Thomas Heatherwick – Inspiration for a Generation

Thomas Heatherwick - Inspiration for a Generation

Author : Christianna Tsigkou

I have to say that when I found out that Thomas Heatherwick was going to deliver the key note speech of the last day of the World Architecture Festival in Singapore this year I thought “well this should be interesting!”. I recognized him as the designer behind the UK Pavilion of the 2010 Shanghai EXPO, the Olympic Cauldron of the 2012 Olympics and the new double-decker bus, all of which I found interesting and had read a lot about. But it’s always so different to read articles and critics about projects than hear the actual designers talk about them, let alone seeing and hearing them in real-time.

I don’t know why, but I’d pictured in my mind that the principal of Heatherwick Studios, an office that has been trusted English national “missions”, to be very severe, strict and absolute in what he says. But, I was in for a surprise. I was so glad and relieved to face a great architect and designer that analysed his projects with a profound sense of excitement, as if he was talking to his friends about the accomplishments of his kids at school. We, the audience, could all feel his enthusiasm, and his acute sense of humour enhanced the effect.

He got to the point right from the beginning when he started talking about the idea and the whole process behind the Olympic Cauldron, or “Project Betty” as they called it due to the circumstances of extreme secrecy that went with this task. While searching for the twist that would make the 2012 Olympic Cauldron special, the Heatherwick studio decided to embrace the ephemeral character of structures like the Cauldron and came up with an idea that would manifest exactly that. The 204 metallic pots, one for each country that took place in the Games, were carried by the teams at the Opening Ceremony while no one, not even the journalists that voiced the television broadcast knew what they were for. Thomas said joking that they had hoped no one would even notice them. But as the pieces got assembled and the Olympic flame burnt right through them, and as the elevation mechanism worked just fine, a sigh of relief could be heard from the designers of this special Cauldron that very moment. And then, at the WAF, watching again the video of the moment when the “pedals” rose to form one big flame just after Thomas had shared his apprehensions and anxiety we all felt that same relief.

Next there was the “Learning Hub”, a new building at the Nanyang Technical University of Singapore, a project that will have been finished by 2014. Again, Thomas shared with the audience the Studio’s ideas behind the whole concept, how important it is to constantly search for the best solution possible, and how all these little ideas that solve each little problem come together to form one greater design that seems to be successful. Another example where this creative process was used was the designing of the new double-decker buses for London. Every little detail matters, as they are all going to form the big picture in the end. The Heatherwick Studio tried to consider everything that there was to think while designing a public transportation vehicle, meet all the requirements and needs there were, keeping in mind the whole time that the design had to live up to the standards of a London landmark, as Thomas said that they found the red buses to be part of the architecture of the city.

All this led to the final presentation, that of the UK Pavilion at the 2010 EXPO in Shanghai, the project that made the Heatherwick Studio known to the wider public. Having actually been there and seen it myself, I was quite intrigued to hear the architect talk about that design that I had then found fascinating. Thomas Heatherwick did not disappoint me. He explained that simplicity was the key to the success of this work. Everything starts with a seed, that’s how the idea for the “Seed Cathedral” began. That “spiky ball” that we all have identified with the UK pavilion, is actually part of it.The essential part that actually unfolds the inspiration and demonstrates what the theme of the EXPO (The Future City) meant for the designers. “Seeds are all everything comes from” said Thomas before ending with some advice, that “when your budget is limited, just focus on one thing!”. The Heatherwick Studio went for the extreme texture, the quality of the feeling.

Hearing all this, I could say that the man that stood before me was a curious man, that is constantly searching for the best solutions to small problems, focusing on the details but in a realistic manner and not too much, and above all, a designer that is passionate about his work. Amongst other thoughts, the one that had a real impact on me after this speech was that it seems like paying attention to the details is what constructs the big idea in the end and not just ONE big idea, but a whole collection of small things getting together and becoming “a thing”. It inspired me to try and test an idea that may lead to another that when tested may lead to another and so on while working on a project, rather than stick with the idea of what the result is going to be from the beginning. Thomas Heatherwick had once said that “ it is not important for the Studio to have a style”, but I do believe that constant research and the creativity of the process is what signifies the Studio’s works. I sometimes get the impression that these designers are not sure about the actual outcome at any point of the designing process and that at the end they are as surprised at it as are the users, the visitors, the spectators or whoever else interacts with that object, structure or piece of art.

Thomas Heatherwick and his Studio’s work is indeed an inspiration, especially for young people, such as myself, who need to establish the importance of research, trial and experimentation and incorporate all this into the designing process while expanding our horizons in the fields of art, design and architecture.

Featured Image : Thomas Heatherwick at the World Architecture Festival, 2014, Singapore © Christianna Tsigkou

About this Author : Christianna Tsigkou