Architecture with a Difference – Glass meets Thomas Heatherwick, whose unorthodox approach to architectural and urban design is testing the boundaries of the field, one staggering project after another
IN the architecture world, renowned names flicker in and out throughout the years, depending on who’s building what and who’s building where, almost like celebrities whose names appear in the press when they’re promoting their new artistic venture. Today, amid a boom of construction and a context where each architecture firm is competing in a race to become number one, there’s one name appearing in the headlines more than any other. That name is Thomas Heatherwick. And ironically, he’s not an architect.
Established in 1994, Heatherwick Studio is a London-based design practice specialising in architecture, urban infrastructure and sculpture. With a team composed of 170 members, Heatherwick has forged one of the most talked about, admired and contested studios of our time, one that’s seemingly on a winning streak in terms of project commissions. But contrary to the other firms Heatherwick Studio is competing with, its lead principal has not been educated at a school of architecture. Because of his distinctive approach to the design of space, his supreme care for craftsmanship, his sensibility to details and his almost mad ideas, Thomas Heatherwick has gained immense momentum that shows no signs of decelerating.
His work, which the studio has categorised in terms of conventional sizes, has gone from small to medium to large. Even if you hadn’t previously heard his name, odds are you may already be familiar with his work – and possibly even been inside it. From the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, to the Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games; from the New Bus for London to the Mountain View Google Headquarters; and from the Bombay Sapphire Distillery to the Rolling Bridge; the variety of projects and clientele is almost as impressive and diverse as the actual designs themselves.
Described as eccentric, brilliant, shallow, Willy Wonka and even as cult leader, we put all labels aside and speak to the man himself about his roaring practice, his love for progress, his view on successful cities being a product of social unity, his take on teamwork and the studio’s focus on making a difference.
Because you’re the British designer of the moment, let’s start by talking about London. How has your particular relationship with this city informed your practice and way of thinking?
I feel, to some extent, very boring in that I wasn’t brought up anywhere else. I was born in London and brought up in London, and it seems to have turned out that I was born in a real thought-leading capital of the world. It’s a city that has so many layers of institutions and development and ideas, all mish-mashed on top of and against each other. London is a rich collection of impressions and not monotonous in experience, and so it forces you to have your own angle.
Was there anybody that was inspirational in the way you found your angle while studying or building up your studio?
I’ve been influenced by thousands of different people (he laughs). I’ve never felt the need to read lots of fiction because I’ve found reality so layered with story and fantasy. There are people who I hold in high regard because of the ideas that they had. And then I’m also inspired by people who have invented different languages of visual representation and manifestation of the world around us.
A friend of mine, who’s an architecture writer and critic, asked me, ‘What would you have given to have been in London a century and a half ago? To be able to see a city growing so rapidly around you?’ I’m very interested in the motors that generated the landscape of the city we are in now, such as the industrial revolution. He’s now moved to China because he believes that something similar is happening there, right before your eyes. If you believe in progress you must be there to see that, to really understand it and not just speak from arm’s length.
It would have been fascinating to see some of the characters like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Paxton, who were interested in progress. Paxton built the Crystal Palace, the world’s first major modern building made out of glass and steel. He was a gardener, that’s what he was; I think that we are so quick to categorise people into boxes, and the exciting thing is to see what people can do outside these categories.
Speaking of architecture as a sign of progress, you have previously been portrayed as regarding skyscrapers as the “work of dinosaurs”. Is there any truth to that?
No, I don’t have any problem with tall buildings. I think that the interesting and eventful thing about skyscrapers is how they meet the ground, because that’s where we all are. What’s depressing about them is when a building doesn’t make for a good place at the street level.
What’s moving about cities, for me, is being together with others – the quiet or noisy cooperation of people. In cities, we all work with each other and chaos doesn’t generally break out. That’s a sign of coordination, of a choreography between people. When meeting at the ground, buildings should reinforce, encourage and create space for that type of social unity; they ought to nurture and excite that possibility, but most tall buildings are pretty rubbish when they meet the ground. I think designers and developers spend too much time thinking about whether a skyscraper is or isn’t an icon in the bit that sticks up into the sky, and that is of far less concern to me.
Your designs combine artistic freedom and almost mad creativity, but several of them such as the Sapphire Distillery and the Rolling Bridge are heavily informed by science and technology. What is your design methodology like?
In every project we try to find the appropriate language for it and discover what the right solution should be. I’m not interested in the notion of having a singular studio style. I have no interest in trying to stamp myself and my team on the world. What is exciting to me is to create a project that is special to people.
Also, we’re speaking just you and me. I remember being under the impression that projects and things that I admired when I was studying were done by individuals. At that time, I thought there was something wrong with me because I only really came alive or on fire when I worked with other people. I wasn’t an incredibly social person, but there was an engineer who used to come to my university, and when we spoke, we would forget who the engineer was, who the designer was, and the project would emerge out of the discussion – from the to-ing and fro-ing of curiosity, wondering and testing ideas together. That’s what happens here at this studio. Each project is a different group, so I act as a catalyst for each group, bringing us together to focus our minds on something.
In this sense, I’m not rushing in with a sketch that I plonked down and telling everyone to figure it out, because the truth is, I don’t have the answers either. We’re all working together, through research, analysis, internal curiosity and questioning. The first thing we try to do is to define the problem we are solving, which is sometimes different than what we are initially asked to do. In architectural design, there’s a romanticisation of the idea of sketching, of a ‘master sketcher’. Here, there is sketching, making, prototyping and testing but some of our biggest breakthroughs are when we’re playing with words. The images they conjure up in your mind can be powerful – impressions, experiences and places we’ve all known – and so we pluck them all together. We ricochet together as a group, and that’s my favourite moment: when an idea emerges and you can’t quite say who had it or where it came from – when you realise that together we materialised something.
A look at your projects makes one thing evident: you work across a gamut of scales. Even your website divides your projects into categories of small, medium and large, almost as if the viewer is trying on clothes. Your work has a very important relationship to the human body, and I want to talk to you about your ‘small’ work. What is it about small-scale objects that lure you to them?
Some of the things that you’ve seen from us on a smaller scale are part of our earlier phases. The studio has been going for 21 years and it takes a long time before clients trust you to work on power stations, cities and their infrastructures. So some of those things you’ve seen are part of our voyage, but they are not what we are doing now. We want to get involved in the areas where we can make the greatest difference.
In public spaces, people’s expectations are often quite low, and that has felt genuinely inspiring to us. How can you make a difference in the area which tends to be the worst part around us? There are good reasons why people’s expectations are low, one of them being that it’s very hard to make changes when there are so many bureaucratic voices, authorities and budgetary issues. I’m excited about those rare moments when you find something special in a city, and you think, ‘Who did this? How did this happen? Who gave permission for that? Who built it?’ That moves me, and I suppose I’m more motivated by projects in which you haven’t necessarily got a prescribed idea of what you’re supposed to think about them.
Have you always had this sensibility to the built environment, or is it something that’s been developing through the past 20 years?
From a very, very early age, I was very aware of just how much of the world around us is an outcome of design decisions. I think that in recent years I’ve understood more about the built environment’s complexities – the forces at play. I’ve come to understand why some of those places which I thought seemed awful, are the way they are. I’ve come to understand that there are people who have been trying, with good intentions, to make something with a good outcome, but that the outcome has not necessarily been as successful as they might have really, in their heart, wanted. So I’ve become interested in that dynamic and in those factors, while also cultivating enormous respect for how challenging it is to do anything which has any specialness in the public realm.
Is that what you’re attempting to achieve with the Garden Bridge you’re proposing for the Thames River?
I think the Garden Bridge project is about making a place. The river in the city has been, to some extent, an obstacle dividing the two halves of the city. It has also been treated as an obstacle to breach, when in reality the best place to see London from, if you’re at ground level, is probably from the middle of the river. Most of the existing crossings have been seen as links or connections, and Waterloo Bridge, however fantastic the view is, is actually a dual carriageway. Nobody I’ve met has ever asked someone to meet them in the middle of Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge or Westminster Bridge. And why not? It’s because bridges are not regarded as places.
But is the Garden Bridge an actual solution to a problem? What would the Garden Bridge actually bring to London, and what makes it a project for the city?
The Thames River is wider than we all think. People think that Paris is like London in terms of the rivers’ widths. Paris’s Seine is about 90 metres wide, but London is ripped apart by a quarter of a kilometre. That’s two and a half times the size of the Seine, and I don’t think we quite realise that. If you’re not able bodied, you think twice before you walk a quarter of a kilometre, whereas if you could make it a big place, it suddenly halves that distance. The Garden Bridge is a celebration of a phenomenal piece of nature. It is a device that brings credit to human scale, to help achieve the goal of making a place.
For many years there have been initiatives looking at that particular area of the river as a strategic location for a new crossing, as it’s the biggest gap between river crossings in central London. And so this seemed to be the logical place for this project, and it also happens to be the place with the best views. The thing that we now know is that the best cities are those whose centres are walkable, and there’s been a lot of emphasis on buses, taxis, cars and underground trains, but many of the distances and journeys we do could be done on foot.
The bridge is deliberately very basic in its name, in that we all know what a garden is. It’s not the Royal Garden Bridge, it’s not the Commemorate Royal Garden Bridge, it’s just a garden bridge celebrating all of us coming together. We’re used to many public projects somehow commemorating something or sort of deferring to something else. There’s sort of humility of this one just being a garden; “garden” means something to all of us in different ways.
The project is one of the most looked forward to, as well as one of the most criticised proposals for London, and you’ve got top contenders giving you some serious blows about it. You, yourself, have mentioned that the project has been met with enormous “fear and vociferous resistance”. What do you think people are “afraid” of?
I think that every new project in London which is very public in its nature causes resistance. I remember reading about the extreme negativity regarding the construction of St Paul’s Cathedral, where they had to put very high hoardings around it to protect the construction site. Most recently, everyone thought the London Olympics would go wrong. I mean British people are phenomenal in many ways, but they’re also phenomenal at being cynical and pessimistic.
When the Olympics didn’t go wrong it was a genuine astonishment, and that change in mindset was palpable here. I think that the Garden Bridge is simple and beautiful as a notion, and it will be free for everybody. I think that it’ll be one of those things that the second it’s built, if you said, ‘Take it down”, the noise against that would be deafening. That’s why so many people are so excited about the project. The resistance we’re having is a normal thing that happens in public life and it’s part of the democracy that we value – that many voices can be heard.
The theme for this issue is ‘Unity’, and I can’t help but notice how this word subtly pops up through our conversation: democracy, voices being heard, citizens’ movements as choreography in public spaces and even through the focus and celebration of collaboration in your studio. It does seem like unity is one of the strings that ties your practice together.
I find the notion of a city moving because of its relation to unity. When cities are working well, it’s when individuals add up to something greater when they’re put together, in a way in which we can work together as some kind of organism.
Regarding your work, there is perhaps no better example of unity than in the design of the Cauldron for the 2012 Olympics. You choreographed the lighting of the cauldron so that during the opening ceremony, each team brought in an individual piece of the cauldron and placed it as an offering in flower-formation. When all the lit pieces were in place, they each rose from the ground producing one great flame of unity surging into the sky.
For this project there was the reality that nobody remembers the design of Olympic Cauldrons; they remember people; they remember Paralympic archery in Barcelona, or Muhammad Ali in Atlanta. Design might seem like a glamorous world that ends up in magazines a lot, but there’s a sort of comedy to the fact that a billion people see the design of a Cauldron, and a billion people instantly forget it. Almost as a survival instinct as a designer, you think, how could you make something that decreases the chances of people forgetting it?
The thing that moves us and that has real emotional power in the Olympics is that there are 204 countries working together to make this extraordinary festival of human achievement. It felt that there were arbitrary design decisions we could make: we could make the Cauldron triangular or twisted or spherical, but who cares? That didn’t mean anything. But the coming together of 204 countries is the spoken and unspoken power of the Olympics. We wanted to manifest that in the Cauldron, which is such an important moment in the ceremony, almost like a religious ceremony.
We were very aware that we were part of something that has many parallels with religious liturgy, but this was an Olympic liturgy. The sense of disparate chaos coming together to harmony, just for two weeks, is in some ways that happened. Even though all those athletes were competing, that harmony is a rare, once-every-four-years experience. The breadth of the Olympics is so much wider than an event that’s just football or just any one sport, and we were just trying to think of what would be moving to us. We were not in any way trying to make a flower or something as literal as that, but there was power in countries’ fragmentation un-fragmentising for two weeks, and then at the end of that, dispersing back into the chaos of our normal world until the next Olympics. I’m dying to see what the next Cauldron will be in Rio. –
by Regner Ramos
From the Glass Archive – published in issue 25, Unity, (2015)
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