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Thomas Heatherwick: Master Architect

Culture Watch
Architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick.

By Ted Loos

At times, you’d think Thomas Heatherwick was the only architect-designer working these days—he gets that much attention. In his native Britain, he is endlessly chronicled, praised and sometimes pilloried for his out-there designs, which frequently have an organic, curving shape to them.

Curly haired, well-dressed and intensely focused, Heatherwick is known as the mad scientist of design because all of his work involves ingenious leaps of imagination, while retaining a kind of simplicity of concept. No wonder that when London’s V&A Museum put on a 2012 exhibition of his work, it was subtitled “Designing the Extraordinary.”

The 46-year-old Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio, is probably best known for his torch from the 2012 London Olympic Games, known as the Caldron. It was made up of smaller flames carried into the stadium by athletes, that, when combined, formed one very big, fire-y statement about cooperation and global unity.

In the United States, his star wattage was enough to attract billionaire developer Stephen M. Ross, of the Related Companies, who commissioned him to design a $150 million interactive sculpture of sorts—a climbable, 15-story basket-shaped structure in bronze-colored steel—to anchor the Hudson Yards development on the west side of Manhattan, due to be completed next year. Called “Vessel”, the project’s design was debuted with ballyhoo last September.

His island in the middle of the Hudson River off Manhattan, known as Pier 55, is moving forward with the sponsorship of media mogul Barry Diller. Heatherwick’s still-in-development London Garden Bridge—essentially a densely planted park—has been on-again, off-again with controversies and funding.

Let’s just say he has a lot going on in terms of forthcoming projects, too. The list includes the Zeitz MOCAA, a contemporary art museum in Cape Town, and the attached hotel, The Silo; a collaboration with architect Bjarke Ingels on the new Google headquarters in Silicon Valley; and a collaboration on the redo of the New York Philharmonic’s home. His website lists his projects in three categories—small, medium and large—but they all seem to have a very big impact on the design world.

Heatherwick grew up in Kent, England and never trained as an architect: He’s always seen himself as a creator of three-dimensional objects, and buildings are just one of the many types of things that, in his mind, need designing. He has spent a lot of time and energy on product design, like his perfume bottle for Christian Louboutin Beauté.

Given his wide range of creativity, it’s not surprising that Heatherwick comes from a family of artists, inventors and other “makers.” After his education at the Royal College of Art, he was mentored by the British design icon Terence Conran. Recently Heathwick wrote a heartfelt introduction to Conran’s memoir-with-pictures, My Life in Design. Though Conran has been more associated with furniture and home goods, particularly through Conran and the Conran Shop, he’s a polymath in a similar vein to Heatherwick, refusing to be categorized or to be stopped from thinking across genres.

Until 2010, Heatherwick’s projects were acclaimed but largely located inside Britain. But the “Seed Cathedral,” the U.K. Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010, launched him into a new orbit. The addition of 250,000 seeds to tiny fiberglass strands made part of the pavilion seem like a living, hairy being, both a statement about biodiversity and a cool icon.

The pavilion was really all about a magician’s misdirection. The attention was focused on the seeds, but most of the useable part of the building, off to the side, was architecturally basic and eminently practical for large crowds. By diverting attention with the seeds, Heatherwick got both the sizzle and the steak.

To prove that nothing is beneath him or foreign to him, Heatherwick immediately jumped to redesigning London’s buses. His “Routemaster” bus designs let in more light and improve safety—and, as always with Heatherwick, it pleases the eye too, with its diagonally draped front windshield.

London has naturally been home to the most Heatherwick architecture, as the designer has long been a resident of that city. But as demand has exploded, the work has gone fully global, particularly in Asia, where his Learning Hub (The Hive) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has helped rethink how university classrooms, offices and public spaces can be arranged for maximum communication.

With the “Vessel” project now fully underway, and Pier 55 not geographically very far away, New York is becoming a Heatherwick hub of sorts, too. Ross was so happy with the Hudson Yards design that he hired the studio to do a couple of residential buildings, too.

Private structures like those are relatively rare for this designer—overall the most striking thing about his career is that his work has been largely comprised of public projects, places that anyone can enter and enjoy, products that anyone can buy (if they can afford it), and structures that somehow serve as links, like bridges. In the end, his greatest passion may be to let the whole world share in his ingenuity.


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