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2004 January: Sitting Pretty, 'Sitooterie' by Thomas Heatherwick

Something rather peculiar has landed in an Essex field. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, this space-age pin cushion is a modern interpretation of a ‘sitooterie’ (derived from the Scots meaning ‘small summer house’ – literally a place in which to ‘sit oot’).Fabricated entirely from aluminium, it follows on from an earlier temporary timber structure designed for the grounds of Besley House in Northumberland.The client for this latest ventre saw it and commissioned Heatherwick to create a more permanent version.

Sitooterie2

The site lies on Barnards Farm, a bucolic retreat in rural Essex owned by Bernard and Sylvia Holmes. The farm’s 17-hectare garden is landscapeed with a range of eccentric attractions including bog gardens, kinetic sculptures, mazes, a copse shaped into the euro symbol and an operational air strip to welcome ‘aviators and their flying machines’. It is also the site of the National Malus (crabapple) Collection.

In structural terms, the Sitooterie works like a fakir’s bed of nails or hairs in a scrubbing brush – individual strands or nails might not be that strong, but together they constitute an effectuve structural entity. Heatherwick is intrigued by the notion of collective strength and of one material oding different things. Aluminium was selected because it is light, strong and immensely durable.

The basic structure is a perfect cube, 2.4m square, made from 15mm thivk anosized aluminium panels finger jointed and glued together. The cube is perforated with nearly 500 pre-drilled holes, each precisely angled to receive an identical aluminium ‘hair’. The hairs are both functional and textural – they project to raise the structure off the ground and combine to create the Sitooterie’s extraordinarily spiky texture. Internally, the ends protrude slightly to give the walls a tactile, stippled pattern and also provide support for benches.

Each hair is made from a 19mm square section aluminium tube sealed with a translucent orange acrylic cap for protection against rain, dirt and insects. Sunlight percolating down the lengths of the tube gives the ends a seductive orange glow. At night, light from the interior radiates out in thousands of shimering pinpricks, like a spectacularly illuminated porcupine.

Sitooterie3

The aluminium structure was designed to extremely fine  tolerances (+ or – 0.2mm) so had to be fabricated by a specialist aeronautical engineering company using computer controlled milling machines. The components were then hand assembled on site, a task which took around two and a half months. As with previous projects, Heatherwick’s invention is grounded in process and practicality. Currently he is curating the Conran Foundation Collection at London’s Design Museum, hwere he has assembled a thousand examples of offbeat ingenuity, from Japanese eyelid glue and technicolour ketchup to a biodegradable cardboard coffin.

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