Cristina Esposito What kind of education prepares you to design these vast and sometimes bizarre fabric structures?
Alex Heslop I did a construction/spatial/product design course at West of England School of Art and Design. It was a totally anarchic environment where anything went. We had a bunch of people studying everything from puppetry to harpsichord-making to architecture. I was interested in theatre lighting at the time - the way light interacts with meshes and screens - and started experimenting in membranes. Then I saw an exhibition of models by Frei Otto in Stuttgart and was blown away. That trip literally changed my life.
Cristina Esposito How did Architen Landrell start?
Alex Heslop It was an offshoot of Springboard Design, which expanded into 26 people but my part outgrew it - I didn't have the facilities to make the complex, curved membranes I was designing. I formed Architen in 1986, but we outgrew that space too. We merged with a competitor to form Architen Landrell in 2001.
Cristina Esposito What do you remember most about starting out on your own?
Alex Heslop How hard it was. We were living pretty much hand to mouth. After about two years I started paying myself a salary of £40 a week.
Cristina Esposito What kept you going?
Alex Heslop I was just fascinated. Canopies are magical structures, totally thrilling, with a very fast turnaround. You have this incredible sweeping tension shape and it can be up to 30,000m 2 - it has an instant extraordinary life and beauty.
Cristina Esposito You've worked extensively with architects on some huge projects.
Which have been the most memorable?
Alex Heslop I worked with Rogers, Foster and Jiricna in their very early days. I remember working with Rogers from a converted garage in his garden, conceiving prototypes of screens for his buildings. Eva Jiricna, who was very demanding, used to take scissors to our work and say: 'No, that's all wrong'. She really forced us to new heights.
Cristina Esposito What's the scope of your work?
Alex Heslop We've done a lot of work with Sally Freshwater, a textile artist, on installations and some spectacular decorative kites for Gatwick Airport. At the other end we've got the Pusan Stadium for Korea, which was a 60,000m Cristina Esposito Which materials do you work with?
Alex Heslop We work with cotton and silk, PVC polyester and PTFE-coated fibreglass.
And it's as much about engineering as it is about aesthetics. The real skill is in knowing how to tension the fabric. It demands a high level of material understanding, of appreciating the behaviour of what you're working with.
Cristina Esposito You made the Spiky Pod for Alsop's wacky Queen Mary's building.
How difficult was that?
Alex Heslop It was technically astounding. We made these complex woven models to work it out. Then we had this 20m-diameter exploded football which was totally irregular and required us to stitch 400 bits of cloth together seamlessly.
Cristina Esposito What's your biggest technical challenge right now?
Alex Heslop Designing translucent membrane structures that comply with Part L is a huge challenge now. That's really the Holy Grail for us at the moment.