The fine art of starchitect Thomas Hedderwick
Meet the brains behind Cape Town’s Zeitz art museum and Google’s new headquarters in California
“Too many modern buildings are sterile, cold and mind-numbingly monotonous,” says Thomas Heatherwick. “I’m just trying to make places that aren’t.”
Heatherwick designed the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa building which opened last year to huge acclaim. The museum occupies buildings that were once at the centre of SA’s grain export drive – huge grain silos that have been converted into a vast, cathedral-like entrance – and strategically connect the Waterfront’s mall with Cape Town’s expanding financial and conferencing district.
We are standing in Coal Drops Yard, the 48-year-old British designer’s multimillion-pound development for King’s Cross, due to open next month. The brief was to turn a pair of dilapidated Victorian warehouses, which once stored coal delivered by rail from northern England for distribution across the capital, into a swanky shopping street.
The challenge, as Heatherwick puts it, referring to the awkward orientation of the monolithic sheds, was that “there were these two Kit Kat fingers, each the length of St Paul’s Cathedral, too far apart. The feng shui was completely wrong.” What the site needed, he felt, was some sort of centre, a “heart”. His solution was to “grow” the slate roofs of the twin warehouses up and out into the void between them, so that they would appear to “kiss”.
Even though Heatherwick professes to have no signature style, the spectacular design has a flamboyance that is entirely characteristic of his work. It respects the buildings’ history, incorporating slate from the same Welsh quarry that was used 160 years ago, while introducing a surprising 21st-century moment of magic. “All our projects have heart to them,” says Heatherwick. “We are trying to reinvent how to be modern, in a human way.”
Heatherwick also famously created the mesmerising cauldron for the London Olympics – a complex, ingenious design consisting of 204 flame-topped copper stems, each representing a different nation. It wowed a global television audience of 900 million and, at a stroke, established his big-league credentials.
Heatherwick has curly, unkempt hair and sports stubble and baggy trousers. His gentle manner is reinforced by a quietly messianic sense of purpose. We enter his studio, tucked behind a Travelodge on a road crawling towards the railway station and I notice castor-wheeled shelves supporting objects relating to past projects and a stainless-steel version of Heatherwick’s rotating Spun chair, which tips to one side like a plaything discarded by a giant child.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. In 2012, Heatherwick employed around 80 people, but still had the enthusiastic, boyish air of an eccentric inventor known for his charming yet fiddly designs and famously described by his mentor, the British designer Sir Terence Conran, as “the Leonardo da Vinci of our times”. Back then Heatherwick had many big projects on the go, but little that had yet come to fruition, at least on a substantial scale. Moreover, although the first of his redesigned New Routemaster hybrid double-decker buses had just hit London’s streets, they proved expensive, hot and energy-inefficient. Eventually, they were discontinued.
Today, things are very different. “We’re working on 30 projects, in Asia, North America, Europe and the Middle East,” says Heatherwick, who now employs around 240 people, across five buildings in King's Cross. “I’m doing more design than ever.”
These projects are no longer at the scale of furniture, or even an Olympic cauldron. Rather, they are, as Heatherwick winningly puts it, “new pieces of city”, with a combined construction value – according to his studio's estimate – of more than £6bn.
As well as Coal Drops Yard, there is Pier 55, a public park with a 700-seat outdoor theatre, designed to float above the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side, and Vessel, an urn-like structure comprising 154 flights of stairs, also in New York, which will open to the public next year.
Heatherwick is also co-designing Google’s new campus at Mountain View, California, as well as the Internet giant’s biggest ever London office, which will be almost as long as The Shard is high, just around the corner from Coal Drops Yard. Earlier this year, his team won a competition to co-design a new terminal at Singapore’s Changi Airport, which should increase capacity by 50 million passengers per year.
When, in 1994, at the age of 24 Heatherwick set up his own studio, despite never having worked for anyone else, could he have predicted such extravagant success?
He smiles. “No,” he says. “In my rambling, shambling beginnings, I never dreamed that we’d get to do such an amazing mix of projects.”
The turning point, he says, was the British pavilion that he designed for the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010. Filled with 250,000 seeds from Kew Gardens, it was an enthralling, fantastical structure: a “hairy” box, almost 15m wide and more than 9m high, made from 60,000 silvery acrylic rods, that would quiver in the breeze. It won Heatherwick the gold medal for best pavilion – and a host of major commissions, in China and elsewhere. Having been feted as an “up-and-coming” designer for the best part of two decades, suddenly he had arrived.
It’s hard to imagine what could top building Google’s HQ, or a new airport terminal, but, Heatherwick says, “I feel like we’re just getting going.” He only takes on projects that “really excite” him, and turns down “bread-and-butter” work.
“We’ve never done an airport, or Google’s headquarters,” he says. “We’d never done an Olympic cauldron. With each project, we are starting from a terrifying position.” This guards against complacency. “You can’t fully know whether something’s going to work until it’s finished,” he explains. “Anyone who says otherwise is lying. I get worried when my team aren’t worried. Worry is a useful energy.”
One of the curious things about Heatherwick is that, even though he is masterminding projects which most ego-driven “starchitects” would kill for, he is anything but starry. Colleagues speak of his ability to hypnotise clients during pitches. Yet, to me, he seems down-to-earth, as meek as his designs are flamboyant.
“I used to think there was something wrong with me,” he confides, recalling the studio’s early days, when he sensed that collaborators and employees were thinking: “Why am I working with you?”
“I’m not a bon viveur,” he says. “I don’t have multiple lives – this is what I do. I guess I’m focused in a way most people aren’t.”
Certainly, when I ask Heatherwick about his personal life – the grandson of the Communist author Miles Tomalin and his wife Elisabeth, who set up and directed the textile design studio of Marks & Spencer, he is the father of 11-year-old twins, though separated from their mother – he clams up, apart from confirming that he has lived a few minutes’ walk from the studio for 15 years. “My goal was never to be in the public arena personally,” he says. “My passion is the publicness of the projects.”
As the studio expanded, his shyness proved a challenge. “I get stage fright when 400 eyeballs are suddenly staring in my direction,” he says. As a result, he leaves the management of his firm to a studio director and six “group leaders”. This frees him up to spend his time “walking around” the studio, chatting to everybody. “I’m not designing every project, at all,” he says. “But I am involved in every project, all the way through.”
His belief is that design should be collaborative. “People tend to think that design is something you do sitting there with your sketch book, dreaming,” he says. “But I never come in with a sketch on a Monday morning going: ‘Here’s the idea’.”
Rather, he explains, ideas emerge from the “push and pull” of conversations within the studio. “The design happens between us, as if it’s in the air. I suppose I’m chairing the direction of that air.” He laughs. “That’s not a catchy metaphor, is it?”
For all his optimism, Heatherwick’s visions don’t always succeed. “Only a certain percentage of things you design will ever get built,” he says. “Making buildings is hard.” This brings us to one conspicuous recent failure: the cancelled Garden Bridge across the Thames that he started to design, and for which his studio received a £2.6m fee.
When I mention the whopping £46m of public money spent by the Garden Bridge Trust before Sadiq Khan, as mayor of London, killed off the project, Heatherwick becomes evasive. Aside from the studio’s fee, I ask, where did the money go? “I know there was a lot of enabling work,” he replies, cautiously. Was he surprised by the total amount spent by the trust on a project that will never be built? “Everyone’s surprised by those figures,” he replies. “Speak to the trust.”
“Our remit was to design,” Heatherwick continues. “We championed an exciting project that we believed was a really good idea for London. Personally, I think it’s a shame it didn’t happen – but lots of things are a shame. As a studio, we move on.” He pauses. “My interest is just making things better: it’s as firm and simple as that.”
- © The Daily Telegraph