The British designer is reshaping cities across the globe with an eye for creating destinations, not just places to pass through.
Interview by Spencer Bailey
July 26, 2016
Since launching his London-based studio in 1994, British designer Thomas Heatherwick has earned a top spot in the field, not only for his highly experimental work but also for his progressive, outside-the-box thinking. His current workload includes the design of a pier in New York’s Manhattan, Google’s headquarters (in collaboration with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels), and a park-bridge hybrid on the River Thames in London. Here, he discusses the importance of togetherness, and how design done right can serve as a meeting place—both literally and figuratively.
What was your “big break,” if you can pinpoint one? I think everything’s a break. I’ve certainly been lucky to have had chances along the way to develop my experience—and the experience of my team. A major one was 11 years ago, when [Gordon Ongley], the chairman of Swire Properties in Hong Kong, came to the studio and asked us to do Pacific Place. It was the equivalent of everything we’d done in the previous 10 years added together. Then he doubled it, and doubled it, and doubled it again. It just started by him asking, “Have you ever worked in retail before?” I said no, and he said, “Perfect!” He gave us the chance to think of a place the size of a town. We had to grow our systems. Each of the most experienced project leaders in the studio did their time, like an apprenticeship. It was less about building a singular building and more about a big project with immense complexity and management of information. It took eight years.
I like this idea of your work being about “meeting” rather than “shuffling.” I’ve got to make sure I’m not becoming too sentimental, but I’m really fascinated by togetherness and how you give meaning to spaces and places. At the Hudson River pier we’re working on with Barry Diller, when the competition began, it was a piece of land that was just a blip on the edge of the west side of Manhattan. It felt to us that if this was really going to be a park—which is a special place to be—we had to pull it away from the road and the cycle-way and allow it to feel like you crossed a threshold to get to it. In a sense, it’s about emotional triggers. You need the sense that you’re leaving behind a place and that you’re arriving somewhere else.
You’ve done many major projects for the United Kingdom, like designing the country’s pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 and the Olympic cauldron in 2012 or redesigning the iconic London bus. How do you feel about the British government? I grew up resigned to the idea that there would not be possibilities within government, whether here or anywhere. The government here felt totally detached to me as a little boy, and to the people I was around. It felt like a thing that happened to you, and it certainly felt that the government was not something that was receptive to the value of ideas that challenged the status quo. I see now that [the 1970s] was a time of licking wounds. There had been the war, and then there had been a reconstruction, a burst of economic activity after the war, and then there had been a disillusionment with that reconstruction—the [poor] quality of the public housing buildings that had been built. An idealism bubble had burst, and there was confusion as to whether the right answer was to retreat to historical replication and to be suspicious of new ideas.
And now? It’s been interesting seeing society shift, and to also find what I think we all know more confidently to be true now, which is that progress needs ideas. Real progress can’t happen without some optimism about the future. We humans respond to ideas. I always believed strongly that ideas were the key, but I feared that that would never be understood and that we’d be working in obscurity. Now there’s been, in the last 10 years or so, this sense that inventors’ ideas are actually key.
What’s your take on Brexit? I think what Britain has been strong at, historically, is having the confidence to think a different kind of thought. The mix of people based here, or half-based here, to me doesn’t reflect so much Britishness as a kind of globalness. I’m speaking as a Londoner. I just feel very fortunate, by a freak of birth, being brought up in a place where there’s a large variety of people and cultural influences and different types of experiences.
I may be wrong, but it seems you’re suggesting in a roundabout way that the British government could use some of your design thinking. Well, unexpectedly it makes sense. For example, the U.K. Pavilion won the top prize at the Expo. In governmental terms, you can quantify that as success—that this was not just trying to be different for the sake of being different.
What sort of advice would you give to the British government right now? My sense is that we’d be fine if we stayed in the European Union, and in the long term, we’re going to be fine if we leave. I believe humans are amazingly resourceful and resilient, and the context of more self-determination is just a different flavor of governing. I think we’ll always, in our way, be open to things and to the world because that’s been our strength for a very long time. I think the main thing is to get on with it.
Your Garden Bridge project is finally moving forward. What are your hopes for it? It’s going to give London something that doesn’t exist yet: a park on top of the River Thames. What excited me about it was, when you think of the best place to see London it’s the middle of the river, because the all buildings get out of the way. For some reason, no one I know has ever said to a friend, “Meet me in the middle of Waterloo Bridge”—or the Westminster Bridge, Vauxhall, Blackfriars, Southwark, or even the gorgeous Millennium Bridge. Waterloo Bridge, for example—the views are fantastic, but it’s a dual carriageway. It was designed for cars, buses, taxis, lorries, and motorbikes, and you would squeeze a few people on the edge. With the Garden Bridge, it’s the public nature of it that excites me.
The new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is backing it, too. I think that each mayor reflects a next stage in society. He’s been properly supportive of this project. His team is really helping to drive it forward, and he’s become interested. It will start construction this year and be finished well within his term. It’s about giving this to our society. There’ll be a public campaign so that half a million people could all go, “My granny helped make that bridge happen!” Deliberately, this isn’t a royal family project. This isn’t commemorating a war. We could’ve raised money by commemorating war, but it felt like this was something that’s in us all and has been given to us.