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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

‘We live in complex times’: Thomas Heatherwick on what lies in store for London

As the capital reinvents itself in the era of Covid, Time Out CEO Julio Bruno talks to the visionary designer Thomas Heatherwick about the future

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Julio Bruno
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It’s just a two-minute walk from Time Out’s head office to the studio of Thomas Heatherwick in King’s Cross. The London-born designer of the 2012 Olympic cauldron, the steampunk reimagining of the capital’s iconic Routemaster bus, the Coal Drops Yard development and the abortive Garden Bridge is probably now the country’s preeminent conceptual imagineer of landmark public projects, yet his London HQ – a bit like the man himself – is almost stealthy in its lack of self-publicity. Unadvertised, it sits sort of within a hotel just near Gray’s Inn Road. Inside, though, is a cabinet of wonders: light, open-plan, full of trailing plants and haptic and visual delights: architectural models, chunks of wood, cool furniture. I hang out there with Heatherwick for an afternoon to chat about what this year means for the future of cities and London in particular. I don’t generally suffer from office envy but I come pretty close to it here.

Both our companies were born in London. What can this city learn from other cities?

‘Not to be exactly like them! In the last 30 years you can see that groups of city officials have gone for a weekend in Barcelona. Barcelona did some phenomenal projects in the early ’90s: you could feel that people were inspired by that but they didn’t realise that they were all having the same kinds of ideas, which means that everywhere started doing the same kinds of things.’

Do you think the city of the future will still be a place where people want to go out and enjoy it?

‘I think we live in complex times. In the past you had to come to the city because it was where the jobs were and where everybody else was. But just like this studio is now shifting from being a place where all the work happens for 200 people to being a place where some things happen, I think the city will become somewhere where there’s an ebb and flow of people coming for deep human connection.’

You can see already that, to some extent. When I came to live in London in 1993, there were no café tables on the street, nothing like that.

‘Yes, true. A few centuries ago, towns and cities were different because they were more isolated. You didn’t see what everyone else was doing. There’s an expression, genius loci, the idea that the spirit of a place infuses it. If a village was near a forest, it had wooden buildings. If it was in Wiltshire all the buildings would have that pinky tone from the stone. The most respectful thing you can do in a place is grow something that makes it more particular.’

And that’s also good for the people who live there?

‘I think that particularity matters more now than ever because you’ve got to really cherish places and people. You must have experienced that thing where you travel to somewhere on the other side of the world and you’re struggling to find anything different and then you find the bus tickets are different and you are surprised and delighted to find something unique and new.’ 

Talking of buses, what did you learn from redesigning the Routemaster?

‘There were so many lessons in the original that had been ignored in buses since. It’s logical to use warm materials because they make you feel better; it’s logical that fabrics have a pattern that hides dirt. Why reinvent? Why don’t we just make a bus that wheelchair users can use, where you load and unload quicker? Buses were designed with pride: it’s a proud thing to go to see your family or go to work or just enjoy travelling in a city like London. So we took all the regulations and said how can we make something that supports the dignity of the passenger? My only regret was we weren’t allowed to have opening windows. It took us five years but we got them in the end!’

Were you also conscious of its place in British (and London’s) identity?

‘We were certainly aware of it but maybe not as aware of it as it looked. In London, if you’re going to build a new building, there’s the planning authority and architectural advisory committees and Historic England. If you did a two-storey building in [central] London it would be discussed a lot. But if you do a two-storey building on wheels, nobody looks at it. There’s less control of a bus than of buildings, yet there’s 6,000 of them. When something’s called architecture, when something’s called infrastructure, when something’s called art I don’t see any difference really between them.’

All your projects are different from each other. Are you a rebel, saying ‘I want to find a unique way to do that’?

‘When I was younger, I wanted to be an inventor. An inventor isn’t based on having one style, it’s about problem-solving. I suppose I’m on a journey. Humans are roughly the same size we were half a million years ago, but buildings have got bigger and bigger. In China we’re doing half-a-kilometre-long projects. In a way, I’m fighting the magnitude to try to find the small scale within it. I think mental health and wellness haven’t been well supported by many of the places made in the last 60 or 70 years.’

Is that why you like big public projects?

‘The public experience is what excites my team and me most. But I think people don’t realise all the restrictions on a space that you think is for everybody, but where you’re not allowed to drink and do all sorts of things, not allowed to protest.Now we have the chance to talk about true inclusivity. I feel that the challenge is including the Black Lives Matter movement – among other things – to push forward with a far more broad and inclusive sense of making place. It’s the only way to make a sustainable city that welcomes everybody.’

How can the design and architecture of a city help social justice?

‘In architecture, the tendency is to go to the same kinds of professionals. I’ve always felt that buildings should be led by a diverse range of people. I think that you can pair people who aren’t architects with architectural teams and get a much more generous mix of built environments.’

Can we put environmental issues on the agenda in a better way?

‘Integration of nature is something we are really pushing for. Our 1000 Trees project [in Shanghai] takes 21 tonnes of carbon out of the air a year and creates oxygen for 2,000 people. That’s not greenwash, that’s serious.’

And it makes cities more sustainable…

‘There are many things that help make cities more sustainable. We are increasingly banning high-polluting vehicles and making cities more cycling-friendly. We should have buildings that are repairable. The emphasis if something is not working is to demolish it; we should celebrate fixing buildings and adapting them.’

Are there any London buildings you’d ‘adapt’?

‘We are really interested in housing: my team and I would love to take a failed shopping area or a failing overprovision of office space and build living into the heart of London.’

You’re doing Google’s headquarters in London. How’s it going?

‘The London Google building will be one of the first times that one of the most extraordinary organisations to have shaped the modern world will be touching the ground and connecting with people. The thing we are proud of is the use of timber – it will be the biggest use of wood in any central London building. There’s also a very major garden integrated into the roof.’

And it’s huge, right?

‘It’s the length of the Shard lying sideways. If ever there was an organisation that would respond intelligently to the time we are in, Google surely would be it. We are making the vessel for an organisation that’s trying to be meaningful for people more broadly.’

So will we see more of this kind of diversity in the city of the future?

‘There’s been this line of thought about “clean lines”. You think: I’d like a building to have clean lines, I’d like a city to have clean lines, sounds perfect. But what it often creates is sterile places. The most interesting places are often dirty, imperfect, impure. At the scale of a mobile phone, a clean line is the right thing to do. At the scale of a city, “clean” isn’t always the right thing to do.’

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