Interview: Thomas Heatherwick
Ossian Ward talks to the architect and visionary
Much has been written about the boundless energy of London-born-and-bred architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick. Yes, he leaps around – mentally if not physically, as many interviewers seem to have suggested. His fast-paced patter shifts speedily from discussing his formative years as a budding designer at Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art, trying to make furniture out of coiled wire and Sellotape, to possible future developments of huge swathes of Abu Dhabi desert, or to other as-yet unrealised plans to span a canal with bridges made either entirely out of glass or stainless steel discs (without any steel supports and, yes, both are possible).
If Heatherwick has a fitful mind, it’s equally focused. Finger jabbing the table as we talk in the middle of the busy King’s Cross headquarters of his company Heatherwick Studio, this polymath town planner, architect, furniture designer and sculptor has come a long way from the young Heatherwick who became known for public art commissions such as ‘B of the Bang’ and numerous temporary, ‘hairy’ buildings.
Heatherwick is clearly being pulled in multiple directions: a major survey show is opening at the V&A, with an accompanying book (‘Making’) of the past 20 years’ worth of output; he’s lighting his self-designed Olympic cauldron in a couple of weeks’ time; eight of his New Buses are on the streets of London; and numerous schemes are taking shape in the Far and Middle East. He has often been miscategorised as a madcap inventor, perhaps due to the stubborn belief that informs his wish to design both the insides and outsides of buildings, both their look and feel.
He wants us to touch and experience his designs and not to be thought of as some pie-in-the-sky theoretician, something that clearly resonates when I begin to ask him about recent reviews of his work in the press. Clearly, you can judge Heatherwick’s rising status in the design world by the backlash. He might just be a genius…
How do you take the criticism that you solve problems that don’t need solving?
‘We’re in London, why can’t we think about that? We just need to see potential in the world around us, we don’t have to retreat to live in a totally fictional world to be creative.’
What about the suggestion that your work is too much fun, that it’s somehow superficial?
‘Something is either [seen as] visually appealing and shallow or deeply conceptual and rigorous – even if the outcome is ungenerous to human spirits. There’s a belief that they have to be polar opposites. That’s what I was responding to 20 years ago when I first wanted to work on buildings.’
You did 3D design at college. Why didn’t you train as an architect?
‘I thought carefully about whether to study architecture. As a teenager my father took me to the shows at the Architectural Association and to places like Milton Keynes back when it was first being built. But I couldn’t find anything for me. There seemed to be despair at the possibility of the built environment possessing any imagination in the real world. On the other hand, I had experienced artists and craftspeople making objects on a much smaller scale, whether that was an innovative silversmith or someone making studio ceramics. But at least there was innovation that was actually available to the world.’
Yet the first thing you made as an undergraduate was a building…
‘Of the thousands of students who had gone through the university no one had ever built one. What became incredibly clear when speaking to people who actually had built things was just how hard it is to build anything at all, even anything mediocre. To make architecture with any real value is a massive challenge. It’s important for people who criticise architects – whether what they build is or isn’t to your taste – to appreciate how they devote themselves and put everything into bringing a building into existence’.
After that first experience did you decide to start small?
‘You have to work with the commissions that are available. I wasn’t getting the chance at that time because people don’t come up to 24-year-olds and ask them to create a 2.5 million square-foot development. The great hurdle is always opportunity and that only comes by accumulating some sort of track record. It’s got to the ludicrous point where there was only one company that met all the criteria to build the Olympic stadium in London.’
Which projects are nearest to going ahead?
‘The next one to begin construction is called “A Thousand Trees” in Shangai, and in Kuala Lumpur we’re building condominium apartments in very public parts of the city.’
Do property developers in Asia and the Middle East have more bravura when it comes to commissioning, or just more money?
‘Our experience in China is that there was a first wave of development projects that were probably a bit clumsy and fast. But now we’ve found some quite special, highly educated characters leading a few of the Chinese property development companies, who have been standing back looking at things being built and spotting that they don’t really contribute to the culture of a nation or to China as a civilisation. ‘It isn’t just about splashing money, either. There’s an assumption that if something is visually appealing it must come with a blank chequebook, but we’ve never worked on projects like that. Most of our sideways thinking goes on trying to find ways to make something affordable or achievable within very tight budgetary constraints. I value ideas more than money and most of our projects are actually made from very low-cost materials.’
Are mayors and city planners becoming more intelligent, rather than looking for the gimmicky quick fix or the fantasy ‘Guggenheim Bilbao effect’?
‘It’s easier to travel around the world than ever before and so the most disrespectful thing that a design team can do is to duplicate the qualities of one project in another place, somewhere else in the world. That feels rude. The respect is to do something that is particular to that place, and I don’t mean necessarily following a clichéd history of what exactly happened on that site, though that may be the spark.’
Tell us about your London bus.
‘What was refreshing was saying that maybe buses are really a part of London’s architecture and its infrastructure, this big experiential dimension of this city. It’s amazing: when you type “London” into Google, the first image that comes up is a red double-decker bus on Westminster bridge. The bus is London and its qualities should be particular to it, to London’s little streets. The bus needed to be almost three metres longer than the old Routemaster, which was the last bus designed specifically for London, some 50 years ago. The reason for rounding the edges was a practical way to reduce the perception of the length and the potential brick-like quality of this 11.3-metre-long block. Then there was the solar gain on the top floor, where we’ve reduced the window size so that the sun doesn’t hammer in and overheat everyone, and we’ve changed the fluorescent tubes, which were most unflattering to human skin tissue and better suited to lighting a battery chicken farm. We felt that with this accumulation of many small details we had the opportunity to make them work together.’
You mention our little streets, what other constraints did you encounter?
‘The bus needed to be almost three metres longer than the old Routemaster, which was the last bus designed specifically for London, some 50 years ago. The reason for rounding the edges was a practical way to reduce the perception of the length and the potential brick-like quality of this 11.3m-long block. Then there was the solar gain on the top floor, where we’ve reduced the window size so that the sun doesn’t hammer in and overheat everyone and we’ve changed the fluorescent tubes, which were most unflattering to human skin tissue and better suited to lighting a piggery or a battery chicken farm. We felt that with this accumulation of many small details we had the opportunity to make them work together.’
You must be pleased Boris Johnson got re-elected because now the bus will get a proper rollout, despite claims of each one’s vast expense?
‘We have eight currently on the streets and next year there should be 600 of them. We’re thrilled but there has been some splendid miscommunication about the cost. As with any new vehicle, there is research and development, but the media has divided that development up amongst these eight buses, and decided that it costs a million pounds per bus, which is nonsense. In real terms the bus costs about £20-000-£30,000 more to make than an existing hybrid bus, but it’s more efficient and uses 40 per cent less energy.’
Can I get you to reveal the top-secret plans for your flaming Olympic cauldron?
‘There will be Danny Boyle’s phenomenal opening ceremony, and then the athletes come in for a procession. Then it all goes serious again and starts getting dark and everyone will regroup for the flame arriving. It’s framed as one of the acts of Danny’s show, so we were thrilled to be invited by him. I appreciate the way he doesn’t have one defined style, he’s like a chameleon that finds different languages and is exploring ideas appropriate for each story he’s chosen to tell.’
Your V&A exhibition, ‘Designing the Extraordinary’, feels chameleon-like in that you also have the ability to adapt as each project demands – there isn’t a ‘Heatherwick style’ yet.
‘I’m interested in pursuing ideas and ideas don’t have a style. I haven’t had a chance to reflect on the exhibition or the book that it triggered. This year feels to me like drawing a line under something and I’m excited by that thought of a next phase. It surprises me seeing people that I admire getting stuck at certain points in their career, mainly because I have a paranoia about that. I hope that’s healthy, but I believe in worrying, it drives a lot of what we do. I worry when my team don’t worry.’
Rather than getting stuck, do you feel the opposite pressure, of having to be constantly ingenious, living up to this ‘mad professor’ tag, or the Leonardo da Vinci comparison, made by Terence Conran?
‘In terms of invention, of course society is interested in progress and new ideas and where they come from, whether in paintings, buildings, writing or theatre. The word “invent”, however, gets connected with the word “mad”, perhaps thanks to the British nostalgia for a bygone era of men jumping off cliffs trying to fly. I don’t mind that, because there’s something unpretentious in the spirit of experimentation.’
Can you tell me what question you have been wrestling with this morning?
‘Today, we’re thinking about how to make a 90-year-old grain silo in Cape Town into the first major new cultural building in Africa.’
‘Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary’ is at the V&A until Sept 30 and ‘Thomas Heatherwick: Making’ is published by Thames & Hudson at £38.