He makes pavilions from seeds, breathes life into buses, and has just won an award for his Olympic cauldron. Bryan Appleyard meets Thomas Heatherwick, whose quirky style points to a new kind of architecture ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012
Near King’s Cross station in London, beyond black iron gates and a grey cave lined with bicycles, steel doors swing open to reveal a palace of strange delights. What appear to be the severed heads of giant chess pieces lean on the floor, a huge length of aluminium reaches a torn end, random consumer products—an expensive handbag, a Tasmanian Devil toy—are displayed on shelves, there is some kind of monumental wooden throne, ranks of Dell computer screens and a wall full of pictures of yet more oddities. There’s also a giant model of a bridge.
I am led to a table and given a neatly laid-out selection of coffee, grapes and shortbread. Finally, a dark, curly-haired, slightly bearded man appears with a wide-open, ecstatic expression, a bit like Harpo Marx when playing the harp. This is Thomas Heatherwick who, if all goes well, could be the future of British, if not world, architecture.
The office is Heatherwick Studio and it is nothing like an architect’s office. Typically they are hard, purposeful, glassy and modernist; this is soft, cosy and stylistically indefinable. And, forgive me, the loos are a joy—not stainless-steel cells but domestic rooms with Victorian wooden shelves, a traditional bowl and a Rubberline cistern high above your head.
“That cistern was interesting,” Heatherwick says, evidently enthused to find I am interested. “You can still buy them and it really is all rubber.” Then second thoughts flicker across his face. “But how much of a message do you need to get across in your toilet?”
Heatherwick is not an architect: his qualifications are all in design. But he is the increasingly well-known figurehead of a studio that employs 75 people and is working on some very big buildings, notably in China and Malaysia. It also built the Seed Cathedral, the giant hedgehog that was the much-feted British pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. And 2012 should make Heatherwick famous at home, too. In May he will have his first significant solo exhibition, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Thames & Hudson will publish a book on his work. The cauldron which holds the Olympic flame will be a Heatherwick.
Picture: Seed Cathedral's interior, lit by daylight filtered through its hundreds of optical strands