Having unveiled his first car design and Manhattan’s newest park, designer, architect and inventor Thomas Heatherwick talks to us about soulfulness in cities and why building with emotion is now more critical than ever.
It’s been a busy few months for the Heatherwick Studio, but its headquarters in London’s Kings Cross seems almost empty, with most staff working from home. Warm light still casts a glow over a colourful collection of curios. Plants spill lush greenery out from their pots, giant Lingzhi mushrooms dominate one table, beaded neckpieces cover one wall and a Chinese lion-dancer head sits atop a shelf. In one corner, Thomas Heatherwick, clad in a cool shirt and designer camo trousers, shows me a collection of clay vessels made from cow dung.
“Life is too short to waste your time repeating yourself endlessly,” says the radical British designer, architect and inventor. “I’m more interested in inventing something in particular for a certain place …The places that I’ve always loved are ones with a lot of character.”
Just this past month he’s unveiled his concept for the new Airo EV car for Chinese automaker IM Motors, one that cleans pollution from the surrounding air through a HEPA filtration system. “Just because cars are electric doesn’t make a city good and just because something’s less bad doesn’t make it good,” says the softly spoken Heatherwick. An air-filtration and cleaning system seems all the more relevant since Covid, plus EVs are hot property. And then there’s been the grand opening of Little Island, a “park on a pier” in New York. So, no big deal then.
The allure of Heatherwick’s creations resonates around the globe, but as a body of work it’s mind-boggling in its range. He made his mark with groundbreaking projects, such as the “seed cathedral” UK Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Expo, the almighty honeycombed Vessel in New York’s Hudson Yards, redesigning London’s famous red bus and a dazzling, morphic Japanese Temple in Kagoshima, proving that dull repetition couldn’t be further from the Heatherwick repertoire. There’ve been skyscrapers, a distillery, a hospital, a perfume bottle for Christian Louboutin, the London Olympic “cauldron”, a very famous chair and a little bridge in Paddington that lifts up from one end and “kisses” itself.
In the flesh Heatherwick is earnest and gentle, a rare blend of conceptual conviction and British self-effacing charm. There’s full-throated talk of “heart” and “emotion” when he speaks about architecture, especially when it’s supposed to inspire sociability. In cities, that’s often manifested as a battle against that historically “functionalist mindset that was also conveniently very cheap and could be cynically rolled out anywhere in the world”. The fight against the unification of urban centres around the globe into “pretty catastropic blandness” has drawn his ire, and the studio to unique projects with “their own thumbprint”.
As we speak, he really should be in Manhattan, as it’s the day that Little Island (Pier 55) opens to the public, a vision of regeneration for the area and poignant timing as the city bounces back post-Covid. New York’s newest park seems to float over Hudson River atop pillars with an amphitheatre, sloping walkways and gorgeous greenery.
“All pubic projects are really hard to do,” Heatherwick admits. “There’s a tiny margin between making something happen or not … it’s very difficult, but it’s just part of the territory” Funded by billionaire Barry Diller and the Furstenberg-Diller Family Foundation, the US$260 million island construction has been almost nine years in the making. A complex feat of design and civil engineering, the project almost halted under legal, political and technical challenges before the likes of Diller, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio all came together to save it. The public response has been overwhelmingly positive since opening.
“Many people don’t realise how many challenges there are to things ever coming to reality,” Heatherwick says of what’s involved in redesigning high-profile public spaces. A long story of funding and politicking also plagued his Garden Bridge proposal in Heatherwick’s hometown of London, a project that was eventually scrapped. “I suppose some of the confidence that existed in previous centuries and decades had evaporated,” he says.
Growing up in ’80s London, where “you felt like nothing would happen”, Heatherwick – who thought that he’d work in spite of this – soon recognised that you need endurance to see ideas through to completion and that bitterness is not uncommon in the industry. Now he leads a team of 200 who are working on 30 different projects at any one time; over the last 20-plus years, the design maverick has felt luckier than he’d ever thought in making projects actually happen.
Through making what many call ideas and “buildings of the future” – some of which are fantastical and almost otherworldly (though never veering too close to typical futurism) – Heatherwick has blazed a trail. But if there’s a common thread to his work it’s been that urge to humanise places and spaces – “to make them more particular and less generic.”
The sculptural lattice of the Hudson Yards Vessel building in New York, for example, is built “on the heritage of public space in the city”, incorporating 1.5km of public space around it and inspired by an ancient north Indian stepwell structure. He envisaged a bowl-like amphitheatre that was porous to its surroundings, so “perforating it made sense”. Images of stepwells in Rajasthan revealed “incredible structures dug down into the ground to access water … There was almost a choreography in the beauty of these staircases and landings taking you down.” The studio took “that textile-like rhythm” and lifted it up to create a honeycomb form that you could see into and out of, and use your body to engage. Again, it was an idea that he thought might never become reality.
Whether it’s this or revamping a dated Pacific Place mall in Hong Kong with a warm glow and curvaceous fluidity, the reinvention of Coal Drop Yards from an industrial wasteland into a buzzy Central London hotspot, or for more obvious reasons Maggie’s Centre for cancer patients in Leeds, there’s emotional provocation loaded into Heatherwick’s wonderful work.
The inclination towards soulfulness has made his ethos all the more compelling as cities adjust to life after Covid. Fear of crowds and flexible working has meant deserted office high-rises and bustling main streets return at only a percentage of former capacity. The need for fewer people to be in city centres all of the time “is profound and changes everything”.
“It amazed me that we got away so long with building such un-human-centric places,” he says. “There are very low public expectations to public space and you think of the worst places, whether they’re hospitals, schools or public transportation” – Heatherwick has worked on all three categories. With this social-current shift, the designer is hopefuly that smarter minds will be driven to think from “the emotional, experiential eye-level view of all of us”, rather than just having a top-down approach treating people as cogs in the machine of our built environment.
What does this mean for the future of the city? So many, especially in Asia, are throwing up ever more dramatic skylines wrought in concrete, steel and glass. Creating structures that merge nature and architecture as become somewhat of a Heatherwick signature. A plant-filled medical centre for cancer patients was beautiful and meaningful – and you find lush green swathes all over his residences, commercial and public spaces.
Unveiled in Singapore this year were lush tropical leaves dripping from clamshell balconies at the biophilic 20-storey residential Eden project, a Swire development. Finishing in 2022, his huge 1,000 Trees multi-use complex in Shanghai along the Huangpu River attempts to make a part of city worth visiting at any time, and not just an inviting home for residents or guests. And while the trees will take 21 tonnes of carbon out of the air each year once completed, “that’s not the primary reason we’ve done it – we’re thinking about emotional experience” and elements that change over time.
Within Asia, Heatherwick has been a major hit with multiple projects in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. As cities gain confidence for a new urban personality, he welcomes rebellion against the bland and basic. Well aware of the optimism that imbues much of the region, especially China, the designer has also witnessed the movement towards aesthetic self-determination and away from simply mirroring the West.
This all means the region is fertile space for the world’s most ambitious designers and architects, particularly those with something interesting to say. Design should always be sustainable by nature because “it’s your job to design places that matter”, he says. Places with “emotionally sustainability” hold a sense of soulfulness and have to mean something to people – that’s one of his enduring goals. “Mattering” isn’t only about creating beauty, smooth functionality or even eco credentials; for Heatherwick “it all has to go back to emotion”.
(Hero Image: View of the Little Island off Manhattan designed by Thomas Heatherwick)