Thomas Heatherwick: "We don’t work in two dimensions"

There were going to be 250 pavilions there, more than you could see even if you spent four months there. So having three doors and two staircases means you can load and unload much faster, and it means the bus is more likely to meet its schedule. And yet if you come to London, the quantity of elevation of an art gallery or a library can’t compare to the quantity of elevation of a double-decker bus. And if we could just say one thing, with our little half-budget, we could really stand out. Well, you’ve got to send the stamp. London 2012 Olympic CauldronMarcus Fairs: You’ve designed the cauldron that will hold the flame at the London 2012 Olympics, but it’s not in the exhibition. “We’ve got a space we call an archive, but when Abraham put all the objects he wanted on the table, we were looking at it and it felt like junk. We’re not flat. It came back to saying one thing. Everyone’s become very obsessed with buildings, the power of one or two special buildings in a city. “But it’s amazing what a display case can do to something.”

Dezeen Book of Interviews: Thomas Heatherwick features in our new book, which is on sale nowMarcus Fairs: Tell us a bit about your new exhibition. We developed, with an artificial grass manufacturer, a micro version of the pavilion surface. So we only used a sixth of the site, and within the surrounding public space we had all the government meeting spaces and broom cupboards and staff training rooms and toilets. And London’s Games, after the phenomenal thing that was Beijing, what does London have? The key aspects of the brief were to make a bus that uses 40 percent less energy than the diesel buses you see and also to improve the reliability. I set up the studio 18 years ago, and you need a lot of help to begin with, whether that’s people giving you advice or showing you how to do things, or lending you things. They manifest in the infrastructure. I’ve never seen these as different disciplines. The British government has said yes to an idea we think is quite exciting. That was the most useful bit of the brief. When trying to say thank you, I didn’t have any money to give anyone the obvious thing, like a bottle of whisky. If the pavilion had turned into a cliché, it would really not be reflecting a true picture. But we were told, “You’ve got to be in the top five.” That was in the British government’s brief. The space is made from 66,000 fibre-optic rods. That romantic notion of a bus that people love and think of in London has one door, and that means you’re waiting for all the passengers to unload before the passengers waiting at the stop can load up. If we could just say one thing, with our little half-budget, we could really stand out.”

Back in his native England, Heatherwick is perhaps best known for the 2012 Olympic Cauldron and for reimagining London’s famous red Routemaster buses, which hadn’t been redesigned   for nearly 50 years. Thomas Heatherwick: When I was little, my family made cards for one another. You can get on and off. In your book you mention your engineering heritage, from your grandfather, and your influences. “The particularity and expression of the values of cities don’t just have to manifest in the art galleries. And what came up in our research was that London, for its sheer size, is the greenest city in the world, with public parks, gardens, squares and the world’s first botanical institution, Kew Gardens. “We were told, ‘You’ve got to be in the top five.’ That was the most useful bit of the brief.”
“We tried to focus on not being a cheesy advert for Britain: umbrellas and bowler hats, the Queen, David Beckham,” he explained. The building moved in the wind and it’s the only project we’ve done that looks more like a render than the render. At the front it’s the same. Close-up of the Seed Cathedral at Shanghai Expo 2010Marcus Fairs: One of your best-known projects is the ‘hairy’ UK pavilion from the Shanghai Expo 2010. At the moment, you get into a bus and your eye is bombarded by all these plastic buckets. Buses are a main part of the architectural experience in LondonUsing darker colours on the lower part and lighter colours on top is a funny thing. So here, there’s this staircase that sweeps around and the glass sweeps around the back. It’s been interesting trying to think of that dimension in our collaboration with him. I’m sure many people would rather have had a bottle of whisky, but it felt like the thing you could give that was more unique. Called Seed Cathedral, the pavilion   featured   60,000 fibre-optic rods that each contained plant seeds at the tip. What I did have was the ability to give an idea. I haven’t had to think where I should be in the world. So here the person’s address is written on the back of the stamp, and there’s a little greeting on there. Buses are a main part of the architectural experience in London. We made friends with the big sorting office near our studio in King’s Cross, with a man who runs the special hand-stamp centre, and each year they’d work with us to make that card happen. But the thing is, it’s not just a thing: it’s a moment. Thomas Heatherwick: The card was looking at what’s the least you could possibly send someone. The studio has been going for 18 years. Thomas Heatherwick: Ever since I was little, I’ve been interested in ideas, so I hope that’s what links together this collection of projects. So we developed distortion patterns. We had half the estimated budget of the other Western nations. It’s huge. Christmas card by Thomas HeatherwickMarcus Fairs: What’s that card like? Marcus Fairs: How do you approach projects? “Are you serious? Marcus Fairs: So what can you tell us about that right now? The new Routemaster bus by Heatherwick Studio. The surrounding space did a couple of jobs. Thomas Heatherwick: As a country that was the first to industrialise, that has such a cultural accumulation, I feel like I was very lucky I was brought up in London. Is there a notion of Britishness that you express, or is it just by chance that you’re working in London? Other than that, different operators, because they’re not owned by London’s transport authority, have been able to say: all the fabric is purple with yellow spots. I got interested in the process of posting because a key part is it’s not about spending money. Photo by Iwan BaanMarcus Fairs: Part of one of the new double-decker buses you’ve designed is here in the exhibition. The bus itself is three metres longer than the old Routemaster. My studio hasn’t chosen what’s here. I just thought, “Well, what might have more meaning?” So we thought we’d show something that Britain has never seen either. Thomas Heatherwick: It’s the most top-secret thing we’ve ever worked on. Is that going   to be in the Victoria and Albert Museum?” But it’s amazing what a display case can do to something. You could say each is a vitrine or a window. One of the most basic examples of that was the bus seat. Our job is to bring together all those European directives and best-practice issues and make it not feel that it’s a collection of compromises. Is there a unifying thread to the objects and the projects in this room? The building is a box punched with 66,000 holes for these fibre-optic rods and seeds and then waterproofed. Each fibre-optic rod is embedded with a sample of seeds at the tip. There are three times as many objects here than they’ve ever had in this gallery, so it’s all crammed in. They manifest in the infrastructure.”
Thomas Heatherwick’s Bombay Sapphire distillery photographed by Hufton + CrowThe Designing The Extraordinary show at London’s VA Museum, curated by Abraham Thomas, was the first comprehensive display of   projects by Heatherwick Studio in the   18 years it had been running. The daylight pulls you through. We’ve never had a show of our work. It got a bit out of hand and carried on into adult life. The back of the bus is like the end of a loaf of bread. On a slushy winter’s day when 70 school kids get on, the floor is going to get slushy and sandy and the seats might have a bit of kebab or whatever on them. “In general, we don’t work in two dimensions. People were exhausted from walking around the Expo, so it gave them the chance to sit down on a piece of landscape that wasn’t just flat, that brought people together. Thomas Heatherwick: It will be wheeled in here on 27 July, which is the night of the opening ceremony. It was a very tight project because it can’t weigh a certain amount or you’ll have to pay for first-class stamps, and you’d rather pay for second-class stamps. If we’d spent our budget making a football pitch-sized building, we wouldn’t have had any money left for content. The bigger thing is that the bus has two staircases. Designing the pavilion in Shanghai, I felt a kind of duty to represent the phenomenal people and imagination based in Britain. And what the Mayor of London really wanted was an open platform. From   the   2012   Olympic Cauldron   to   the   proposed   £175m   Garden Bridge   that will stretch across the River Thames, Heathwick’s portfolio includes a wide variety of high-profile projects at many different scales. It’s got this mix of being a lot about the process, so there are things I did when I was at the Royal College of Art for my graduation. We tried to focus on not being a cheesy advert for BritainThe Expo was about the future of cities. Also, the bus that people are romantic about when they think about London, you can’t get a wheelchair on it, or the modern baby buggies. Thomas Heatherwick:   The last time a design team was allowed to work on London’s buses was 50 years ago. If there are a lot of people, that can take a long time. Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge in LondonMarcus Fairs: Do you think of yourself as a British designer? Everyone had a site the size of a football pitch. We’ve reintroduced a bench seat that is just one element, one handrail across the back, so your eye is calm when you’re in that environment. You’re not a prisoner in the bus when it’s three metres from   your stop. It’s trapped in a block of acrylic, a bit like ice, but we imagined it getting pushed through the letterbox, and the dog going to get the letters and choking on this thing. We designed a repeat that was the size of the body and the distortion pattern is the same shape as your body, a bit like contours. The meanest bit about the old staircases was going up through a solid plastic tube. It was expending the effort on something. Our first-ever Christmas card is   in the VA’s collection. One of the things the VA said right at the beginning was that architects and designers, when they curate their own shows, they’re always too indulgent, somehow. ‘Are you serious? And in fact I believe it’s more interesting to focus on improving infrastructure. A model of the London 2012 Olympic CauldronMarcus Fairs: And that will be revealed on…? There are different needs now, 50 years later, and we’re trying to manifest them in a bus. By making it only a sixth of the site, you suddenly get the perception of proportion. Christmas card by Thomas HeatherwickMarcus Fairs: Can you tell us about your Christmas cards, because I think this is the thing I love the most, especially when I get one. Okay, you want a chiller? I think the curator became interested in the workshop side of things – not just the shiny outcomes, but how we got there. Those aren’t necessarily people who were born in Britain but people who have chosen to base themselves here. We had no context to work with because all the other pavilion designers around the world were thinking about the same thing at the same time.

Updated: 10.12.2014 — 08:24