey (below). "It felt so powerful where the altar is," Heatherwick said.

Worth Abbey by Heatherwick Studio

The cauldron consisted of 204 flaming copper "petals" mounted on tubes, which mechanically rose into the sky and came together to symbolise the coming together of athletes from around the world.

The design of the cauldron remained secret until the opening ceremony on 27 July, when the petals were carried into the stadium by representatives of each of the competing nations.

Heatherwick explained that even the volunteers who stood in for athletes at rehearsals for the opening ceremony were unaware of the design and location of the cauldron. "They would be looking up wanting to know where the cauldron was going," he said, not realising they were walking past it as they spoke.

The designer also explained how his studio researched past Olympic cauldrons and found that none of them had remained in the collective memory. "What people did remember was a moment," he said. "Almost everybody only remembered one moment, which was the Barcelona 1992 opening ceremony, where the archer was lighting the cauldron."

In a video interview with Dezeen conducted before the opening ceremony, Heatherwick said the cauldron was designed "not as a thing but as a moment".

See all our stories about Thomas Heatherwick | See all our stories about the London 2012 Olympic Games

Below is an edited transcript of Heatherwick's talk at WAF:

We worked on a project that needed to be very confidential, and it was for the London Olympic Games. There had been a decision taken that it needed to be one of the secrets of the Games. The other one was the Queen, waiting 86 years to show that she had a sense of humour. They managed to keep these two secrets.

The job was to make the holder and the flame that would be lit at the end of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony. We were very happy to be asked to do this project, but we were very aware that cauldrons were these very funny objects - a bowl on a stick with a flame in it. You know when everyone says that everybody's got a book in them? It was like, "What's MY cauldron? I'm into twists, let's do a twisted cauldron, or, I'm into square cauldrons, or a round cauldron," like it didn't have relevance to this phenomenal event, which was this coming together of 204 countries who for just two weeks don't squabble.

And [this is] a time when we are in general less religious, and certainly in Britain. My father lived in Spain for a while and loved that there were all these festivals that brought people together, and in Britain we have been embarrassed to have the Union Jack, as it has been associated with, sort of, national fascism. We don't have many things that bring us together. There was also a sense of, what do we do with this thing once the Games are over?

Typically, the Olympic parks are known for ending up as not as parks but as funny, weird derelict bits of ground five years after the games. And we were imagining whatever we designed sitting there ten years after, in a very sorry state with pigeon poo on it, and calling itself a fountain, spouting water where gas had come through. We just thought, how can the cauldron manifest the ephemerality, this temporary coming together for just two weeks?

This was a historic third time that London was hosting the Olympic Games. We sat with Danny Boyle and Danny was really interested in how we could possibly compete with Beijing's phenomenal scale and grandeur. Danny Boyle described it as unplugging the computer, reboot, start again, and a question of whether the cauldron could be be like an unmarked police car when it does a chase. When it decides it's going to chase, it gets the siren with a magnet and sticks it on the roof.

And where do you stick that cauldron on the roof? You've got this lovely pure simple stadium, and we were told that there was one particular part of it that had been strengthened to take 200 tonnes and it just felt that sticking it on the top of an object like that… why in one place? Why not another place? What was significant about any one bit of that roof?

London 2012 Olympic Cauldron by Thomas Heatherwick

We were also struck that in an Olympic Games the athletes parade happens and the 10,000 athletes all come in and the middle of the stadium becomes a total mess. The athletes are all there in a mish-mash and they're all mixed up with each other, and maybe it was a slight urge to tidy up, but it felt that there was this power, a simple power to this circular stadium.

We've been working with a community of Benedictine monks in England, helping them to finish their church. Their church was built in the late 60s after the second Vatican Council where the Catholic Church gave permission for different forms of liturgy. And that church is in the round; the liturgy is in the round, so that the altar sits in the middle of a very large circular roof. And it felt so powerful where the altar is.

And it seemed to us that the Olympic Games is phenomenally religious: the liturgy, the ceremonial dimension, is incredibly similar to a religious service. There's very precise ceremonial aspects and a gravity to that process. In a way, the stadium represented the temple to that, and this funny faith that is an Olympics also has miracles that actually maybe you do believe in. You're not sure that someone ever did walk on water, but you do see this guy, who somehow is able to run faster than anything, and it's like miracles.

The cauldron suddenly felt to us that it was a serious thing. Given its seriousness, the centre of that stadium suddenly took on an importance. Danny's urge that the opening ceremony should be rooted in the athletes and the spectators, and not just getting bigger and fatter and more enormous, seemed to chime.

So our cauldron's geometry was driven by exactly the shape of the stadium. It's just a direct offset of the very slightly elliptical stadium. And it struck us that, if we made that cauldron as sort of part of the stadium, all of the athletes would be, like, a Terry's Chocolate orange, or slices of cake, all the different countries, which would tidy up the athletes. And then the spectators seating almost became a ring above. The athletes, the spectators, and the main stadium itself somehow all became one object, one thing. And then this idea came of having something that no longer existed afterwards. How can these small things, 204 small things, make one thing that had meaning for two weeks, to then disperse, and these pieces could then go back to each one of the countries?

It felt to us that the metals gold, silver and bronze were going to be busy for the next three or four weeks, so copper - the material that British plumbing is made from, your boiler tank is made from - had this beauty, and this way that it would discolour in intense heat, that had value. Many years ago I'd spent some time raising copper sheets, using repousse hammers, which was where you would take the flat sheets of copper, anneal them, put them in pitch, and gradually shape, re-anneal them and stretch the metal into these forms. And so the same process on a larger scale is what's being used typically in the old wheel arches and body panelling of cars back 100 years ago.

And there are just a few people who can do this wheeling technique to shape the metal. there was a British engineering company who became involved and a British car panel historical restoration company who made these pieces. Each one of these pieces was engraved with the 30th olympiad and the name of the country.

London 2012 Olympic Cauldron by Thomas Heatherwick: model and drawings

in our analysis of Olympic Cauldrons we were given all of these DVDs where it took us an entire weekend to watch every Olympic ceremony there had ever been, and ceremonies of all the other kinds of sporting events. But what we found was interesting: no-one could remember the design of the cauldron. We were being asked to design an object, but actually none had really remembered those objects. What people did remember was a moment. Almost everybody only remembered one moment, which was the Barcelona 1992 opening ceremony, where the archer was lighting the cauldron. And there was a moment, where all of our minds were thinking: "Is he going to do it? And if he misses, there is probably someone up there to light it, but they're going to hit the person there to try and light it if he misses!"

You remembered the archer, but you didn't remember the cauldron. And so we wondered if there was a way to make that process be the object, and if the object and the process were the same thing. And that's what led us to this idea.  Each object was the size of an A3 sheet of paper - very small, and the stadium is gigantic. So at that moment when those objects were carried in we didn't know if anyone would even notice that these children were carrying in these pieces. We didn't know whether everyone would just groan and guess: "Yes, those are all little pieces of the cauldron".

We also designed the tickets and the programmes for all the ceremonies, and we took this gamble that we would hide it in full sight - each ticket had a giant picture of the cauldron, but because it wasn't a giant bowl on a stick, we hoped that you wouldn't recognise that it was the cauldron.

We didn't know if the [TV] commentators would give it away, despite the commentators not knowing what it was. There was a system where they would be given a piece of paper 20 minutes before something happened that they didn't know about. So they didn't know what those copper pieces were to become, other than being told to make people notice them.

The only way to keep it a secret was to rehearse at 3 o'clock in the morning when all of the volunteers and performers had gone home. You would talk to the volunteers who were there practising. During the rehearsals, they would have to practice the whole of the athletes parade, two hours, with no athletes. And so there were people walking along with plastic buckets, instead of [the elements of the cauldron], and bits of rope trying to be Spain, and for all of the athletes of each country. And you would talk to them, and you would find that when you spoke to them, they would be looking up wanting to know where the cauldron was going.

To make the project work, in effect it was making 204 cauldrons, and each one of those shapes was different. It felt to us that we couldn't have 204 identical things, and we knew we didn't want America to have a bigger one than Singapore. The thing that's happening now is that they're all being packaged up and being sent. Each piece has an imprint of that heat from the intensive two weeks; they became quite aged in that period of time.

  • Rob

    Religious? Please. Scraping the barrel to justify a design now. Shame the thing had to be shut down and the flame put out to move it the next day, one day into the games. Is that successful design? Open for debate.

  • Religious or not, but it brings people together, which is good.

  • Dallas


    • Thanks for spotting this, I’ve amended the story!