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Thomas Heatherwick: ‘I wanted to be an inventor’

Heatherwick uk pavilion

As projects grow in scale and complexity, Heatherwick Studio seeks to maintain its original design philosophy to create surprising objets, sensual details and pleasurable spaces

Although today designer Thomas Heatherwick runs a studio of 200 people working on a vast number of exceptionally large architectural projects across the world, over his 22-year career he has intentionally avoided being categorised within any one profession or discipline. He says that as a child he wanted to be an inventor, ‘but then I discovered that you can’t study inventing’. However, it was the idea of identifying a problem – ‘something you perceive to be a gap or a loophole that you can fill’ – that became an underlying ambition.

The studio’s portfolio is varied, moving agilely between scales and typologies, applying the same design philosophy to create products, furniture, installations, buildings, urban design, transport and infrastructure. This, more than the fact that Heatherwick has no professional training as an architect, makes his increasing presence within the architecture fraternity slightly ambiguous. He does not think like an architect, and neither does what he produces nor how he goes about it conform to architectural conventions. The freshness and difference of his approach made his work appealing to many architects in the beginning but is increasingly the subject of debate as he takes on more large commissions.

‘He does not think like an architect, and neither does what he produces nor how he goes about it conform to architectural conventions’

Paternoster square

Paternoster Vents in London

When Rolling Bridge in Paddington was highly commended in the AR Emerging Architecture Awards in 2005, Rob Gregory’s review referred to the unfurling sculptural bridge as ‘architectural device design’. It was an apt term for the project, articulating the cusp on which the studio’s work sat at the time. Many of the preceding projects had a distinct rationale and character, but were also intensely architectural in how they activate space. Bleigiessen, for instance, suspends 150,000 glass balls to form the elusive shape of falling water occupying the 30-metre high atrium of the Wellcome Trust headquarters. Likewise in an urban context, two large steel twisting forms, which hide a cooling system for an electricity substation, give character and coherence to what would otherwise be a leftover space on the outskirts of the Paternoster Square development in London. They demonstrated that Heatherwick has a sensibility for how objects operate spatially.

At the time of the AR award, with these projects and the Longchamp store in New York, featuring its sinuous steel ribbons that form a vertical topography of staircase and display, Heatherwick began to establish a reputation in the architectural profession. It was also the year in which three important architectural scale commissions came into the studio – East Beach Café in Littlehampton, Aberystwyth Artists’ Studios and the remodelling of Pacific Place in Hong Kong. By then, having been acknowledged in 2004 when he became the youngest practitioner to be appointed a Royal Designer for Industry, Heatherwick had already received widespread recognition in the design world.

Rolling bridge

Rolling bridge

Source: Steve Speller

Rolling bridge

Architecture had always been in his sights. While a student of three-dimensional design first at Manchester Polytechnic then at the Royal College of Art, Heatherwick was interested in how design thinking could be applied across scales and produced a small pavilion for his final-year project. ‘I wanted to consider all design in three dimensions, not as multidisciplinary design but as a single discipline: three-dimensional design’, he says. He works hard to lead his now-large studio with the same ethos and design philosophy with which it began in 1994. From what I have observed, the team will seek a compelling idea to drive each project and, in the case of a building, one that does not come from a spatial diagram but rather conceptual originality. Like all architects, they look at the site and interrogate the brief, but do so seeking the essence that will make the project unique and give it meaning, while being resilient enough to meet the functional and operational demands of the project. As the architecture and urban projects grow in scale and complexity, the studio will no doubt need to layer its conceptual narratives to manage this and maintain coherence across the design.

‘As the architecture and urban projects grow in scale and complexity, the studio will no doubt need to layer its conceptual narratives to maintain coherence across the design’

Equally important in any project is the form and expression of the object, a sensibility that stems from Heatherwick’s training in three-dimensional design. ‘Understanding materials and gaining practical experience of using them was essential to develop ideas and make them happen,’ he says. In the case of buildings, the form is developed to embody the idea and give the structure a sculptural presence within its environment. The design focus is applied simultaneously at both ends of the spectrum – from the macro concept to the smallest components of the building and how they will materially come together – with an obsession equalled by few other designers.  

Learning Hub

Learning Hub

The studio’s most successful projects are undoubtedly something extraordinary because they unite form and idea to generate a meaningful, surprising object, pleasurable spaces, sensual details and a coherent experience. This was exemplified in the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, made up of 60,000 clear acrylic rods. From a distance it appeared as a shimmering cubic form sitting in a vast landscape while, inside, the ends of the rods formed an undulating, cavernous interior where each tip held seeds from the Millennium Seed Bank, giving rise to the nickname the ‘Seed Cathedral’. As the scale of projects increases, this coherence is more difficult, but not impossible, to achieve.

‘The team will seek a compelling idea to drive each project and, in the case of a building, one that does not come from a spatial diagram but rather conceptual originality’

The studio is still in its relative infancy with regards to architecture, particularly when you consider that the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore – his first major building, as Heatherwick terms it (because it had lifts and fire escapes) – only opened at the beginning of 2015. The building is by no means without its faults but it introduces something new into the architectural vocabulary and is exciting, particularly in its material realisation. Looking to the future, it is to be expected that the work being produced by the studio, like that of all architects, will continue to develop as more projects reach completion and their life begins. At this moment an astounding number are currently under construction or being developed: the conversion of a grain silo in Cape Town into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa; a 15-acre mixed-use ‘urban mountain’ development on Moganshan Road in Shanghai; Coal Drops Yard, a new retail destination and public space in the former coal yards at King’s Cross in London; a new headquarters for Google in California designed with Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG; a Maggie’s Centre in Yorkshire and, of course, London’s Garden Bridge. If these projects can be realised with the finesse of the smaller ones, if they unite an idea with form through a strong physical and material presence, while still managing the complexity and demands of architecture, they will create something very special.

East Beach Café in Littlehampton

East Beach Café in Littlehampton

East Beach Café in Littlehampton

Heatherwick’s AR Emerging Architecture awards

Rolling Bridge, London, UK, Highly Commended 2005
East Beach Café, Littlehampton, UK, Highly Commended 2007