The Nexus of Art and Invention

With boyish enthusiasm and an ingenious approach to problem solving, Thomas Heatherwick magically merges design, sculpture, and engineering.

Thomas Heatherwick picks up a model that looks like an abstract shell and waves it through the air. “Really what formed the design,” he says, nodding exuberantly. “Roller shutters.” He has a habit of pulling faces in a Chaplinesque way, exaggerated gestures and all. Heatherwick sits back down in a green stacking Eames chair too small for his frame, too low for his desk, and explains how a café was designed for Littlehampton’s beach on a site battered by fierce off-season weather. The recently completed building was commissioned by Jane Wood, wife of British architecture magazine Blueprint’s first publisher, Peter Murray. Heatherwick puts the model in his lap and shakes his head. “There was a little kiosk along the beach promenade—it sold 80,000 pounds of Mr. Whippy,” he says, incredulous that anyone could sell that much soft-serve ice cream. “The owner was going to knock it down and build a bigger kiosk. Our client was horrified when she saw the design, so she bought it and ran it for one year before even commissioning someone to do the redesign.” Naturally when architects first heard about the idea, they all offered their services—but she picked Heatherwick, an industrial designer. “For him it was about problem solving, not some grand statement,” Wood says. “I liked his approach.”

And that approach? The restaurant needed to be secure if it was ever closed for winter. “But we didn’t want to design something and then stick roller shutters on the outside. We were thinking, What kind of building could we do where you wouldn’t notice them? Because roller shutters go in a metal box, we thought: Why doesn’t the box become the building?” Heatherwick runs a finger over the model’s ridges. “That line is one shutter box, and that’s another and another.” Soon they just became the whole structure. Now fabricated out of welded steel ribs, it looks like some rusted thing washed up onshore like driftwood, though any kind of beach reference was unintentional.

Only 37, Heatherwick is one of Britain’s most daring designers, with work crossing from product and industrial design to architecture and art. He just won Prince Philip’s Designers Prize, beating Richard Rogers and Lucienne Day for the honor. Sir Terence Conran has likened Heatherwick to a new Leonardo; Emily Campbell, head of the British Council’s design department, says, “Thomas’s work is really about feats of engineering and spectacles, and Conran clued us into that. Tom has a truly original sensibility.”

Heatherwick has made a rolling bridge that unfurls at the push of a button, designed a Buddhist temple based on folds of fabric, and created various sculptures, like B of the Bang, celebrating the regeneration of Manchester: the 165-ton piece is made of 180 steel spikes that look as if they’re exploding from the center. His Longchamp boutique in New York has a staircase that’s more landscape than steps, made from 50 tons of steel ribbons; upstairs the shop’s shelves appear to peel from the ceiling. The handbag he designed for the company looks like a simple leather bag until it’s unzipped, when it doubles in size, magically revealing swaths of color. A 65-foot bridge, in construction, will be made of 1,200 glass plates held together by 800 tons of pressure. The pieces will have no adhesive, no rods or screws drilled through them; nothing else holding them in place but the force exerted on both ends. “As if you were trying to hold a stack of books between your arms,” Heatherwick is fond of saying. This winter he’s completing three more projects in the United Kingdom—the Littlehampton café, a creative-arts center in Wales, and a redesign for a troubled National Health Service (NHS) hospital in Central London.

With his flopping curls and wide eyes, Heatherwick looks startlingly like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. And indeed he has the same irrepressible interest in experimentation. His studio even feels like the Chocolate Factory. Hidden behind ­frosted-glass doors, it’s only identified on the outside by a steel dumpster stamped “Heatherwick.” Inside, the shelf he designed for Longchamp is tied to a pillar with bright blue rope; a giant piece of metal that looks like punched tinfoil is propped against a wall. There’s a stuffed squirrel in a bell jar, and his models line the walls. The back room is filled with shelves of materials—wood samples, bamboo grown in the shape of a square, and bins with clear plastic trees the studio uses for models. Upstairs his D&AD pencils, a prestigious award in the British design world, are relegated to a window ledge as if an afterthought.

Recently a dozen assistants fidgeted around a model of his biggest project yet, the redesign of the massive Pacific Place mall in Hong Kong. The white-gloved designers seem like hipster Oompa Loompas involved in a delicate procedure. They study, bend, and swoop carefully over a diaphanous three-foot structure with crisscrossing pieces of impossibly thin plastic representing pylons that will support the roof.

Heatherwick has likened working on the one-million-square-foot shopping center to designing a city, and calls the structure—saddled as it is with 1980s design—“a building with shoulder pads.” But he loves solving problems. It’s as if limitations are what he needs to push his creativity. The Longchamp store had to go on a second floor. Imagine a Soho flagship with virtually no street presence; but the ribbon staircase draws the eye and the shoppers up. And on Pacific Place there’s been an issue with the roof.

The solution came in part from Heatherwick’s conversations with Ron Packman, who has been his mentor, teacher, even muse. Packman is director of his own firm, Packman Lucas Engineering, and serves as an associate director of Heatherwick’s studio. He taught Heatherwick at the Royal College of Art, where his star pupil graduated with a degree in three-dimensional design, and says, “Even then he was one of the people who stood out. He was always pushing boundaries, interested in ideas and experimenting. He’s a natural engineer. He couldn’t conceive of his stuff without a grasp of engineering and materials.”

Packman has worked on B of the Bang; Blei-giessen, a giant sculpture Heatherwick created for the Wellcome Trust; and the famous rolling bridge. “Everything always starts with a phone call,” Packman says. “Thomas will go, ‘Ron, I have an idea.’ We do the most interesting work on Sunday mornings fiddling with things.” That was the genesis of the bridge. He and Heatherwick were thinking about the Oscars.

“We had this idea of a time-lapse film of the whole ceremony as if you were parked across the street shooting it,” Packman says. “You’d see a van come up and unroll the red carpet, the film crews setting up, the stars getting out; and later they’d come back out with their statues and punch the air—everything till the van came and rolled up the carpet again.” It was that idea of something rolling and unrolling over time, that led to the idea of the bridge. They made a model and set it aside, and when Heatherwick was asked to design a bridge for Paddington Basin, they dusted off the model and refined the concept.

Packman was also integral to the ­creative-arts center in Wales, the first building the studio both designed and constructed. Heatherwick wanted the 200-square-meter center to be circular, but traditionally a round building is constructed from flat polygonal panels. While Heatherwick was trying to solve this problem, Packman was working in Lithuania, where he saw homes being constructed from aerated concrete—­basically inexpensive block work.

Heatherwick explains, “Ron said, ‘With the budget you’ve got you have to use the cheapest materials’—and what’s that? Block work.” Except it’s never used in a heroic way. “It’s always like: the costs came in and we were value-­engineered, so all you get is block work.” They collaborated with an aircrete factory to develop a jig that could carve the material and get the shape Heatherwick wanted—without the awkward edges. “Because aircrete is like honeycomb, we can carve it with a sim-ple grinding tool.” It will rotate to the profile Heatherwick created—even carving out lips along the inside for seating and shelving. Placing mundane, even banal, materials into startling new contexts is a hallmark of Heatherwick’s genius.

In Central London, Guy’s Hospital—with stained concrete, dirty windows, and honking cars zipping through scattering pedestrians—is another Heath-erwick project. Stanchions surround the hospital’s original, unused main entrance, and signs direct visitors toward a secondary entrance near the boiler room and parking lot. It doesn’t offer the spectacle of a typical Heatherwick piece, but his solution solves practical problems like pedestrian flow that are at least as important to him. The privately funded project came about when, after initially losing the competition, Heatherwick was ap­proached by the client and asked to take ­another look at the troubled entrance.

“There were three ways you could drive in, but you’d always use the first, so the passenger was dropped in the middle of a car park. You know how a parked car isn’t just a parked car—it makes an entitlement of dirty oiliness around itself—so you’re mixing parked cars, people, and minicabs. It doesn’t work,” he says and mimics a car driving in and screeching to a halt. “Not to mention the problem of dropping off your granny in the middle of a car park.” Vehicles also used the entrance as a shortcut, commuters walked through to get to London Bridge Station—and everyone was dodging traffic. So Heather­wick improved the signage and lighting, added a bike rack, and streamlined the parking lot. He also redesigned the hospital thrift store. It had been confined to a temporary building for what looked like decades. The new shop—with its long, low profile—mimics the narrow bricks from which it will be built. “It has a quite funny detail.” He sketches the shape in the air. “But then we wanted the signage to be part of the aesthetic too, so we’re going to write into the bricks with the same material they use for tactile paving—stainless studs. Have you seen them?” He nods, pleased when told yes. “So we’re creating that graphic element in the brick, and it will come into the paving and be part of the architecture,” he says excitedly. “But it will be calm and quiet, and won’t have to compete with the boiler house.”

With its braided tile undulating on the building’s side, the boiler house is the detail that looks most typically Heatherwickian. He puzzled over it for more than a year and went through a dozen materials while considering it. It had to be affordable, allow for ventilation—and not require cleaning. Sitting at a conference table in his studio, he leans forward and says, “In the first meeting with the client, we were in this room and I was thinking”—he whispers in a quiet Christopher Robin voice—“Why do I feel so depressed? I was trying to look out the window, and realized it was filthy. The client, she saw my eyes and said, ‘They haven’t been washed in three years because of the money—where would we get the money? Maintenance, for your project,’ she said, ‘we can’t guarantee maintenance.’” Of course, looking good dirty became part of the brief.

Upstairs, a back room of the studio serves as Pacific Place HQ. Images of elevators, escalators, and materials line the walls. Heatherwick bends over someone and says, “As soon as they’re cost-evaluating a project, they’re going to say, ‘I’m paying a million more pounds for surface treatments?’” He’s not talking about the luxurious mall, but a new project, Elephant and Castle. One of London’s most blighted districts, it’s just up the road from Guy’s Hospital. Every day thousands pass through its multiple roundabouts and rail and underground links. It has rundown public housing and a grimy shopping mall. Even from a train window, it’s obvious just how much the area could use his touch.

And it may well get it. Heatherwick has been asked to team up with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and David Chipperfield to compete for the project. Whether they’ll win remains to be seen but what is clear is the respect Heatherwick already commands at such a young age. When told this, he looks down and back up and down again, embarrassed by the idea. Despite his success, he is humble and brushes aside compliments. Instead he talks animatedly about the twins his partner is about to have (she gave birth on Christmas Eve). He’s reminded that he’s supposed to be busy with Elephant and Castle, and says, “Oh!” jumping in his comic way. He scurries up the stairs, back to his latest experiments in the Heatherwick factory of wonders.

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