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Heatherwick: 'I believe in hunting down an idea'

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Owen Pritchard talks Garden Bridges, London and working with Fosters, with AJ120 Contribution to the Profession Award winner Thomas Heatherwick

‘We never make life easy for ourselves,’ says Thomas Heatherwick. ‘We could have knocked this down. But there’s no need for a new “spanky-pants” building. This is a process of taking away and restoring.’

We are sitting in a café in Cape Town in the shadow of one of Heatherwick Studio’s most significant projects to date. Activity is intense: cranes pirouette above and workers scurry up and down scaffolding.

Occupying a grain silo that was constructed in the 1920s and was, for 50 years, the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) will open to the public in 2017. It is the first museum of its kind in the world and stands at the heart of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, a business, shopping and entertainment district dressed up as a heritage project.

There’s no need for a new “spanky-pants” building

We have just emerged from the guts of the building, where workers are carving out an atrium from more than forty 30m-tall concrete tubes that once used to store grain from across the country. Adjacent is a large rectangular tower, its concrete panelled outer walls punched out, leaving the skeletal inner structure temporarily exposed.


Zeitz MOCAA will have two principal functions: an 80-room art gallery and a boutique hotel. The collection has been bequeathed by Jochen Zeitz, former chairman of sportswear brand Puma.

Once completed, the central atrium carved into the shape of a single grain will resemble something between the stretched sinewy forms of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the industrial Gothic aesthetic of HR Giger – sculpted from the powerful and beautiful concrete structure. Around this will be arranged more traditional ‘white cube’ gallery spaces, as specified by the museum’s curator.

‘It will be rough and ready, but there will be a real repertoire of spaces,’ says Heatherwick. The hotel at the top of the building will have some of the best views across the city and towards Table Mountain. The windows, inspired by Venetian glass blowing, will bulge outwards while the upper storeys will glow like a lantern at night.

‘The glazing will feel like it is breathing out at you,’ says Heatherwick, facing the faceted, tessellated test panel that is installed on the uppermost floor. ‘There’s something of a B52 bomber quality about it.’

A man and a studio

Heatherwick employs more than 170 staff in three locations in north London, most of whom are architects or have architectural training. They are working on more than 20 live projects across the world.
Born in London to a musician father, and painter and designer mother, Heatherwick first studied three-dimensional design in Manchester, then at the Royal College of Art.

He founded his eponymous studio in 1994 and first gained attention for works such as Laing Square in Newcastle (1995), the Rolling Bridge in London’s Paddington (2002) and East Beach Café in Littlehampton (2005).

Interior of the Seed Cathedral at Expo 2010 in Shanghai

Interior of the Seed Cathedral at Expo 2010 in Shanghai

Since the Seed Cathedral, the UK Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, the studio has become one of the most highly visible ambassadors for the UK design community.

After his Cauldron provided an astonishing and memorable start to the London Olympics, Heatherwick was awarded the CBE.

Most recently, the studio has embarked on large-scale architectural projects in Shanghai, the UK and New York, where an idea for a park floating on the Hudson River is being better received than its London cousin, the Garden Bridge.

I believe in hunting down an idea

Looking through Heatherwick’s portfolio, his inquisitive nature is apparent. There have been numerous setbacks along the way, the B of the Bang was a very public stumble when his Cor-ten steel monument for the 2002 Commonwealth Games developed a technical problem and was dismantled four years later. Yet the studio’s tenacity and the intensity of ideas prevail.

‘I believe quite strongly in ideas,’ he says. ‘I believe in hunting down an idea; then that idea will tell you what to do and how to detail something – whether that is a cancer care centre, a university building, or a public space.’

He is quick to acknowledge the efforts of his studio, but so often the idea is understood as the singular vision of the man at the top, even if that is unintended. Unlike with Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster or Richard Rogers, you would be hard pressed to name any of his lieutenants.

There is an element of control in the way he is understood by media and public, a calm master of a formidable outfit. His influence is palpable: Heatherwick attends design crits for every project and takes an active interest in everything that goes on in the studio. If Heatherwick is not travelling, his staff tell me, he is in the office every day.

Communication and collaboration

Despite the recognition of the profession, there has always been a perception that Heatherwick is something of an interloper on the fringes of traditional practice, his early works are hard to define as buildings. Yet, the man once dubbed by his friend and mentor, Terence Conran, as ‘the Leonardo Da Vinci of our times’ is quick to distance himself from the image of a creative polymath.

‘I see everything we do as designing,’ he says when quizzed about the studio’s approach. ‘We went through a funny phase when we started where everything we did was called public art … but I have never studied art in my life. My passion is problem-solving and ideas.’

Much of the confusion probably comes from the fact that Heatherwick looks like an artist, not an architect. His folksy dress sense and shock of curly hair combined with his soft voice and gentle demeanour hardly screams starchitect. When speaking to him, there is an intimacy to his responses, as if he is confiding in you. This is a vital component of his image and persona – Heatherwick is a compelling and disarming communicator.

‘Architects have, in my opinion, always been excellent communicators,’ he says. ‘I have tried to learn from that. Part of the role is to explain things. Unless you are clear with yourself, you can’t be clear with anyone else.’

Heatherwick is better than a great number of architects at communicating his work and ideas, and that clarity, combined with the studio’s reputation, has led to two very high-profile collaborations. The first, with Foster + Partners in Shanghai, is nearing completion.

‘It was an honour that they worked with us, 50/50 like that,’ he says, visibly enthused. ‘We learned so much from them. You’d pay to have that experience. It gave us confidence in that way of collaborating.’

The studio has also been working with Bjarke Ingels Group on a project for Google. Together they are developing an idea for a 24ha campus that will house 10,000 employes under four undulating glass canopies.

Our passion is trying to make public projects happen

Technology giants are at the cutting edge of working culture in 2015, where corporate image is key. And these closely guarded commissions generate a curiosity and fervour unlike any other architecture project. They are understood to be indicative of the future of design.

Heatherwick Studio joins an elite club, which includes Frank Gehry (Facebook) and Norman Foster (Apple), that will be creating the physical environments for these companies. As ever, Google has the project under wraps, but the collaboration is proving fruitful.

‘We started on the masterplan together, thinking we would go on to design separate buildings, but it has gone so well, we are continuing to work together,’ he reveals.

These collaborations show the extent to which Heatherwick’s vision and practices are sought after. The London 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the Seed Cathedral are examples of the spectacular, but he insists this is only part of the story.

‘It’s human nature to be led by the visual. We have to be aware of the calm, ordinary and special,’ he says. ‘With the UK Pavilion in Shanghai we had a smaller budget than most of the Western nations. We designed a sixth of the site to be memorable and five-sixths to be forgettable. That was strategic.’

He cites examples such as the Bombay Sapphire distillery in Hampshire (2014), where the focus was on the glasshouses that explode from the warehouse, but the bulk of the work was creating a distillery to create three million litres of gin a year; and the boilerhouse at Guy’s Hospital in London (2004), which was more an exercise in masterplanning and improving access.

He reveals a more canny side to his operation in his awareness of the media-friendliness of his projects when he says: ‘Calm doesn’t work in photographs. You have to be aware of that and work with that.’

A Garden Bridge and London

It is not all accolades and decoration for the studio, though. Back in London the Garden Bridge Trust is preparing for a judicial review that will seal the bridge’s fate. The collaboration between Heatherwick Studio, Arup and landscape gardener Dan Pearson, faces a challenge to Lambeth’s approval of the project.

There is vociferous opposition about the way it was procured and funded, and some local groups object too. I ask Heatherwick if he feels he has had the opportunity to tell his side of the story and explain his passion for it.

The [Garden Bridge] creates a human scale and makes a place

‘Probably not,’ he replies. ‘I have always been interested in how you make things happen, and your role as a designer is not just to sit back and hope that people are going to come to you. How can you make them happen?’

The AJ has followed the story closely, and through Freedom of Information Act requests has revealed how project associate Joanna Lumley privately lobbied London mayor Boris Johnson with informal handwritten letters, and how the invited competition for the bridge appears to have been heavily weighted in Heatherwick’s favour.

Yet Heatherwick makes a strong case for why the bridge should be built. He says he first encountered the idea more than 14 years ago and had been working since to try to make things happen. He explains the rhythm of bridges across the Thames and how Temple Station is the epicentre if you map the culture of the capital, but is also the most underused Tube station.

‘Over the last 20 years the South Bank has been transformed,’ he says. ‘The Oxo Tower, Tate Modern, the London Eye have built momentum, but we have a north-south split. Our city is here because of the river, but we have turned our back on it.’ He believes the river is treated as an obstacle to breach, and wants to change that idea.

‘The [bridge] creates a human scale and makes a place. That is a powerful idea to me. We breach the river beautifully, but the language is always “link”, rather than “make a place”. With this bridge, if it is a place, it doesn’t feel like you are walking a quarter of a mile and maybe, just maybe, you do the job of helping stitch London together a bit more.’

Heatherwick cites the opposition and scepticism towards the London Eye as a precedent. ‘Even I was sceptical,’ he admits. ‘But I was wrong. It is absolutely the right thing. Exceptional.’

Proposed view looking right from the Garden Bridge

Proposed view looking right from the Garden Bridge

Praise and politics

Naturally, after two decades of high-profile commissions Heatherwick has powerful allies. Does his association with the Conservative mayor and with Daniel Moylan (Boris Johnson’s trusted adviser commissioned Heatherwick to design a newspaper kiosk in 2002) reveal any political affiliation? For the first time, Heatherwick’s demeanour visibly changes and he issues a firm and direct response.

‘The studio is not driven by politics. We work with anyone. The chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust is a Labour peer. My grandfather was a communist who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Our passion is trying to make public projects happen. Our commitment is to the city and is certainly not led by a political direction.

Design has the problem where everything has to be fandango

‘People say to me: I don’t get the budgets you get,’ he says. ‘I am pleased when people say that. I sometimes think that design has the problem where everything has to be fandango, but we always use ingenuity and endless studies to interrogate how you can get value from a project.’

Heatherwick is regularly lavished with praise. Yet on receiving this award for a contribution to the profession, voted for by the practices that make up the AJ120, he is humbled. ‘It really means a lot to me, to be recognised in this way,’ he says.

Unquestionably, Heatherwick has made the general public interested in design again. And it should also be said that his work sets a benchmark for architects that want to make their work appealing. His projects are, in nearly every case, inspirational and aspirational - imbued with a relentless curiosity about form, materiality and the human response.

‘My passion is the human experience of projects and I know it sounds cheesy, but to make a difference. To try and make public space and public projects do more,’ he says. ‘I sometimes think that we have only just got going.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Having won this award maybe Heatherwick will enter the AJ100 next year. They'd be about 55th if they had done so this year.

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