Thomas Heatherwick needed inspiration for the design of the UK’s representation at the Shanghai Expo 2010. So he went for some guidance. He asked for and was granted an audience with the Queen. The timing of his appointment was auspicious.
Outside Buckingham Palace, like many UK and foreign tourists, he was captivated by the changing of the guard. The famous Bearskin Caps worn by the guards caused him to wonder, “What’s allowing the caps to hold their shape, I thought. How do the bristles stay so alive? And most importantly of all, what would it be like inside?”
He went to work on realizing the fantasy. The building-if you want to call it that-he designed for the Shanghai Expo 2010, is a super-sized, inhabitable bearskin hat. Heatherwick explained that he experimented with using actual hats, unwoven and reapplied onto a metal frame. He also considered using real bear skin. “I just didn’t know how to light the interior,” he said. “Would there be a single light bulb as though the guard had an idea, as in ‘the light went on?’ But then I thought that the guards aren’t there to think.”
The guard, in fact, is a nearly forgotten part of the scheme. One enters into the ‘hat’ as though one end is being lifted up for us, or that the stitching is incomplete. We gain entrance to this great mysterious and dark space. The polyurethane square profile rods that make up the fur carry light inside and illuminate the space, though not much. In the floor’s center, these are repeated as representations of the fibers in the guard’s brain. “Some may think it’s his hair, but the light that emanates from them should make it clear,” Heatherwick says.
The ball of fur sits in what he describes as unfolded wrapping paper. “With such a unique structure, we didn’t want to unfold a simple hat box. So we thought, ‘What else could enclose this thing?’ and the idea of gift-wrapping it, almost like candy, for the expo came up. We liked the varied surfaces to climb over. It mocks the way tourists climb all over the guards, who they know are not permitted to move.”
In this way, he says, they have created an abstracted version of visiting Buckingham Palace, one of the UK’s most beloved tourist destinations.