Movers & Shakers

Thomas Heatherwick

The maverick designer behind cutting-edge leisure projects such as London’s hotly anticipated Garden Bridge has made surprising his trademark. Here’s why


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Described by Terence Conran as “the Leonardo da Vinci of our time”, Thomas Heatherwick defies categorisation. He’s a designer, yes, but he’s also by turns a builder, a sculptor, an inventor, a furniture-maker and an urban-planner. With projects ranging from a university in Singapore to a spinning-top chair to a London bus, he and his team of 180 architects, designers, engineers and modelmakers can turn their hand to anything.

It is, above all, his projects linked to art and leisure that really capture the imagination, from the first-prize winning Seed Cathedral dancing in the breeze at Shanghai’s 2010 Expo and the Phoenix-like Cauldron at London’s 2012 Olympic Games to the major art gallery currently being carved from a grain silo in Cape Town, South Africa.

Heatherwick’s latest infrastructure projects are set to be transformative for London – the pedestrian Garden Bridge that will span the River Thames and the Coal Drops Yard, a mixed-use piazza for London’s King’s Cross.

The Garden Bridge will connect the South Bank and Temple areas of London, creating a new green space for the capital, with plants, trees and woodland influences incorporated into meandering walkways.

At King’s Cross, two disused Victorian coal drop buildings are to be repurposed into retail, culture and leisure space. The historic structures, which stand apart, will be repaired and connected by a new upper level stitching their two roofs together.

These projects prove the imaginative designer is determined to push the boundaries further than ever before.

Key projects

Moganshan, 2015, in progress
Heatherwick Studio has designed a vast mountain-inspired mixed-use development to be located next to Shanghai’s arts district. Heatherwick is creating a verdant 30-hectare complex of buildings, with approximately 1,000 structural columns supporting plants and trees. “The design has been conceived not as a building but as a piece of topography, taking the form of two tree-covered mountains,” the studio says.

Pier55, 2014, in progress
Designed in collaboration with landscape architect Mathews Nielsen, this curved parkland and performance space will rest upon multiple concrete columns 56m from the shoreline, between the remains of support piles from the original pier infrastructure. The plan, says Heatherwick, is “very much about bringing people together, so that you could have not only the immersion in nature, but also by lifting up the corners… the visitors to the park can all see each other, and there’s some kind of chemistry with each other”. (FastCo Design, 24 November 2014)

The Garden Bridge, 2013, in progress
The brainchild of actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley, the Garden Bridge was granted planning permission at the end of 2014. It’s intended as a place of refuge from the frenetic activity at either end: “This is not about the fastest way to cross the river; it’s the slowest way you could possibly get across the river.” (The Culture Show, 31 July 2013)

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), in progress
Zeitz MOCAA will be a major new cultural landmark carved from the historic Grain Silo at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. “Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, we wanted to find a way to celebrate it. We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or enjoy its tube-iness,” says Heatherwick Studio.

The Seed Cathedral, 2010, complete
Commissioned by the UK government, the Seed Cathedral at Shanghai’s Expo took first prize for its beautifully realised celebration of nature. With 60,000 clear optical rods extending through the walls and up into the air, it looked from a distance like a silver-haired box. The tips of the rods were embedded with 250,000 seeds. According to Heatherwick, the film Jurassic Park was an inspiration: “The DNA of the dinosaur [found in the mosquito] that was trapped in the amber gave us some kind of clue that tiny things could be trapped and made to seem precious.” (TED Conference 2011)

Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill, 2012, complete
Gin maker Bombay Sapphire’s new distillery and visitor centre in a 19th-century paper mill at Laverstoke, UK, combines the regeneration of listed buildings with landscaping and the creation of two curved glasshouses for displaying the botanicals used in the gin. The project has achieved a BREEAM Outstanding rating for sustainability.

Rolling Bridge, 2004, complete
When commissioned to build a pedestrian bridge across the Grand Union Canal in London, which would open to let boats pass, Heatherwick wanted to avoid a traditional Tower Bridge-style design that he couldn’t help feeling was “a beautiful thing that had broken,” (TED Conference 2011). Instead, his design features a bridge that curls in on itself like a caterpillar, leaving a beautiful circular sculpture on the canal bank.

The Olympic Cauldron, 2011, complete
The Cauldron came to life before the eyes of 900 million viewers at the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, as 204 polished copper ‘petals’ illuminated by the Olympic torch rose silently from the ground to form a single great flame. The intention? To represent “the extraordinary, albeit transitory, togetherness that the Olympic Games symbolise”.

Rise to fame

Born in London in 1970, the young Thomas Heatherwick was always interested in collecting and making things. After completing a degree in 3D design at Manchester Polytechnic in 1991, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art. During his time there, he met and found a mentor in Terence Conran, and in 1994 he spent the summer at Conran’s home, building a twisting birch gazebo. After graduation, Heatherwick founded his own studio and started work on everything ranging from architecture to furniture design and sculpture. Since then, the studio has completed close to 150 projects. Some of Heatherwick’s most recognised works include the award-winning UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games and the new interpretation of the iconic London double decker. In 2013, he was awarded a CBE for services to the design industry.

Heatherwick on…

Bombay Sapphire’s visitor centre and distillery in the UK
Bombay Sapphire’s visitor centre and distillery in the UK

His reputation for quirkiness
“I find it funny when people say you’re trying to make things that are humorous or be a magician. I see it as what design is: it’s trying to push what things are made from, how they function, how you can use resources that are available to try to do things that might matter.” (The Culture Show, 31 July 2013)

The human scale
“My work always comes down to the human scale. I’m really interested in how you think strategically – do large-scale planning but also stay sensitised to ambience and creating spaces that human beings feel comfortable in.” (Architectural Digest, April 2012)

Cities
“More and more, we’ve become passionate about the actual infrastructure of a city as the skeleton that gives character, and less interested in individual buildings.” (Wired, October 2013)

Working for the British government
“The British government, any government, is probably the worst client in the world you could want to have.” (TED Conference, 2011)

Attention to detail
“A master plan is made up of bits, and those bits will end up as pieces you can touch with your hand. Our role is to be able to pull right back and see something in its biggest context, but then be able to zoom in until you’re analysing close detail – to never let one thing get disconnected from context and meaning.” (Wired, October 2013)

Being asked to design art galleries
“I perceive it as glamorous to take something that we are used to having such low ambitions for, like a car park, and make it special. Whereas if you’re asked to take on an art gallery? Yeah, right! How do you make an amazing art gallery? However creative the design is, something inside me groans.” (Architectural Digest, April 2012)

Taking risks
“It’s not just me taking risks – it’s a partnership with a whole team of people and your commissioner too. You’re going on a voyage together to try to make something special happen. I suppose I’m going to have to front that, but when you’re working with what the future is, there’s also great risk in not exploring what’s possible.” (The Culture Show, 31 July 2013)

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