The London 2012 Olympic cauldron, Designed by Thomas Heatherwick

Innovative British designer Thomas Heatherwick may be known largely to the cognoscenti, but his latest creation recently caught the attention of an estimated 900 million viewers around the world—the 16-ton Olympic Cauldron, a massive, multiarmed sculpture of gas-fueled flames that opened the London 2012 Summer Games on July 27.

A feature of the Olympics since 1928, cauldrons are specially commissioned totems sparked by the torch that has been carried in relay from Olympia, Greece, to the Games host city. Heatherwick’s version is a nearly 28-foot-tall masterwork that was placed at the center of the Olympic Stadium (itself created by the Kansas City-based architecture and design group Populous). The cauldron is composed of 204 stainless-steel stems of varying heights, each connected to a natural-gas source and holding aloft a single curved petal made of shining hammered copper; the careful positioning of the petals creates a bowl-like silhouette, rather like a virtual vessel. As viewers saw at the opening ceremony, when the cauldron was set ablaze by seven young British athletes who passed the torch from one to the other, its individual flames (symbolizing the number of participating nations) ignited and then slowly and dramatically coalesced into one giant, unified light. After the Games’s closing ceremony on Sunday, the cauldron will be dissassembled and, brilliantly, each country will be given one of the copper petals to take home.

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