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Profile: Who is the real Heatherwick?

Despite his modest and soft-spoken manner, the designer is a tireless networker ‘obsessed’ with his work and chasing ever-greater challenges

Controversy seems to stick to Thomas Heatherwick. Last month, a new row broke out over his proposals for a £175million ‘Garden Bridge’ across the Thames. The scheme appeared to be gathering momentum but, once the City of London warned the bridge would obstruct ‘protected’ views, the critics came after him. The bridge was slammed as ‘pure vanity’ and ‘an overdesigned, misplaced celeb-sponsored folly’.

It is not the first of the British designer’s works to have met with unfavourable publicity. His £2million B of the Bang sculpture in Manchester was dismantled in 2009 after several of its 180 spikes fell off. And last year the London 2012 Olympic Games organisers became embroiled in a legal row over alleged similarities between Heatherwick’s cauldron design for the opening ceremony, widely hailed as a triumph, and earlier designs by New York practice Atopia. Heatherwick denied plagiarism and the matter was settled out of court last month. Meanwhile, his New Routemaster buses have been branded ‘cauldrons on wheels’, reportedly due to faulty air-conditioning units that leave passengers sweltering in the heat.

None of this has deterred prospective clients, though. Heatherwick is more in demand than ever, with high-profile clients knocking at his door and a sparkling reputation as one of the world’s most gifted designers. His friend and mentor Terence Conran even went so far as to hail him as the ‘Leonardo da Vinci of our times’.

But his detractors question whether his work represents style over substance. A common criticism is that Heatherwick cannot do ‘proper’ architecture and many of his pieces could be removed from a site and it would not lose anything. ‘The Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin was a superb invention, but utterly pointless. You can walk around the lock in 30 seconds,’ says architecture critic Jay Merrick.

Of course, success breeds envy, including among architects. Heatherwick has no formal architectural training yet is hired not just to design ‘spectacles’ but also on construction schemes. Right now he is nearing completion on gin brand Bombay Sapphire’s first production facility in Hampshire and on the Nanyang University Learning Hub in Singapore. And he is locking horns with architects in more ways than one. In February, he publicly slammed AHMM, Allies and Morrison, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Wilkinson Eyre’s redevelopment of the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant sorting office in Islington as ‘cheap, bland and misconceived’. Piqued by the insult, the four architects demanded, and got, an apology.

‘His comments were a knee-jerk reaction before he had examined the proposals,’ says Keith Bradley, senior partner at FCBS. ‘As a resident you can do that but, when you’re a practitioner, deriding schemes in an uninformed, unprofessional manner is not good practice. Thomas rang me in a very embarrassed state.’

But Edward Denison, chair of the Mount Pleasant Residents’ Association, says: ‘The row was indicative of professional jealousy. Architects can be a vicious bunch.’

Only the serious and plodding architects don’t “get” Thomas

Speaking more generally, architect Will Alsop says: ‘Only the serious and plodding architects don’t “get” Thomas. The industry is bound by rules and convention; he cuts through it.’

Such support will be comforting to Heatherwick, who, according to one of his employees, is ‘massively bothered’ by how he comes across. This is a man who credited an exhaustive list of the industry’s most powerful people in his 2012 book Making and for years had his practice, Heatherwick Studio, send them hand-crafted 3D Christmas cards. ‘They were tiny feats of mechanical art,’ recalls Transport for London board member Daniel Moylan. ‘You expect Tom to be airy-fairy, but he’s a master craftsman who makes things work.’

Heatherwick stopped doing the Christmas cards when the work ate into precious studio time. Not that there’s a cap on that. ‘I’ve never known anywhere where people work such long hours,’ says one employee. When the studio was established it was not unusual to work 87-hour weeks, adds Heatherwick’s first employee, the architect Kieran Gaffney. A spokesman for Heatherwick Studio says only that the practice ‘abides by all current employment legislation’.

For him there is no such thing as working too hard

Even Heatherwick’s mother, Stefany Tomalin, says her son is ‘obsessed’ with work. ‘For him there is no such thing as working too hard. There is no time of day when I know for sure I will get him on the phone.’

The image of an unrelenting workaholic is at odds with ‘Brand Heatherwick’ – the quietly spoken, eccentricly dressed and ‘pixie-like’ figure so appealing to friends and clients. ‘I liked him because he’s very natural,’ says Alsop. Cultivated or not, his modest persona is a huge part of his appeal. Laura Lee, chief executive of cancer care charity Maggie’s, says: ‘We instantly thought of Tom [to build our centre in Leeds]. He has the compassion to drum up an emotional response.’

But for all his artistic whimsy, Heatherwick is a salesman, expert at communicating his ideas and winning people over. It has paid off – he’s part of Brand Britain now, although the risk is he’s in a Ghostbusters situation, as the only name that springs to mind for certain high-profile jobs. ‘Need a city landmark that brands something or other? Who you gonna call?’ says Merrick. ‘It doesn’t mean he won’t design something incredible, but there’s the dual sense of the brilliant boy in the bubble who’s also a shrewd corporate entity.’

The direction Heatherwick plans to take his practice in is unclear, but sources note much of its current work is in the planning and design stage and comparatively little is being built. 

Meanwhile Heatherwick is increasingly dissatisfied with designing standalone objects and seeks ever more ambitious briefs. He now faces the challenge of creating a lasting architecture that is truly part of the city.

CV

Born London, February 1970
Education Rudolph Steiner School, London, Manchester Polytechnic, RCA
Practice Heatherwick Studio: 140 staff including 34 ARB-registered architects
Awards and honours CBE (2013); London Design Medal (2010); RIBA Lubetkin Prize (2010); Prince Philip Designers Prize (2006); RIBA honorary fellow; V&A senior research fellow

What Heatherwick says

Heatherwick

‘Clearly I’ve got an ego. But I couldn’t retreat to making pieces that sit in people’s private collections – that holds little interest. My dream commission would be to design a hospital, because hospitals are some of the worst environments I have ever been into.’

What his mum says

Stefany Tomalin is a London-based painter and bead designer who played a significant role in shaping her son’s career. She encouraged his artistic efforts when he was a boy and took him to craft fairs demonstrating age-old skills such as thatching and dry stone walling.

She says: ‘He was always taking things to bits and putting them together again. He had kits for building everything from castles to hammocks. He was particularly interested in deconstructing old machinery.

‘We sat and did drawings together and I helped him to see what was really there, not what he imagined. Children think the sky is blue, but it rarely is.

‘Every child is born with a creative mind; it just gets squashed over time. Tom is lucky. He has the freedom to produce more wacky ideas and people will love them.’

Engineer to the stars Hanif Kara of AKTII on working with Thomas Heatherwick

Al Fayah Park Oasis by Heatherwick Studio

Al Fayah Park Oasis by Heatherwick Studio

What is Heatherwick’s greatest achievement to date?
The extraordinary speed with which he has written himself into history books. As is often the case this is more obvious outside the UK and a time when individuality and the star system are being challenged by the rise of ‘collective thinking’.

We all know that the trajectory of a successful practice is even harder to achieve and define. He has done this through energetic, timely bursts surpassing boundaries and getting recognition outside the architectural community. He operates in the ‘grey zones of design’ where the emphasis on novelty and originality is accentuated and yet he has successfully managed through persistence to not isolate the work from latent cultures. For instance, the architecture of the UK Shanghai Pavilion and the Olympic Cauldron showed an eye for recognising new realities in architecture structured by electronic media, some call telepresence, paired sweetly with the unifying powers of craft and technologies. [It was] appreciated and understood literally by millions, a feat not easy by any standard in Architecture.

How do you think he is perceived by the architectural profession and why?
It would be foolish to speak for them, but my sense is that his resistance to being situated in any particular category of architecture; or over intellectualise complex ideologies, particular manifestos or programmes is criticised by some - sometimes as an object of veiled envy. I am not surprised. It is a profession that has rarely embraced rapid rise of any practice unless the principles are over 50 and have built a lot!

His infectious passion and enthusiasm grabs all his clients

Does it matter that the B of the Bang failed?
He has secured significant commissions since and, frankly, we all learn lessons from such episodes. His book and recent presentations show the work has long term references and the practice has some continuity; the challenge will be to maintain quality as scales increase. He hasn’t shied away from being a builder/craftsman and service provider in my view.

What’s he like to work with?
His infectious passion and enthusiasm grabs all his clients as I see it…..from an engineer’s perspective, he doesn’t draw a distinction between creative and inventive and is fearless in changing normative processes, so forces us to raise our game too.

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