The Hoover Dam in north Arizona has all the qualities Thomas Heatherwick looks for in a building: 'It's spectacular, it draws people in, gets them excited, makes them talk.' The inventive designer-sculptor was bowled over by its Art Deco entrances, wall plaques, art works, incredible terrazzo flooring and the quality of the pale concrete - 'They had to build a whole refining plant in the middle of the desert to produce it.'
Recently a car park and visitor centre have been built beside the 1930s dam. Heatherwick imagines the planners earnestly sitting round a table, agreeing that the car park 'must be in keeping' with the location. The result is a standard 1970s-style municipal car park.
'It might have been all right in a drawing but they tried to pick up on the colour of the surrounding rock and they got it wrong - it's too red, whereas the dam is its own colour, an ivory that sings out in the desert. Then there are hexagonal elements of the dam that extend under the water and they tried to reproduce the hexagonal form in the visitor centre but they over-simplified it. The dam was an amazing group effort but how do you keep that original integrity when a project is that large?' wonders Heatherwick.
Homage there was in abundance, and reassuring words; the words are what interest him: 'I distrust words, and even flat drawings - that's why we use models from the very beginning.' You can see his enormous Materials House sculpture at the Science Museum.