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The designer who makes buildings

Meeting Thomas Heatherwick

Bryan Appleyard | January/February 2012

Near King’s Cross station in London, beyond black iron gates and a grey cave lined with bicycles, steel doors swing open to reveal a palace of strange delights. What appear to be the severed heads of giant chess pieces lean on the floor, a huge length of aluminium reaches a torn end, random consumer products—an expensive handbag, a Tasmanian Devil toy—are displayed on shelves, there is some kind of monumental wooden throne, ranks of Dell computer screens and a wall full of pictures of yet more oddities. There’s also a giant model of a bridge.

I am led to a table and given a neatly laid-out selection of coffee, grapes and shortbread. Finally, a dark, curly-haired, slightly bearded man appears with a wide-open, ecstatic expression, a bit like Harpo Marx when playing the harp. This is Thomas Heatherwick who, if all goes well, could be the future of British, if not world, architecture.

The office is Heatherwick Studio and it is nothing like an architect’s office. Typically they are hard, purposeful, glassy and modernist; this is soft, cosy and stylistically indefinable. And, forgive me, the loos are a joy—not stainless-steel cells but domestic rooms with Victorian wooden shelves, a traditional bowl and a Rubberline cistern high above your head. 

“That cistern was interesting,” Heatherwick says, evidently enthused to find I am interested. “You can still buy them and it really is all rubber.” Then second thoughts flicker across his face. “But how much of a message do you need to get across in your toilet?”

Heatherwick is not an architect: his qualifications are all in design. But he is the increasingly well-known figurehead of a studio that employs 75 people and is working on some very big buildings, notably in China and Malaysia. It also built the Seed Cathedral, the giant hedgehog that was the much-feted British pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. And 2012 should make Heatherwick famous at home, too. In May he will have his first significant solo exhibition, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Thames & Hudson will publish a book on his work. The cauldron which holds the Olympic flame will be a Heatherwick.

Spectacular as all that is, it is a much humbler Heatherwick design by which the British public will judge him. It’s big, it’s red, it costs £300,000, it has old-fashioned bench seats, two staircases, three doors and a very new-fashioned swoopy window-line. Yes, he designed the new London bus. It is an attempt to revive the spirit and quality of the old, beloved Routemaster and replace the current generation of hideous, strip-lit Euro-boxes that infest the city. The first few are on the streets now. The Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey gave it a stinker—“fussy…too many swirls”—but the popular jury is out.

The jury of Heatherwick’s peers, however, is definitely in. Before we met, I watched him give the big annual lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The place was packed and expectant, eager to hear him on the theme of the union of architecture and design. But he didn’t bother with that; instead he did a survey of recent projects, complete with anecdotes in funny voices—his bureaucrats are all squeaky and there’s a robot voice for designs that look “too digital”—and some pretty wild arm gestures. The event told me four things: he is in the big time, he doesn’t like to deal in abstractions, he’s definitely got a touch of Harpo, and middle-aged women want to mother him.

Aged 41, he lives with his partner and their young twins in an 1830s house near the studio. He was brought up in Wood Green in north London, the grandson of Miles Tomalin, poet and Spanish civil-war veteran. His mother is a world expert on beads. His father, Hugh, a musician and community worker, left her when Heatherwick was 14. But they all stay in touch and his father helps out in the studio.

School did not come naturally to Heatherwick. “I wasn’t interested in sports. I couldn’t see the point of running around on Tarmac trying to catch a ball. I was more interested in making things.” But his mechanical imagination was prodigious. At the age of seven, he stumbled on the idea of the hybrid car, a motor-dynamo combination that he thought at the time would be a perpetual-motion machine.

“Nobody would explain to me why it wouldn’t work, they didn’t tell me about friction and heat. It’s funny how some of the simplest things you imagine when you’re young appear later. I remember thinking, with that greed children have, that ice-creams should be bigger and then, years later, they invented the Magnum, enough ice-cream on a stick to make you sick.”

At Manchester Polytechnic, he studied three-dimensional design. He wanted, reasonably enough, to extend this to include architecture, so his teachers told him to build a model. No, he said, he wanted to make a real building. He was indulged and, over the course of a year in the college courtyard, “Pavilion” emerged, a twisted, transparent gem. Already it was Heatherwickian in its novel use of materials, structural ingenuity and, in plan, the twisted, organic shape.

But the statement was the simple fact that he built it with his own hands. It was a gesture that expressed his dismay at what he had learned about the architecture profession—essentially, that it was indeed a profession, a hands-off operation. The average architect never picked up a brick.

“I knew I was interested in building, but the architectural world at the time just didn’t feel right, it felt very theoretical. It was like it was its own art-form, whereas I saw it as an extension of design, designing things that do jobs and also have many dimensions—environmental, material, craft, aesthetic, sculptural, a smell dimension. And then suddenly I discovered there was this threshold, bajoom…!”—he does his finest Harpo upward gaze of wonder—“where it became something else, architecture!”

Heatherwick built his pavilion in the midst of a civil war in architecture. On one side were modernists, the heirs of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. On the other were assorted post-modernists, neo-classicists, rural revivalists and, of course, Prince Charles, whose interventions had enlisted a wider public in the cause of anti-modernism.

It was an arid conflict. The modernists believed in political and social ideologies, and a highly deterministic and totalitarian aesthetic which said that modernism was not just a style, it was the only acceptable way to build. The antis were alarmed at the despoliation of our cities in the name of modernist purity. Various revivalist styles emerged in response, led by neo-classicism and including post-modernism, a poorly defined and all too often visually shallow style. 

The result was a greater stylistic diversity but not much real originality. Deterministic modernism was not defeated but marched on, and remains the dominant style to this day. Architects such as Foster, Rogers and Piano build apartment blocks, offices and airports around the world in techno-modernist forms. Here and there a few mavericks—Will Alsop, Frank Gehry—have moved in, but, in essence, the old modernist culture endures with the architect as the hero, the conductor of the design orchestra. 

Unnoticed at the time, Thomas Heatherwick’s handbuilt pavilion was an omen that this phase was coming to an end.

Heatherwick went on to the Royal College of Art to study furniture design. There he engineered a meeting with Sir Terence Conran, who invited him to stay at his home while he worked on a design for a sort of gazebo. Where “Pavilion” had dozens of components, Heatherwick explains, the gazebo had only one: plywood. He picks up the shortbread to demonstrate its construction, but sadly it collapses. Happily, the real thing still exists, a majestically curved X of interlocked wood with seats inside for two.

The late modernists who dominated architectural teaching were theorists. Theirs was an architecture of the word: actual buildings came second. But if Heatherwick had an idea, he had to build it. He was treating architecture like any other art—you had to do it to get better at it. “I was interested in ideas becoming reality. You could have your perfect world of models and drawings that would always be perfect, but it is reality where you really learn.”

After the RCA he set up his first studio, and won a commission from the department store Harvey Nichols for an installation for London Fashion Week. Instead of the usual window displays, he created “Autumn Intrusion”, a 200-metre ribbon of wood and polystyrene that coiled in and out of the windows and up the façade of the building. It was a brilliant debut that won an award, stopped traffic and—though Heatherwick denies having a style—signalled his inclination towards curved, organic forms, as well as a flair for drama. 

But it was also a clear move away from the sort of modernism which favours large glass panels at street level, clashing with the older buildings above. Heatherwick’s ribbon broke through the window pattern and tied the upper floors to the ground. Large sheets of glass are, for him, inhuman. “A building landing on a street with such large singular components reminds human beings how tiny they are. They have very little of human scale and perspective, and when you come up close there’s a sterilising effect. You feel you need to speed up to get past something like that.”

Another Heatherwickian creation that stopped traffic was a small, pleasantly but quietly designed little bridge in Paddington Basin. It was a moving bridge that, instead of turning or lifting, rolled up like a carpet. Just as his gazebo and pavilion were like Victorian follies, this was like a 19th-century celebration of mechanical engineering, ingenious yet simple. He may not have a house style, but there is something of the Victorian romantic about Heatherwick.

And then it all went horribly wrong and he entered “the worst two years of my life”. “B of the Bang” was a 56-metre-high sculpture that was to commemorate the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. It was a soaring mass of 180 identical steel spikes and a project everybody loved—until some of the spikes started falling off. The local press stoked outrage and, finally, it was removed. Heatherwick Studio and the contractors ended up paying £1.7m in damages. His face falls when I bring it up, and he seems weary and close to tears.“I love Manchester…I still believe the idea to be valid.” He points to the way Chicago held its nerve when there were problems with Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” in Millennium Park and costs soared. His project could, he says, have been fixed. He considered chaining himself to the structure, but then he shrugs, and says: “It’s their city, not mine, and it was their decision.” 

He survived and, by then, his practice was becoming more clearly that of an architect. There was, for example, a beach café in Littlehampton, a sculpted rusted-steel form that looks like a wall of boulders from one perspective or a wave from another. Again there was no predetermined style, only Heatherwick’s insistence on letting the location, the function and the atmosphere of the place determine the building. When I ask about this, Peter Ayres, the studio’s project architect on the scheme, points to one of the objects on the shelves. It is a clump of brickwork retrieved from the sea, its rough surface smoothed, and its edges softened and rounded by the waves. Location, in this case, includes the weathering effects of the environment. A rusty shed has a more authentically maritime feel than a slick glass box.

Two important projects remain unbuilt. One is a Buddhist temple in Japan, an immensely complex, folded wooden structure, perhaps Heatherwick’s most obvious use of organic forms. The other is a bio-fuel power station in Stockton, north-east England. It looks like a romantic riverside palace and would, if built, transform our expectations of what have become rather shameful and disregarded structures. 

The power station demonstrates another movement away from modernist convention. Heatherwick wants to take architecture into new building forms—not museums, but power stations and, he hopes, hospitals and prisons. “Museums just seem to have this borrowed cachet—if I want to seem cultural, I will design something cultural. I resist the idea that culture is only opera houses or theatres. Culture is your entire life around you: toilets, the bus, the kerb or the dump where you drag your waste. Culture has come to mean the arts, but it’s swimming pools as well.”

But now we come to the turning point, the grand gesture that put Heatherwick on the international A-list. Everybody agreed the 2010 Shanghai Expo was the biggest and most expensive ever, but nobody could ever agree on what an Expo was meant to be. Asked to build a British pavilion, one’s first thoughts would turn to Beefeaters, royal weddings and Union Jack oven-gloves. The Heatherwick Studio rejected all that and decided what was needed was a hairy building.

The Seed Cathedral was a simple box penetrated by 60,000, 7.5-metre transparent strands, with a seed or seeds embedded in each internal tip. The strands bent and waved, creating a continuously mobile outer perimeter. “We tried to imagine what every other country would do,” says Stuart Wood, Heatherwick’s longest-serving lieutenant, “and then we adopted an angle about the heritage of green space and plants…and then made the building the exhibition and the exhibition the building.”

Oddly, having so assiduously avoided the obvious, the studio was startled to find it emerged anyway. From a distance, ghostly patterns emerged on the surface. They looked like monochrome Union Jacks.

Before the Expo, the studio was already working on a big refurbishment of Pacific Place, a shopping mall in Hong Kong; afterwards East Asian developers started appearing with huge projects. Now the studio is an international architectural force. It remains, however, an all-round design practice and art studio. Via the Haunch of Venison gallery in London, it sells pieces that emerge from design experiments. That giant length of aluminium I saw is, in fact, one of a series of £18,000-plus benches made of extruded aluminium. The lopped-off chess pieces are spinning chairs, sold for about £340 by Magis. The handbag—which has a two-metre long zip—was designed by Heatherwick for Longchamp, the luxury leather-goods brand. (He later did its shop in New York.) The giant bridge model, of course, rolls up like a carpet. And the Tasmanian Devil toy—well, sometimes a Tasmanian Devil toy is just a Tasmanian Devil toy.

His design style is a strange hybrid of whimsy, geometry and engineering. The love of the organic and the playful is evident both in his collected objects and in the final designs. The bus has a toy-like quality and a distinctly attractive face, which scales down its bulk. Heatherwick’s personal charm suffuses his work.

But it is not all charm. Just as engineering and geometry represent the tough underside of Heatherwick’s design, so his charm is hardened by his managerial personality. This side of him comes out when I am allowed to watch a meeting of the team working on a 3m-square-foot project in China. 

The studio is divided into squares in which groups work closely together. In one of these squares a team of mostly young architects gathers round a table full of models and in front of a wall of complex drawings. Some of the models are obvious rejects—“Saddam palaces”, the team calls them, because of their bleak but vainglorious lines. But two represent the heart of the matter. The first is a beautiful arrangement of many plates, forming balconies and terraces. This ran into the brick wall of Chinese planning controls. The second is a later version, now full of spikes, some 100 metres tall and others with single trees on top.

Heatherwick is not content with this and, bar the odd funny voice, he is no longer Harpo. All eyes are fixed upon him, checking his reactions. His charisma has turned to an edgy intensity. A troubleshooter—an American architect named Fred—is tangling with the staff’s ideas and we are suddenly in the deep architectural mysteries of grid orientations. All the cosiness of the studio has dropped away. So much is at stake—this is a building worth many hundreds of millions of pounds—and yet so little seems to be decided. The meeting ends, and the staff go back to try again to get at the shape in Heatherwick’s head.

He is clearly a tough, strategic thinker, not the old modernist hero-architect hiding behind a mask of whimsy. His methods are different from those men, his designs are too localised and far too unexpected. Heatherwick wants to make everything special, true to itself and to its place in the world. He dislikes arriving in a new city and being able to identify the architects of buildings: that just means they are built in a style that pays no attention to the uniqueness of the place. He wants special reasons to visit cities—which is why his bus looks different from, but also just as “London” as, the old Routemaster. After the long decades of modernist globalism, Thomas Heatherwick is the return of the local and the unique. 

Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary V&A, London, May 31st to September 30th

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