The new exhibition Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio opened Friday at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum. The show, curated by Brooke Hodge, explores the firm’s creative process and the remarkable scope of its work, with a particular focus on public scale projects. AN West Editor Sam Lubell talked with Thomas Heatherwick about the exhibition, his outsider approach, and where he’s heading now.
Sam Lubell: There doesn’t seem to be a category for your work. You’re a designer and you’re an inventor.
Thomas Heatherwick: It surprised me, when I was growing up the word inventor was always connected to the word mad—mad inventor. And you couldn’t study it. But the paintings we valued had an inventive move, the pieces of writing would have an inventive something in them. Sculpture, science, transportation. We’re all curious about what the future will be, and the future is made from ideas. But you couldn’t study that. The world of developing, evolving ideas was chopped up into these different things with titles. So I was quite surprised. I’ve always been motivated by where can you make a difference. In a way I’m a problem solver, that’s what interests me. The thing is trying to find which problem, and your analysis of what a problem is and where it is. It’s all problem solving. It’s trying to work out the order to solve those in.
You’ve called your firm “experts in not being experts.” To me that’s so fascinating. To not be stuck in the expected ideas of what you should be doing. It seems very challenging to maintain that. Especially when you get to be more of an expert in something.
Luckily the world is big. Life is relatively short. Projects take so long to actually do that I don’t feel worried about it. My studio’s been going for twenty years, but you’re seeing photographs of our first completed building project in Singapore. (The UK Pavilion is technically a big bungalow.) I think within everything, why waste your time copying yourself or others? There’s an attempt to try to hunt down what the solution is. To me with each project, I feel like not that we’re generating a solution, but that we’re trying to find it. Which means it helps it to be broader than just myself. It really is we’re together trying to solve a crime somehow. Often we’ll do development work knowing it’s not right. But you’re needing to eliminate from your enquiries a strand of your ideas to see if they’ll teach you something that might work.
You’ve moved from smaller work to buildings and bridges. What’s the next frontier?
I feel I’ve barely scraped any frontier. This is going to sound very dull, but my grandmother at the end of her life was in a nursing home. We found the best nursing home we could for her, but it was a really poor environment. But the most alarming part of it was for the staff. We are all going to be that person one day who’s there. I want to know society thanks them. I know I’ll be old and rotting. It felt to me there’s something really wrong in that. You feel you could make a real difference with relatively little resource. Another example is the prison system. Do you really want to hurt someone more and then they come out and sit next to you on the bus? Most people in British prisons have not had the benefits in their life that you and I have had. The notion of a prison as a learning place and not a hurting people more place is exciting. If there’s a way to politically enable that to happen when the public wants to condemn. If you hurt them more it’s not going to help you.
You seem to have this spirit that anything’s possible. People are resigned to these areas that you’ve mentioned. For you it’s like no, it doesn’t have to be that way. People are cynical, and you guys have this idealism that is really refreshing.
I think I’ve been lucky that for some of the early projects, there were people who supported them and allowed them to happen. That gives you more encouragement to keep going and to believe the best in people. I’ve trained around some really hard-bitten architectural characters, and you understand why. Because it’s very hard to make a building at all, let alone one with any value or quality. And it’s really easy to get downtrodden and bitter. I suppose I’ve very consciously put that in my brain and tried to protect that, and not fall into that trap. Because it’s like an itch that’s easy to scratch. And as soon as you start scratching, if you don’t believe the best of the people around you, then they will conform to being the worst.
I see there’s a lot of that idea of protecting and not allowing in the forces of cynicism.
We’re in an interesting time. Particularly in America there’s a culture of entrepreneurial optimism and societal improvement in entrepreneurship. So I don’t feel alone, I feel particularly inspired by the extraordinary examples of people pursuing an idea and believing something can happen, and there’s no reason something shouldn’t. Not blaming the world for ideas not happening.
Since you’re willing to rethink these processes, sometimes people get rubbed the wrong way. There’s been some backlash about your attempt to move up in scale. People saying “he’s not an architect.” How do you respond to that?
The studio has 120 architects, and it’s a brilliant training. I’m very lucky to work with people who’ve trained in that way. There’s always some friction in change. It would be very weird if there wasn’t. The public area between all the private zones is the bit we all share. As we all know, some people are good at adapting to change and others are very fearful of it. You can’t predict and control how people feel about things. But I’m very lucky to have this team, and I’m very lucky to have the support that I do.
Any innovation I see happening is when people step outside their bubbles. And it seems like that’s what you’re willing to do.
I’ve never been in a bubble. Maybe I’ve deliberately protected that. But I’ve also tried to bring in people who have that expertise to work with us.
These designs are very provocative and complex, but they’re very human. They’re always grounded and approachable and understandable somehow.
It’s a very real interest. I’m very influenced by the Jane Jacobs book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It almost made me fall in love with public-ness. With the bit we share together, and the subtle chemistry existing in the social interactions in public space. And William White, who analyzed public space so well in the 70s. Lessons that haven’t been learned since. It’s just re-tuning in to thinking that’s already there, but trying to synthesize and bring that to bear on projects now.
Do you think you have more interest now in the public realm than in doing projects for individuals?
I’ve always had that. In a sense you can make more difference. We already know peoples’ private homes can be sensational and gorgeous and impressive and that things in art galleries can be stunning and wonderful and in fact you’re positively disappointed if they’re not. Whereas we have very low expectations of public space. People really don’t expect much at all.
Having scaled up, are there any major lessons you’ve learned from working with architects?
I built my first building when I was 21 at university, so this isn’t new territory. But it takes years to be trusted by cities and property developers and cultural institutions. To be an architect is an impossibly big job. A really good architect is a collaborator, and harnesses the brainpower and brilliance of others. And I feel a strong sense that my role is to try to harness the brilliance of others, and to synthesize and bring that together into projects that have some meaning. I don’t see myself so much as an author, I see myself as a “bringer-togetherer” of things. It’s deep in me, the passion for both the space and the materiality. And I’m lucky to work with such good people.