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British Designer Thomas Heatherwick

Making the Future


Making the Future

Source:Elena Heatherwick/ Heatherwick Studio

He is the man behind the stunning UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and the 2012 Olympic cauldron. How does this uncompromising "Da Vinci of our times" present a new Great Britain to the world?



Making the Future

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 532 )

It is September in London, and King's Cross Station is still undergoing renovation. New bright red double-decker city buses brush past the maple leaves cleansed by a fresh rain, the drops falling on bicycles parked by the trees. Nearby, sparks fly from out of a black gate by the roadside as two young men weld a metal object whose identity is not yet discernible.

Thomas Heatherwick, his brown hair curly, comes in. Unable to contain his laughter, he tells them, "Hope it works!"

But failed experiments are not a problem, because Heatherwick knows full well that this team of designers he heads up is especially strong in materials development and innovative production processes.

The UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo – made from a quarter of a million seeds and sprouting vitality like a dandelion – and the Olympic Cauldron at the 2012 London Olympics – fashioned from 204 copper petals – were both germinated and realized here behind the black doors of Heatherwick Studio.

Right now London is buzzing with talk about the Garden Bridge Heatherwick is designing that will join both shores of the River Thames in 2016.

Making Life Better through Design

What makes it so impressive is not just the magical tranquility and beauty of the design, but the way Heatherwick plans to bring his brainchild to fruition: by enlisting the help of celebrated British actress Joanna Lumley, he hopes to raise 60 million pounds to offset the budget provided by Transport for London (TfL).

Heatherwick, 43, constantly outdoes himself and exceeds others' expectations.

Under the large studio skylight, Heatherwick speaks humbly and sincerely, his facial expressions animated. "You try to use the limited time you have on the planet to make the greatest difference you can. People don't trust you until you have a momentum of work and a body of commitment," he tells CommonWealth Magazine.

Despite a full schedule, cities all over the world keep asking him to work his magic for them. Fresh off a trip to Hong Kong and Singapore the previous week, Heatherwick is pleased to speak with media from around the world and take on speaking engagements as well.

People are eager to learn how this creative genius, dubbed by the British media as a "the Leonardo da Vinci of our times," comes up with such astonishing designs time and again. He unequivocally states that his passion and interest is "people," especially the metropolises in which they gather.

"I am interested more than ever in cities – the megacities. I love that spirit, people coming together, and the sense that we are all lifting each other up, to somehow try to make things better and better." It is no wonder that he is a great fan of public transportation, where he loves to observe the ways in which people interact.

A native of London born in 1970, Heatherwick studied 3D design at Manchester Polytechnic and furniture design the Royal College of Art, prior to becoming a professional designer.

Founding his own studio immediately upon graduation, he has grown it from a one-man show to a 120-person operation at present. From furniture to building design, from the hybrid New London Bus to the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, for Heatherwick every design begins with a problem, from which spring forth ideas.

"When we start working on a project, there is an immediate problem to solve that somebody gives you; but there is the problem – you define for yourself the real challenge you need to solve."

A Bridge that Curls like a Caterpillar

Can Christmas cards be larger than the envelope? Must windows be level? Can fractures create a feeling of coalescence? Can a bridge change constantly as you step across it? And how can a building symbolize a country?

Design questions like these are discussed over and over among the team at the studio, swinging back and forth between certitude and doubt, breakthroughs and dead ends.

"I suppose you can say that creativity is deciding what problem is the real problem to solve," he offers. Finding the right problem is halfway to getting to the answer.

In 2002 Heatherwick designed the Rolling Bridge as part of the Paddington Basin redevelopment project. A footbridge crossing a small canal, it had to be retractable to allow the passage of boats.

For Heatherwick, conventional drawbridge structures have always evoked the unpleasant image of a soccer player breaking his ankles making a kick. So he determined to design the bridge to move aside without cracking in two.

Finally, using flexible steel, stainless steel cables, a wooden surface and aluminum wires, Heatherwick devised a way for the bridge to curl up and out of the way. Practical considerations aside, the delicate appearance and distinctive rolling action make the bridge a famous tourist attraction.

"Most of the time, people only expect the function, not the civic quality that a city gives you," he says. "But after a new design or change comes along, people find out it didn't offer human dignity before."

In 2010, Transport for London sought to give the renowned London buses a facelift in anticipation of the 2012 London Olympics, and launched a design competition.

For Heatherwick no dream could be bigger than designing something that so many people encounter on a daily basis.

"You can't imagine, for fifty years the double-decker design was unchanged," he exclaims. Even three years later, the designer gets as excited as a child when talking about the project.

Even riding in an expensive sports car cannot compare to snatching a front row seat on the top level of a London Bus and touring in style through the city, in the view of Thomas Heatherwick, for whom buses do more than just get people to their destinations on time.

The design team developed a hybrid system and made every effort to lighten the buses, making them 40 percent more fuel efficient. In order to provide a better experience for passengers who spend a good portion of their day on the bus, the team conceived seamless windows that wrap around the carriage. The spiral staircases make you feel like you're in a miniature theater, with their sunny, spacious design.

The Safe Way Is the Riskiest

Most people say that the Seed Cathedral he designed for the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo was what rocketed him to stardom, but Heatherwick insists that the project was not about him, but the country.

"Britain is always about heritage, heritage – the past, the past. And it seems a shame not to be communicating something about the future and have the confidence not to need to always show the past," he states frankly.

Undertaken with an extremely minimal space and budget, the Seed Cathedral departed from conventional architectural concepts, placing 250,000 seeds in the tips of 60,000 clear acrylic rods, radiating outward with life and symbolizing Britain's diversity and commitment to sustainability.

"At the time, the British government said to me it was very risky – very, very risky. And I kept telling them the riskiest thing you can do is what you think is the safest. If people see what they already know, they close down," he relates. Fearful at first that dealing with the government would only ruin everything, "in the end we pulled off a project with no compromises, believing in the best."

Heatherwick achieved a world-class design project on the strength of world-class ambition. He makes everything sound so enchanting and full of excitement the way he describes it, but underpinning it all is his trademark pursuit of better, more beautiful, more humane, and more useful designs. For the 2012 London Olympics he and his studio were charged with designing the cauldron for the Olympic flame used in the opening ceremony. According to Heatherwick, "We were asked to put a caldron on the roof of the stadium and we were asked to make a cauldron having no moving parts."

Nevertheless, they not only made a cauldron with moving parts but one that went right in the center of the stadium, where polished copper petals inscribed with the names of all 204 participating nations were lit. The flames rose slowly, converging at the center to form a spectacular crucible.

The lighting of the Olympic flame in the cauldron became one of the most enduring memories of the Olympiad for billions of viewers around the world.

"We put the cauldron in the center and it had the most moving parts in the history of the Olympic cauldron. Maybe people don't agree, but that's what we felt was actually needed. The greatest thing was celebrating 204 countries coming together, not fighting for two weeks. Amazing. That's what people should remember long after the cauldron was gone. I have a picture of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee chairman and his copper petal," he relates with a chuckle.

Retained to oversee a number of projects in Asian cities, Heatherwick is particularly impressed with the ambition of Asia's young people.

"In Europe, we think we are ambitious, but I don't think we actually are. It's an arrogant, old culture and civilization," he states flatly.

Instead, he holds great esteem for the Victorian era. "If you look back at a century-and-a-half ago, what was happening in Great Britain, the Victorian era was really ambitious. They really believed they could do things."

Turning imagination into reality, shaping an era. From the World Expo to the London Olympics and his hometown of London, it is all a great stage for a man of vision and ambition. When the wind blows, Thomas Heatherwick leans into it and moves forward, showing the world graceful talent like flower petals and spectacular ambition like a leaping flame.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Thomas Heatherwick

Born in 1970

British designer

Founder, Heatherwick Studio (King's Cross, London)

MFA in Design, London Royal College of Art

Representative Works:

UK Pavilion Seed Cathedral at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo

Olympic Cauldron, 2012 London Olympics

New Bus for London

Author of Making