Thomas Heatherwick: Politicians don’t have the confidence to take risks anymore

·9-min read
 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

Whether he is designing office buildings for Google, new shopping districts such as Coal Drops Yard and Olympia or his latest project, a futuristic car that cleans the air and can be converted into a room, Thomas Heatherwick is driven by the question “what if?” Over the past few months, he has been going on long walks through London, thinking about how we need to make cities “humanly engaging — people won’t go somewhere unless it means something to them” — and he is worried we have lost our way.

We are in the designer’s King’s Cross office, where the staff are trickling back after lockdown — to Heatherwick’s delight. There are intriguing objects everywhere you look; models of the buildings and projects he has designed over 27 years of Heatherwick Studio and two giant paper sculptures of pigs that he brought back from China grinning at us from the top of a shelf.

Heatherwick, 51, is softly spoken and races through ideas with a sense of wonder. His wide eyes, curly hair and neat waistcoat give him a Hobbitesque look. Some have compared him to the Green Man; Boris Johnson likens him to Michelangelo and Alan Yentob has said he’s “up there with Willy Wonka”. But his mood switches to despondency when he speaks about barriers to London’s progress: “Politics means you often look better if you stop things rather than make them happen,” he says at one point. He has had experience of this with the garden bridge that was never built (he is now about to open a garden pier on the Hudson in New York).

Politicians feel they have had their fingers burned by taking risks,” he says. “When I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, London felt stuck, then to my astonishment it broke through — Tony Blair was prime minister, we had the Millennium projects, it was thrilling that there was that confidence. It is a shame that political forces have pulled away from that.”

What, then, is the future of the capital? “In London as much as any city, where you go to the new parts there will be an individual gorgeous art gallery and the rich people have fancy houses but the rest is dead feeling and you don’t want to be there. It is hard for the mayor to do things that are empowered. Compare it to Paris where Anne Hidalgo is able to build a city vision and push it through.”

It would have been “easy”, says Heatherwick, “to only do private houses and museums”. “But I am interested in culture not just in the obvious places.” He paints a charming picture of learning this growing up in Wood Green and roller-skating up to Alexandra Palace, smelling the chocolate from the sweet factories and then seeing the shop fronts smashed in the riots. “It was a powerful part of thinking of how high streets are the theatre of our lives. I went back recently to sniff the chocolate and I couldn’t smell it anymore,” he sighs. He thinks the high street will survive, “but we need to make it more engaging and community focused. When Selfridges first opened it was run by a showman. I am proud to work on shops because what else brings people together anymore? It is not of great interest to me whether people buy things but it’s an excuse to create public space that the Government has lost the confidence to do.”

The first two floors of a building are the most vital part, he says, “they draw people in — it’s about making places that you want to go to even if you have no reason to, like Covent Garden. Grand architecture isn’t what makes a place thrive. The places we love tend to be pretty raw.” That said, “London could take much taller buildings.”

He is excited to be back in his office with his team and nervously laughs off the furore around a job advert for an assistant that was posted in February and he was roundly mocked for. It went into forensic levels of detail, saying the job would entail “remembering birthdays” and “any ad hoc tasks, eg making a fancy-dress costume” for his two children. “Oh that,” says Heatherwick. “There must not have been much going on at that point. If the media notices that we are aspiring to some great team members, that’s ok. It’s weirdly positive.” I must look confused so he explains: “At the same time as someone is poking fun at a more detailed job description, we are unashamedly trying to facilitate places and that means really good team members. I’m proud to be employing a good, diverse team.”

Working from home during the pandemic has caused a divide, he thinks — “younger people can’t grow their careers and find the people who will be important in their lives from a video call”. He warns the older generation “who think that now they can smugly stay in suburban bliss and work from there, may become less relevant” if they don’t come into the office. His thinking is inspired by his father, who worked in community development. “He was interested in how anyone doing their job well is being creative — imaginative ability is the last thing that computers will be able to do; the jobs that will go quickest are the ones that use imagination.”

Heatherwick grew up in north London. His mother was a jeweller with a shop in Portobello and before working in community development his father was a Royal Marine and a pianist. Heatherwick studied at the Royal College of Art where he met Terence Conran who became his mentor and advised him to set up his own studio.

While being enthusiastic, he is not naive about how frustrating work can be and says we need to make offices places people want to come to; to make work rewarding and offices part of the community — he “wasn’t interested in working on Google’s California building unless the public was part of it, they can walk through the middle of the building”. He speaks ardently about “office Stockholm syndrome”. “People validate their lives by saying, ‘I love my boss, I work somewhere great’ — you have to say that because otherwise what are you doing with your life? But if you are only in the office two days a week it is harder to get away with a bad day. Team members will be more professionally promiscuous and we have to think about these deluded notions about efficiency.” Office buildings should also be more sustainable. “Google has been pushing to make the air quality of their workers better through the design of the building,” he says.

Is it enough to not be creating more pollution, could we go further than that to actually regenerate the air? And to go some way to solving the space crisis?

This fed into his thinking when IM Motors who own MG asked him to design his first car. “I started by thinking, is it enough to not be creating more pollution, could we go further than that to actually regenerate the air?” He knows people aren’t going to give up their cars, but if a car-free city is unrealistic, there must be a way to make driving greener. So he came up with a car that cleans the air. If the car takes off in China, which is the first place that is going to be introducing them, “it is realistic that you could have a million cars, cleaning up the city on a grand scale”. It should be affordable too, at €40,000.“It is not the solution in itself,” he says. “But together with all the other solutions, for example making buildings more efficient… and the Tesla model isn’t a particularly inspiring viable alternative to fossil fuels. On a design level, I find it depressing how car design has been homogenised.”

But he didn’t stop with cleaning the air. The car can also be converted into a room — Heatherwick’s answer to the space and housing shortage. “The Covid crisis has taught us that we need extra space and flexibility. We have a billion cars only being used 10 per cent of the time — most of the time they are sitting on roads doing nothing. So this has seats that can rotate and recline so it is a space where you could work or watch a programme — most cars have better sound systems than our houses — or eat together.” We talk about using cars as storage - he has a friend who stored his grandmother’s possessions and her ashes in his boot for years. Heatherwick’s own car, a Citroen 2CV that he’s had for 30 years, inspired him: “You can unclip the seats and take them out for outdoor film screenings.”

Details like this enchant Heatherwick. The thing he’s most proud of on the Routemaster he designed, for example, is the lighting. “Lighting on buses was like a battery chicken farm before,” he says. “It made you look bad to your girlfriend.” He also fought to have windows that open.

Would he ever do residential buildings if they were affordable, or council housing? “We would love to. For some reason we get more chances to do that in other countries. Britain has great snobbery which acts against it.” One of his current projects is a new library in the UK, which will be “like a community centre without having the patronising title of a community centre” and he is proud of the Maggie’s cancer centre he’s recently finished in Leeds. “We worked on that far more than any fee could ever pay us. We didn’t do it for the fee, we did it to make a real difference for cancer care patients going on that journey. The best feeling is when you speak to the users of the building and they don’t even know you are the designers of it.”

It is, however, a long game. Coal Drops took 15 years. Do you have to be a certain type of person to do his job, patient and also determined to make your mark on the world. “I was very daunted by it on my undergraduate degree course. I thought, god, how do people do this? I spoke to lots of designers and architects about it and found that often people become cynical and bitter. That set me up well in a way, knowing it was going to be hard and you are in an area with so many forces at play but it’s worth it if you manage to do something in the public realm. We are not naïve about what it takes to do things but nothing happens without enthusiasm.” Creative block does occasionally strike. “Originally I was by myself and you were in agony, wringing your mind, head on the table, but now I work with amazing collaborators. It might seem uncool but in my team, if we can make something better that is the best possible thing.”

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