Interview: Thomas Heatherwick faces his biggest challenge yet

THE MT INTERVIEW: The designer of the planned London garden bridge has powerful fans, but will they be enough to fend off critics of his new project?

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 04 May 2016

The owner of the business can see where this photo shoot is heading. ‘He took me with my hood up,’ laughs Thomas Heatherwick, shaking his curly-haired head and stripping off his voluminous duffel coat. Sinister monk? Deranged trawlerman? He smiles.

Heatherwick is many things – designer, entrepreneur, studio boss and assured networker – but sinister is not one of them. A zealot, maybe, though with his saturnine good looks and shirt/waistcoat/trouser combo, maybe he should be rigging the ropes in a gypsy circus. He is certainly one of the most deferential mavericks you could meet, gently spoken and anxious to accommodate.

So here we are, fluffing around, choosing where to talk. He wants the better-looking table smack in the centre of reception at his business, Heatherwick Studio, a vast sprawl of desks, screens, artefacts and ducting wedged beside a Travelodge just down from London’s King’s Cross station. I want the quiet corner where the clattery noise created by so many hipsters working under so much exposed concrete is lessened. He easily defers.

Heatherwick is still best known for devising the most effective stunt of the 2012 London Olympic Games: the beautiful, multipetalled cauldron that gently rose to conjoin in one symbolic flame. Some believe he is a design genius – an awkward, indefinable term that rests on his ability to conjure up playfully textured objects, buildings and spaces that surprise and delight.

Though is his updated Routemaster London Bus, with its diagonal slash of glass, an object? Add transport to that list. And his roll-up, roll-down bridge in London’s Paddington, his prickly B of the Bang sculpture in Manchester, his hairy UK Pavilion at Shanghai’s 2010 Expo, his jagged East Beach café in Littlehampton, arts centres, university buildings, housing projects and shopping malls.

Suffice to say his fans do not include architects, who feel Heatherwick, schooled as a furniture designer, has now moved onto their turf. Or bus designers who still rage that he snagged the Routemaster contract without actually entering the proper competitive process. Or protesters who think his latest project – a £175m garden bridge for central London – is horribly misconceived. They are already selling a £1 lapel badge, STOP HEATHERWICK NOW...

In fact, right now, Heatherwick is so successful he is controversial. But he is probably too busy to notice. As well as London’s voluptuous new garden bridge, on which construction should start within the year, he is also devising an £84m public park-on-a-pier for New York’s dockland, funded by media billionaire Barry Diller, and co-designing Google’s new HQ in California with Danish firm BIG. Then there are as many as 17 other projects worldwide.

All of which leaves Heatherwick, 45 but still boyish, with a serious business to run. He now has 160 staff – can he really oversee everything? ‘Absolutely, the Studio is set up with project teams and project leaders and I go from team to team having reviews with everybody.’

It makes huge demands on his time but he would have it no other way. ‘Good project leaders know when to pull me in, and how to use me to add value, and when teams need to think it through for themselves.’

Behind the gentle manner, Heatherwick is surprisingly determined, with a granite-like confidence that has seen him through difficult times, and a likeability rare in his line of work. That is leveraged into relationships that turn powerful people into fans. But soon he will also face tough choices on where his business is going – how big it should get, who it should hire, what they will be paid. And how it deals with critics who think the polymath designer is more hustler than genius.

In truth, he probably has to be both. ‘Projects don’t come rushing towards you, they evolve through discussions with various people,’ he says, almost innocently. He simply goes where the work is.

And, in many ways, he is not a profit-chaser at all. Yes, Heatherwick Studio gets paid top dollar for its projects but its founder generally refuses to roll out his designs in multiple versions to maximise income. Most major cities, for instance, are built on big rivers. So if London’s garden bridge works, or New York’s park-on-a-pier is a success, why wouldn’t he sell the idea to others?

‘Because I think it would be rude to build something like the garden bridge somewhere else,’ says Heatherwick quietly. ‘I am a fan of cities that are distinctive and unique. And I don’t feel I am a big author, we work as a team here. It gives me the creeps when I see a frame for a building going up and recognise the architect. You shouldn’t know who a project is by.’ Really? Will he name names... ‘No.’

Heatherwick is always polite and persistent. The idea of building a garden bridge in London has been around since the 1990s. Heatherwick has been linked to the project, championed by the actress Joanna Lumley, for over a decade. Recession and politics – no one wanted a repeat of the Dome – has made it a long slog.

Finally, it looks like it’s happening, built and run by a charitable trust. The 366m bridge will connect Temple tube station on London’s north bank with the National Theatre on the south bank. Planning permissions have been granted by Westminster and Lambeth councils. Transport for London (TfL) has given £30m, the government has added £30m (covering VAT on the construction costs), the remainder will be raised from business and rich individuals, with smaller sponsorship opportunities available to the rest of us when it’s closer to completion.

And Heatherwick’s elegant design – two giant, coppery planters filled with earth mushrooming out of the Thames to support the bridge’s span – will provide walkers with opportunities to linger mid-river and gaze at the city’s panorama. The whole structure will glow warmly, built of cupronickel, the alloy used for ship’s screws. And the sheer volume of soil that the two supports can hold will allow for a planting environment akin to a park on dry land.

The key is that volume of soil, says Heatherwick, who loves a problem to solve. It makes for a proper garden, not just a concrete bridge with flowerpots dropped into holes. ‘We will have 1,000 cubic metres of soil,’ he says, lighting up. ‘That gives you the critical mass that allows the nutrients and insects and wildlife and all the mix that makes it authentic, and not just fighting for life.’

Heatherwick hopes the bridge, with its gardens designed by Dan Pearson, and its paths twisting around a figure-of-eight shape, will capture the public’s imagination. He likens it to New York’s High Line, which transformed a mile and a half of disused, elevated rail track into a linear park, and argues the area around the little-used Temple station is due for rejuvenation.

Others are not so sure, and the bridge has attracted criticism for its siting, its refusal to carry a cycleway, and its reliance on sponsorship – companies and individuals can buy naming rights for separate gardens along the paths, and the charity running the bridge will be able to close it 12 evenings a year for corporate events.

Press stories have also suggested the polymath was unfairly favoured over more eminent bridge designers, succeeding because Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, and Lumley, a fabulous lobbyist, are both confirmed Heatherwick groupies... Ah, the politics of it all.

Heatherwick laughs. ‘Joanna is very clever and charismatic, and many middle-aged men do love having meetings with her.’ And the criticisms? He answers them, one by one. ‘Siting – yes, other areas need bridges. The mayor’s office has done a study saying London needs nine new bridges, but it’s not a case of ‘there’s just one bridge, where should it go?’ This is part of raising awareness of connecting together a London that has often been seen as two cities – we forget what a big obstacle the river is, 300m wide, the Seine in Paris is only 100m...’

As for cycling: ‘You already have generous cycling on Waterloo Bridge, and you’re not allowed to cycle on the South Bank, so we are depriving no one of a link. The point is to allow that human scale of calm – you can’t get that if you have a bike lane and bells dinging. And you can’t hang it below as it would block the sight lines.’ As for the bridge – open from 6am to midnight each day – being too corporate, he says the Garden Bridge Trust has to raise the money for construction and upkeep, but it will use discretion.

‘The trust has been very clear that this bridge will never be named the "something-or-other". The trust is run and managed for the sole purpose of giving public provision.’ And if people are peeved that it’s closing occasionally, that’s great, he grins. ‘It means they love the project.’

As for unfair favour – something of a recurring theme in Heatherwick projects – he shrugs. His Studio was apparently given high marks by TfL for ‘relevant design experience’. Yet it has only designed one bridge before. Another rival, Wilkinson Eyre, had designed over 20.

It’s also one of the quirks of the project’s long gestation that Heatherwick has been able to appoint his own client – Paul Morrell, former government construction adviser and deputy chairman of the Garden Bridge Trust, will over-see the building of the bridge. He has known Heatherwick for a decade and was approached by the designer two years ago to get involved.

Morrell, with long experience of project management, says he jumped at the chance because he loved the idea, the time was right, and yes, Heatherwick is ‘a genius’. He and chairman Lord Davies, who oversees the fund-raising, work on a pro bono basis. They have raised £120m in pledges and are confident of raising the rest now planning permissions have been granted.

Morrell predicts the Studio’s fees from the project will be in the low millions of pounds. Heatherwick himself says he has a team of nine working full-time on it. They in turn have liaised with specialist firms such as engineers Arup to make the design workable. Four construction firms – UK contractor BAM Nuttall, Spain’s Dragados, and a Franco-Italian joint-venture involving Bouygues and Cimolai – are bidding to build it, with a decision to be made in April.

So can Heatherwick use some of the garden bridge know-how for his park-on-a-pier in New York? He doesn’t really answer that, but launches into the history of that project, how he was approached by Diller’s philanthropic trust – also involved in funding the High Line – and how he won the commission. ‘We put forward ideas with others and were lucky to be chosen,’ he says.

In fact, according to one of his associates, he was initially approached to comment on designs put in by another, who swiftly left the project as Heatherwick hovered. He has a habit of putting rivals’ noses out of joint. Last year the organisers of the London Olympic Games settled out of court a claim made by an American practice that it had provided some of the design principles for the acclaimed cauldron.

And four years earlier, the commissioning of Heatherwick to redesign the Routemaster enraged specialist bus designers. Questions to TfL revealed his Studio was paid £428,000 for its work. A rival says he had quoted a tenth of that. How does Heatherwick do it?

Connections, it seems. Throughout history, artists have always sought patronage, likewise Heatherwick will seek out those who will help him get things done, and his desire to be different will rankle. Critics, however, are caustic. The Boris Watch blog, which attempts to hold the London mayor to account, recounts the problems thrown up by the Heatherwick buses – too heavy, too hot, unexportable – and snipes: ‘The job of London buses is to move Londoners efficiently by bus, not build "icons" [and] puff the ego of the ludicrous Thomas Heatherwick...’

Ouch. So what won’t he take on? The bland and the pointless, he says. ‘My interest is trying to make projects happen that might not otherwise happen. The key is that I feel we can add something. My role and the Studio’s role is not to do another version of anything else being designed by anyone else.’

Advisers say his biggest project may be the Studio itself, which operates almost as an organic extension of the designer, allowing him to focus on so much while delegating a little. Fred Manson, formerly director of regeneration at Southwark Council and now associate director of Heatherwick Studio, says the business has had its setbacks – staff went from 50 to 25 in the last recession, the dismantling of Manchester’s B for the Bang sculpture after bits dropped off – but has survived through the faith of those who believe the designer to be a rare talent.

Manson,who worked on Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge before joining Heatherwick, cites the lucrative contract to overhaul Swire Properties’ Pacific Place shopping mall in Hong Kong, completed in 2011, as one such act of faith. ‘That was a piece of patronage by Swire chairman Keith Kerr,’ says Manson simply.

Since garnering global acclaim for the Olympic cauldron, the Studio’s biggest difficulty now is what to turn away. Fees for designing and overseeing a smaller building project can be two to three times that charged by conventional architects – less for bigger projects – but it doesn’t put off some suitors.

That has enabled growth. Last year the business, wholly owned by Heatherwick, employed 116 and showed a pre-tax profit of £2.7m on £11m turnover, according to Companies House. Heatherwick paid himself £542,000 in dividends plus £225,000 in rent for the business’s premises, which he bought in 2006. But most of the money seems to have been piled back into hiring more people, so he could do more projects.

Has anyone ever offered to buy the Studio? Heatherwick grins. No, he says, probably because the nature of what he takes on makes it too unpredictable. So what drives him? Simple, he says, he wants to do stuff that is beautiful and big and that people use and love, but he isn’t going to hem himself in with definitions. Another who knows him suggests he should have trained as an architect, but couldn’t face the restrictions of the profession.

That restlessness mirrors the template set by his parents, who separated when he was 14 – his mother, Stefany Tomalin, ran a bead shop in London’s Portobello Road, his father, Hugh Heatherwick, was a Royal Marine bandsman-turned-community worker.

‘And boxing champion,’ laughs Heatherwick. ‘Yeah – scary dad. Brilliant pianist, and first man in Britain to wear Birkenstocks, very independently minded. He’s worked with the Studio.’

He was also testing as a parent. ‘He’d turn all your assumptions upside down, so if you drew a picture of a cat, your mum would pat you on the head, then he’d say: "But a cat doesn’t look like that..." You’d be challenged at every step, and I value that.’

Heatherwick was the eldest of five, including half-siblings, and he honed his approach early on, after studying at Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art. He decided that he never wanted to work on his own.

‘I had this strong sense that the business of conceiving and developing projects only came alive when I worked with other people. I could come up with ideas on my own but it was slow, and I remember when an engineer came in to speak to us and we sat and talked, "who was the designer" and "who the engineer" just fell away and from that, it all multiplied.’

So he has stuck to that, always roping others in, corralling experts and moneymen, enthusing them, making them believe a problem can be fixed, although there is no doubt who controls every detail of the solution. Now, with his Studio, he sits atop a complicated, sensitive organisation split into ‘domains’ that reflect his needs – employing architects, designers, ‘makers’, fee specialists, PR, HR and more.
And seemingly it is done with very little ego on his part. Yet, to push these things through doesn’t he need to have abnormal levels of self-belief? It is his name on the business.

But he never wanted to be a business, he retorts. ‘I used to say I’m not a business, I’m not! But I’ve had to come round to it, to acknowledge that you had to be an organisation and had to have a business dimension in order to do your passion.

It has taken its toll. He lives near the Studio but travels constantly – with many projects in Asia – and has separated from the mother of his two children. Pressure of work? For once he prickles. ‘I don’t work 24 hours a day. I’m not married to the business, that’s cliche´-speak.’ And, anyway, he adds, there are choices you make as to your time. ‘I happen not to be interested in golf.’ Manson sees it differently. ‘I think Thomas is overwhelmed at times by the pressure, but he keeps it from the staff.’

Morrell suggests Heatherwick is at a tipping point. The designer has to choose whether his business stays ‘as an Old Master’s studio, with apprentices allowed to paint hands and feet’, or starts to take on work that Heatherwick leaves to others, allowing the best employees to forge their own careers inside the Studio. The latter approach is more akin to Britain’s world-famous international architectural practices.

So which will it be? Heatherwick dodges a direct answer, insisting all his staff are on ‘market salaries’ that bear comparison with the best, and saying this year he wants to hire a top-notch chief operating officer to take the Studio to the next level. Others say he has been looking for a COO for as long as they can remember – he just has the usual entrepreneur’s anxiety about handing over the power. Yet to meet him, you would never guess that, which is part of his unusual charm. Most times, he is inscrutable.

‘No, I am not a natural leader of men,’ he sighs at one point. ‘I don’t enjoy the sound of my voice in front of other people.’ He just needs to lead to fulfil his ambitions, and he finds it frightening. Anyway, he says, he always knew he wouldn’t starve, ‘even if things went wrong’.

Because he could work with his hands? ‘Yup,’ he nods, leaning in, ‘but that was the terror too. I didn’t want to end up making fitted kitchens for somebody.’ So no, there’s no stopping him now.

Heatherwick in a minute

1970 Born 17 February. Educated Manchester Polytechnic and the RCA.
1993 Builds gazebo for Sir Terence Conran while still at RCA.
1994 Sets up Heatherwick Studio.
1997 Creates wooden sculpture snaking in and out of Harvey Nichols, London.
2002 Devises rolling bridge for Paddington
2007 Completes East Beach cafe at Littlehampton and B of the Bang sculpture in Manchester
2010 Designs new bus for London
2012 Devises London 2012 Olympic cauldron

Three challenges facing Heatherwick

Ensure London’s garden bridge wins over the public with its beauty and functionality

Find a way to expand without his business losing its uniqueness

Keep up the flow of work globally that allows the Studio to ride recessions more smoothly

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