Nothing announces the existence of Thomas Heatherwick's studio in King's Cross except a black Citroen 2CV crammed into a courtyard situated between the tube line and a motorcycle repair shop. A 2CV suggests an ageing hippy with a poor regard for modernity but, apart from the haircut, Heatherwick does not fit the stereotype.
As I arrived, Heatherwick was experimenting with timber models of a prospective project with engineer and longtime work colleague Ron Packman. The project - for a pedestrian bridge - is hushhush, but the palpable enthusiasm for the inventiveness of the scheme is the same with every project in the Heatherwick stable.
This attitude pervades the office, which has the unmistakable feel of an architecture school studio, with bits of unfinished models, exploratory wire-frames and cardboard mock-ups lying around. This could be the Blue Peter warehouse, and you soon realise that exploring the hidden potential of 'shapes' is the very stuff of Heatherwick's trade. All around are odd bits of structure that might be taken as pieces of sculpture (or is it the other way around? ).
Heatherwick is critical of the label 'artist' that he has attracted, saying that accepting the introspective concept of 'pure artist' would be the root of 'professional stagnation'. Instead, he prefers to call himself a '3D designer', a creator of sculptural forms that have functional use or, conversely, of serviceable structures that have decorous appeal. He enjoys playing games with the potential of materials.
Essentially, Heatherwick is 'interested in projects on a human scale' and connects this to the 'life' of objects. 'I always wondered what it was about a small object that made me think it looked interesting, ' he says. 'On a larger scale you tend to lose those interesting, pleasing qualities.'
On most projects, he attempts to recreate a sense of wonder, an almost childlike, instinctive appreciation for the beauty of an object, while trying to stretch the physical scale of appreciation. Thus, he tries to blur distinctions between form and function.
His 'sitooterie' (a structure that you 'sit oot in'), designed for Belsay Hall, Northumberland, a year ago, is a case in point. Designed as part of a collection by several other design 'names', it comprised a steel and timber shell with timber spines sticking out at all angles. Heatherwick says he was challenging the notion that buildings must have defined edges. 'So many designs have fixed shapes, ' he says. 'Houses should blur textures. In some schemes I am trying to understand when texture becomes form - to work out where the boundary is.'
This fascination with practical but nonutilitarian projects stems from his studies in 3D design at Manchester and the Royal College of Art in London. He toyed with studying architecture, but was put off 'because the method of teaching it was too cerebral, over-conceptual to the point of being irrelevant'. After attending an architectural winter school in Glasgow in the late 1980s to see Zaha Hadid, he realised that most educators and architects had never actually built anything.
Heatherwick stresses that his criticism is not about architects or architecture, but about the fact that architecture is still seen as a flat, two-dimensional 'art form', even though computer graphics are beginning to break down those perceptions.
At the RCA he realised that architects had never really constructed things with their hands - just their brains. 'They thought they knew how to build, but they had never tried, ' he says.He decided to build a full-size model of a 'cabinet for people to go in' - a summer house that took up his entire final year. He says 'he was so fired up' that, after working at the studio all day, he'd jump over the back wall to work through the night. This enthusiasm has not left him. The innovative college project still stands.
Experimenting with materials and geometries taught Heatherwick a great deal about when to respect and when to break the 'rules' of construction practice. He still prefers hands-on design to pre-determined drawings. 'People who say god is in the detail get right up my nose, ' he says. 'What they fail to realise is that god is in the overall.We need a holistic view.'
Currently working as lead artist (he shudders at the title) on the masterplanning ofMilton Keynes, he is fighting against homogeneity - standard regeneration responses to town planning. 'Milton Keynes could be in danger of being morphed into a bland cafe society aesthetic, ' he argues. He is therefore in the process of defending the specialness of the town - 'understanding the uniqueness of the town and the original thinking that made it that way. Trying to change the grid patterns, for example, for all the right reasons, would deny the town its history, ' he says.
Heatherwick has long questioned the idea that buildings should be 'in keeping'.He argues that architects should be bolder; that while things in proximity should have a relationship, 'they do not necessarily have to have the same materials or frame of reference'.
'When you see a well-designed chair, ' he says, 'you never ask if it is in keeping. So why do it with buildings? Buildings should be seen as objects in their own right.'