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Interview with Designer Thomas Heatherwick

Aired July 6, 2013 - 07:00:00   ET


MONITA RAJPAL: He thinks like an architect, an inventor, an engineer and a sculptor. But internationally acclaimed designer Thomas Heatherwick is not quite any of these things. His designs are responses to questions.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK: We wondered if it was possible to make something that was fully rotation symmetrical, and it was also (seized).

RAJPAL: Some answers are small as a chair, some as big as a university campus. But it's creations like this one that have given him cutting edge status around the world. He created the unconventional cauldron that held the Olympic Flame for the 2012 games.

HEATHERWICK: The biggest headache I guess for us in that it meant that we designing 204 cauldrons, not one.

RAJPAL: And just two years earlier, his so-called "Harry UK" pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo won him an award for best site design. He's even recently modernized the U.K.'s iconic (Routemaster) bus. This week on Talk Asia, we're with Thomas Heatherwick at the site of his multi-million dollar project in Hong Kong. Plus, we follow him to London to get a rare peek into the mechanic with a design master's creative team.

HEATHERWICK: This is my studio. I'll show you around.


RAJPAL: Tom, welcome to Talk Asia. Thank you for spending some time with us and we are here, in one of your creations. And it begs the question, though, what do we call you? An architect? An inventor? A designer? How do we define you?

HEATHERWICK: Oh, I'm squinting because -- I mean I, I'm -- I suppose the verb of what I do is I design, and -- but I don't mind what somebody calls what, what me and my team do. And so, the kinds of projects we're working on the moment, we're designing a new pier. We're designing -- we've been working on a power station. And we -- I just finished a bus as well as designing a hotel. So you can tell me what I do better, maybe.

RAJPAL: These ideas, and those projects, one of which was seen, perhaps by an estimated audience of about 4.8 billion people. I'm talking about the London Olympics and that cauldron, the Olympic Cauldron, which some would say would be the pinnacle of the Olympic Games. How did that idea come to you?

HEATHERWICK: Danny Boyle came to the studio and I'd not met him before and he said that his opening ceremony was going to very much be about connecting with the athletes and the spectators coming together in peace of these 204 countries. And so it just somehow very quickly seemed obvious to us that we should try to find an idea rather than a shape or a style, and that idea was to celebrate that coming together.

And the best way to do that was to not have a singular big, fat object, but to make something out of 204 pieces. The biggest headache, I guess for us, in that it meant we were designing 204 cauldrons, not one and every one of those pieces was different and unique.

RAJPAL: At the end of the day, though, all the moving parts and all the designs and technology involved, you had to let it go, and there's that moment when you know it's coming out. Talk to me about how that moment was for you.

HEATHERWICK: In projects that we've worked on in the studio, sometimes it feels like it's all on your shoulders, and so when it actually came to the moments of lighting the cauldron, you know, it felt very, in a way relaxing, because you knew it was beyond you. You couldn't do anything more, being tense about it in any way wasn't going to help anything.

So you just took deep breathes, and watched and just looked on and then, and it, and it worked, and it's -- the moment which was most, so moving for me was when the flames were all lit, and you could tell that people were probably going, "OK, great. London's got a flat cauldron. Good, that's really great, too." And which is what -- I wanted that kind of moment of bemusement.

And then you could feel that they had thought that, because as they started to lift, and people suddenly realized that these things were doing something else and were just -- so silently, effortlessly starting to converge, there, that was the moment that I'll never forget, because there was this very sudden, huge gasp from -- I don't think I imagined it, from...

RAJPAL: No you didn't.

HEATHERWICK: ...from the spectators.

RAJPAL: You're no stranger to having that pressure of doing justice to Britain with the Shanghai Expo in 2010. You were responsible for the U.K. pavilion, and you're also no stranger to making people think and wonder, what's this about? Tell me about the Seed Cathedral. It looked like a big, hairy cube.

HEATHERWICK: The World Expo in 2010 was the world's largest ever world exposition, and there was -- there were going to be 250 pavilions and so even more than the countries in the Olympics, so that those would be so many things bombarding your brain. And it was a vast wave of the city, and each pavilion was going to be like a museum to each country, because each countries is going to show everything that's amazing about it.

So we had this idea that we would show something that people in Britain haven't seen before, and the Expo is about the future of cities, and British cities are the greenest of their size in the world, and the world's first major botanical institution, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Q have this project were they have been collecting 25% of all the world's plant species.

And we spoke to them and asked them, would they give us a quarter of a million seeds, and they said yes, and so we made the most, maybe you could argue, the stupidest thing at the whole expo, a hairy building. But each one of those hairs was an optic, and you went inside it and it was just daylight going through these optics that were seven and a half meters long.

This is the model of the U.K. pavilion for the World Expo in Shanghai. What you're looking at here is a building that moves in the wind. It's soft and quivers these hairs. So this is to scale. You can see little people, and each one of these on the inside had cast a different seed type. So when you were inside, all you saw were these 66,000 ends with these different seeds, and that was it. That was the capability. And I'm lucky it was -- it won the top prize at the expo.

RAJPAL: I would love to spend an hour in your brain, just to know how it works.




HEATHERWICK: Hello. I'm Thomas Heatherwick. This is my studio. I'll show you around.

We work in groups on the different projects that we do. The team is made up of architects and designers and we start by looking at how to think about how to begin a project, with what philosophy to take. And there's a lot of the thinking at the beginning, is just to think to start drawing or making models of what angles to approach a project.

It's a bit like putting washing in the washing machine and taking it out, looking, is it clean? No, pushing it back in and going through many cycles till a project shapes up and becomes what, feels like it's the right thing to build.

RAJPAL: I think one of my favorite designs of yours is the Rolling Bridge in Paddington. It think the first time that I saw that, I was gobsmacked because not only by the actual movement of it, but when you see it roll into a wheel, I started to wonder, who would be this person who would create something like this, who would design? And where would that thought process come from?

I read somewhere that you start most of your projects with a question. It's not a brief or anything, but it's with a question. How has your thought process changed over the years?

HEATHERWICK: When I first started and set up the studio, I was much more aligned. Now I work with 85 people, but when I started, there was me plus one or two people, and you very much felt by yourself thinking about projects. And well, I felt like I was a bad designer, because I find it so hard when I was just working by myself in isolation, and colleges are particularly bad for that, because students are very much sitting there by themselves, trying to be brilliant or trying to do something.

Whereas, it came alive for me when, for example, there was a structural engineer who used to come into the Royal College of Art, and he'd come in and sit and look at what you were doing and get interested and get excited about it. And then you'd respond, and then he'd respond, and then you'd respond and he'd respond. And before you knew it you were growing something.

It was almost like we sit here now, it's almost like three to the discussion. You grow something and it's suddenly by experimenting with ideas or to thought experiments, or I think there's a romance that the idea of the lone genius who has a big pen and a big piece of paper and does this. But yes, I can draw and yes, we sketch.

But we, where things really come out is through the strategic ideas that we generate together, that then lead us to things.

RAJPAL: So you're OK with say, going around different cities and people not being able to say, oh, that's a -- from the Heatherwick Studio. You're OK with that, that if there's not one particular style that defines your studio?

HEATHERWICK: I think it's exceedingly important to make projects that are unique to their place. And I get -- one, I think, you're plagiarizing yourself if you just copy yourself, and it's sort of disrespectful to a place, to not try to do your best new work there. And I think that the problem that we have in this incredible burst of development work across the world, as cities are more clear of whether they're there and what their purpose is and their plans for wanting to develop.

But there isn't the same kind of creative, analytical thinking that for example goes in advertising, or certain other areas of design. I'm interested in this sort of infrastructure that roots and glues things together, rather than just another fancy art gallery. And that's why when we worked, had this chance to work on the new London Bus and there were lessons we could learn from the bus from 50 years ago.

But no designer had been allowed for 50 years to coordinate and try to give back dignity to the passenger. I don't feel that my urge or my studio's urge is to do, to express myself and do Thomas projects and where shall I stick one of our projects? I'm interested in the gaps that are around us, and when you see something, yeah, why is that like that? That could better.

RAJPAL: I would love to spend an hour in your brain just to know how it works, because it's fascinating, just the way you think about everything. But I guess I'm just curious about, what was your favorite toy as a child?

HEATHERWICK: I was brought up in a big rambling house where there was space to collect things and accumulate things you're interested in. In a way the studio in London now is just an extension of my bedroom when I was five or six. It was a workshop then. The studio in London now is a workshop.

We have, we -- yes, we have lots of computers and there's lots of architects and things, but we have a big space where we make things, test ideas, make prototypes, maquettes, models, and generally see what we're doing is wondering about the world.


HEATHERWICK: This is a workshop and this is where we don't forget that our responsibility is in all the thinking and drawing and world contributors that we're going to be responsible for some of the biggest objects humankind can make. We'll also make models to analyze and show back to ourselves and show to the people we work with how something could work.

This is a -- the transformation of a used paper mill into a gin distillery in England, where it's actually being happened here, but (hailing) behind this testing, an idea that we have where we're working on a cancer center and trying to think about how a building or health can be something that encourages wellness somehow in the architecture itself.


HEATHERWICK: The amazing, extraordinary thing about Hong Kong, is this mix of scales and levels of ambition and intensity.



RAJPAL: One of the beautiful things about this place is we can walk out and see this amazing skyline.

HEATHERWICK: And this is the amazing extraordinary thing about Hong Kong. We have this mix of scales and levels of ambition and intensity and it's all compressing with then jungle mountain as a backdrop, and this Pacific place is -- it navigates both. It's built into the mountainside.

The lovely thing here is that the scale of the mountainside is such that it can compete with the scale of the architecture. It's very rare for any city on the planet to have a mountain, a mountain backdrop, backdrop clothed like that that's so clear and strong. The landscape, I think, is more important than ever.

RAJPAL: What excites you about Hong Kong?

HEATHERWICK: When I first came to Hong Kong, I guess it's -- it was 10 years ago, I hadn't really travelled that much and the -- suddenly I was hit by this incredible mix and there's a lot of sort of anti-city loathing that can exist, and I found Hong Kong beautiful. And when you, when you went up to the peak in the back, it felt to me the most -- like looking at the most beautiful termites here created by nature.

I mean I found it hilarious when I was sort of trying to find where's graffiti? Where is graffiti in Hong Kong? You know where is the -- and once, actually here at Pacific Place, about eight years, I was sort of looking and then spotted, there was tiny bit -- I mean, this sort of place has always been immaculate, and then spotted just on the edge of one of the glass balustrades, someone had written in white, "Friendly Vandalism". You say, is that as bad as it gets? You know, how...

RAJPAL: There's something that's -- about Hong Kong, it's constantly changing. It's constantly new. How do you keep redesigning new?

HEATHERWICK: It's quite rare that things can't be better, and so when, when organizations are ambitious, they will keep going back and looking back at themselves and looking at ways to make things better, and I'm very distrusting of people who don't keep self-analyzing and keep looking at their, the work they do, the projects they create and thinking how they could be better.

And society keeps having good ideas and developing, and so our environments need to keep responding. Here at Pacific Place, there was somewhere that was, was really good when it was built and has been incredibly successful. And then the creators of it were asking us to -- just asked us to look.

Which is quite terrifying, because us being asked by the people who made it themselves to start off with, to, it's like criticize me, criticize me. And we looked through it and realized that there were a number of main things, and so through a dialogue, we grew this project. And grew an approach and a philosophy that then could inform -- is it one and a half billion Hong Kong dollars of work?

But it's very hard, working with an existing building, because the bone structure is there, and you can't just say, "Oh, let's (not rat) down, and we'll do that," and you're really needing to -- you -- we want to keep it open the whole time. We needed to -- so it's like doing open heart surgery and brain surgery while keeping your patients alive.

RAJPAL: Who can feel everything.

HEATHERWICK: He feels, yes.

RAJPAL: You've got a quite projects. I mean, you had quite a few projects as well in Asia throughout, and in different major cities in Asia. How do you find clients that commission works from your studio? Are they more receptive to bold ideas, to ideas that may not be shouting out loud, as you've been saying, you know, but are quietly bold?

HEATHERWICK: There's a level of ambition and optimism in Asia, I suppose, quite obviously, economically and there are, there are people feeling that they need to differentiate. But we found this fascinating thing that the, the first wave of major developments in China, were sort of looking around the world, spotting things in America, or we're having, seeing around the world, let's do that, and then building that within China.

But then the second wave is where the second wave of the next generation are looking and saying, "Well, was that really appropriate to here? Didn't we just copy everywhere else? How do we find our own voice, and how does this really relate to Chinese culture?"

RAJPAL: And it's friendly...

HEATHERWICK: And so they're sending -- then there's a wave of really obvious cheesy things where everything looks like a drug, and (warmed it), put red it, or do -- but that's been debunked.

RAJPAL: What's particular and special and unique for a particular location can also be tied in with tradition. And you talked about culture as well. But tradition and modernity are two different things. How do you maintain tradition? How do you maintain something that's part of a country, or a city's history?

HEATHERWICK: With all the projects that we do, we start by researching. And so we've got a little team who just -- it's like a little hit squad, just go in and analyzing and research the history of that exact place, area, the region and to feed into a process. I think that it's particularly important to -- if you, it's to know when not to grab some local historical obvious trigger.

Because I think that it's almost disrespectful of local tradition, if you think -- you can just come and grab it and do a bit of it into your project. I also believe that we make our own traditions and customs. That doesn't mean everything's a square cold box looking like it's landed on the moon. But it's, it's about trying to be genuine and particular to that place.

That, more than anything, is to me, feels the greatest respect you can do for a project in a, in a community with people, with people who are going to be in and around it.

RAJPAL: It's been a pleasure. Thomas, thank you so much.