Thomas Heatherwick CBE, the man behind the gold prize winning UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, the new London Routemaster bus, and the proposed new Google HQ, was in Shanghai this week for the Great Festival of Creativity, which was promoting British creativity and boosting trade between the UK and China.
Heatherwick has built a reputation as one of Britain’s most creative designers, working on a number of public projects that have captured people’s imagination and provoked debate. He kindly took time out of his busy schedule in Shanghai, where he has two ongoing projects, to talk to Vantage.
Interview by Ashley Greenwood
I think it is very important to be critical of wherever you are from, and wherever you go.
What parts of Shanghai interest and inspire you most?
Well, I love the Bund, because the river is so big and can take big ships. And it’s busy! There are always lots of things moving, while in London our river has stopped a lot of the industrial uses and the interesting uses and we’re trying to get the river more active again. In Shanghai it’s so theatrical, when you look across to Pudong, and that theatre of the city centre, I find it incredible.
What do you think about China’s situation in terms of innovation, now it is at a turning point and actually starting to create more?
Well, I’m not an expert on China, so this is an outsider view, but I think that positive things are often motivated by a critical eye that sees something and thinks it could be better. So the last 20 years there’s been a huge shift in the financial conditions and the confidence to build infrastructure in cities and places and, looking from the outside, I feel that the things that have been created are versions of things from other places. Not everything, but largely. The office buildings look like they could be office buildings anywhere, and hotels look like they could be hotels anywhere, and housing blocks like they could housing blocks anywhere.
And, I feel that pride is a good thing, and I know that Chinese people are rightly proud of this incredible history and country, and the good thing about proud eyes is they will then look at things that have been built that don’t have their own spirit and soul, and I think that is the process that’s happening now, and realize that is maybe a bit of a waste of all that work and time. So in a way it generates the impetus to do things that feel particular to China, and build a new next phase of Chinese culture. But it’s very hard, everywhere in the world has this problem, but it seems very clear in China. Maybe just because I have fresh eyes coming here.
I suppose I’m affected because that’s also my passion, how you generate things that feel particular to their place. I’m not interested in things looking like I did them, I’m interested in them being special to that place. In the past things were special to their place, because the only materials you could use came from that place, or particular crafts and techniques. Global procurement didn’t really exist, whereas now so many conditions are the same; similar regulations, similar supply chains for materials with similar guarantees and warrantees. So things are safer than before, which is good, but there’s also that other ingredient of projects having their own character and idiosyncrasy. In general people pick their friends not because they’re a version of someone else but because they have their own character and personality.
Also, because big buildings are the most expensive thing you can buy, so the fear is high, and the notion of what is the safe thing to do is strong; and I find it interesting that the safe thing to do more and more is to make things that have their own soulfulness, because they’re more likely to be cherished, and therefore carry on existing, whereas if something makes you dead when you look it, and it just looks like another version of another thing in a magazine. You have to work harder than you think because all architects and city planners are influenced by the same magazines, and so they think that when they see something that is fashionable in a magazine that they’re being innovative if they commission something similar to that. But the problem is all the mayors and architects around the world are looking at the same magazines, and so when these pieces of city are being built, they thought they were being innovative then they realize it actually looks really similar to the other places that were being built at the same time.
So I believe you have to try even harder to actually force things to have more spirit than that, and that’s the only way for projects to really mean anything to people. And of course you have to worry about money, and regulations and procurement, and safety and speed of delivery, but those don’t have to kill something having character and spirit. All of the things we love, when you ask people what places they love, what buildings they value, they’re always things that probably the same person wouldn’t have the courage to commission. And that’s an interesting process.
How do you think that design and architecture can change people’s lives?
Well we’re all surrounded by design decisions, and even when we think we’re in nature it is often a habitat that has been created by decision. Whether you call them design decisions, or business decisions or ecological, they’re all collections of decision. I’m careful not to preach, I don’t feel there is one way. I don’t think if you do it this way life will be better. Usually when someone says there is one way, they’re always a bit wrong, and humans value multiple ways. But the thing that I’m most interested in is the designers of the built environment being more interested in people, and less interested in buildings. The buildings matter, but they’re serving people, and the interesting thing is working out how you want something socially to add something to the world, because otherwise it wont mean anything to anyone.
Often people are the victim of an idea that didn’t consider people. Perhaps a geometrical idea or some kind of form concept, and it’s important to always be thinking about the job something is doing. One of the challenges in China is that no one is doing anything small, everything is enormous. But human beings aren’t enormous. A few hundred years ago, when people built buildings, they weren’t as gigantic as now and so streets were more interesting because there were lots of different buildings, whereas now, one building is many hundreds of metres long, so the designers are thinking too big, and walking past one design no matter how good it is, gets boring.
Shenzhen proves that – there are lots of interesting ideas, but they’re all too big. And that is one of the challenges – how to have the small within the big? I understand there are many people to house, which is also a problem in Britain, and you can argue we’re not taking it seriously enough and those projects aren’t happening at the same speed. But the danger is to make places that are a bit dead. The lessons are all out there, they exist, but very few people are learning from the lessons. Everyone is too excited to get on and build big things.
You say buildings should make life better and people are often the victim of an idea. Le Corbusier tried in Chandigarh a kind of ‘social engineering’, while your project in Singapore takes a fresh look at how students engage with University buildings in the Internet age. Le Corbusier rather failed in what he hoped to achieve, so do you look back at your projects to see how well they worked?
The word social engineering is terrify, haha. I wouldn’t be so grand or as terrifying to say social engineering. I think it should be caring about the human interaction, the chemistry of places that mean things to people. Social engineering implies that people are the victim of a grand plan and I think in general a huge proportion of grand plans have been proven to be wrong. Le Corbusier was an incredible thinker, but the influence of his thinking has created some incredible wrongness; in a way the total failure of architecture in Europe over 30-40 years, which we’re just trying to figure out how to recover from. The influence was so strong and inspiring to people that it easily made space for insensitivity, while people were excited about feeling modern.
So do you feel architecture is becoming more reactive now, to ecological and economic concerns, reacting to our needs, rather than trying to dictate and influence people? For example, Norman Fosters plans for an ecocity in Masdar…
That’s an interesting question… well, Masdar has ground to a halt now, they’re not on it anymore, the master plan has been abandoned. It was an incredible vision, which needed the commissioner to stay confident. But Masdar wasn’t forcing humans to live in non-human ways. I think it was facilitating human interaction in a new way, rather than feeling that humans should do something different. From what I knew about that master plan, it was trying to really think about what humans need. They need shade, and separating the traffic, which would allow building frontages to be closer together so the sun wouldn’t be hitting the ground, so it wouldn’t heat up so much, so it was quite a few degrees cooler. I thought it was less social engineering, and more environmental engineering, to facilitate social freedom, in a bonkersly hot country.
Do you have a dream commission? I understand you’d really like to design a hospital.
My passion is public projects, and my studio was set up originally to try to make a difference, however little. And I try to work in areas where you don’t expect something to be special, rather than in areas where everyone knows it’s going to be great. So we don’t do artworks in galleries or people private apartments or private houses, because you know rich peoples private houses will be amazing.
In Britain, public design tends to be pretty poor. That is, the general public infrastructure, from public housing, schools, hospitals, prisons. In prisons in the UK, there is a huge urge to punish people, but a few years later that person is going to come out prison and sit next to me on my bus and would rather they’re a better person when they come out rather than more damaged. And the British prison system is largely designed to damage people more. For example, I like to think how you would design a prison as a learning institute because most people who end up in prison have not had the advantages in their childhood that I’ve had, and so I’m always looking for where you can make a difference. Maybe it’s how I compete with others, by not competing. If there are already lots of other really good designers doing really good work in that area, I’d rather work in a different area where you can make more difference.
Where in the world has the public buildings you like most?
Well I think Britain is an incredible country. I’m biased, I was born in London and brought up there, but I think it is very important to be critical of wherever you are from, and wherever you go. I think you have to carry a friendly critical eye to everything, because criticism is the generator for change. If you think everything is fine all the time, where is the impetus to improve and change for the better. So I think that there are many different countries that have each had greater successes with different parts of the public world around us. Years ago I went to Sweden and visited some of their hospital projects and admired them and thought if only that could be like that in Britain. But then Britain has a different system, the National Health Service (NHS), a particular socialist ideal that I love but it’s very challenged in how it delivers itself in reality.
So the good side of globalization is each country has no excuse not to learn from each other, and everyone pushes each other to be better. Healthy competitiveness. When the mayor goes to Sweden and sees things and thinks why can’t our hospitals be just as good, and comes back and talks with the authorities. It means that the few bold, ambitious, innovative people, the idea has ripples, and then other people near them then use that, and it gives them confidence to do that where they are. But it still comes down to the bold, ambitious commissioners. The creativity of the commissioner is more important than my creativity. I need a commissioner who is going to be my partner and really carry that vision. I get too much credit, but it is the commissioner who is the real hero, but often they’re in the background. People like the idea of the designer as the make-everything-happen person.
What projects are you working on now?
In New York we are building a new pier. So it’s out on the water, and it’s a park standing on legs on the Hudson River, on the west side of Manhattan. And there’s an outdoor theatre for 700 people. In Singapore we’re building a housing development, and even though it’s a private development, it’s in the center of the city so everyone can see it and be around it, so we’re trying to think about how it contributes to the experience of a city. It’s so disappointing if you travel to another part of the world and it looks similar to the place you just came from. You want places to be idiosyncratic.
Here in Shanghai we’re working on the Bund Financial Center with Foster + Partners and there’s a new cultural centre in the middle of it, and we’re trying our best to make something that will contribute to this city.
If you could create a city, what would it be like?
If I was asked to work on a city I would certainly not design it all myself. I would bring together a big group of people, and try to think from the beginning to do something that doesn’t yet exist, and to think what that might be. It would probably be trying to think of an unusual proposition to begin the city with. If someone had said 1000 years ago to make a city on water you would have said that’s a stupid idea, but Venice is probably the most loved city on the planet and it is a stupid idea and that’s why it’s amazing.
I think a new city needs some confidence to dare to think what might be the thing in your heart you take away from that city. And that’s probably an infrastructural idea. Not every building can be exceptional quality, so I would believe my job is to think of the starting notion of how the city could feel. I’d have to think of the proposition that every designer in the city would have to respond to. Do you have a site?
Xi Jinping said he wants less ‘wacky’ buildings in China. What do you think about that?
Well, I think that depends on how you define what a ‘wacky’ building is. If it’s something that has no depth and no meaning or connection, and is just a silly gesture, then he’s right. In a way our UK pavilion at the Expo was the most serious, possibly the most biodiverse place in China, maybe the world, with 250,000 seeds in one spot. So you’ve got the most silly project, a hairy building, but very serious at the same time. Medicines were developed from the different seeds and so on. And that’s what we were trying to do, something where you have to think a lot; is it a joke? Should I cry, or what?
Thomas Heatherwick Exhibition coming to Shanghai:
Later in 2015, the exhibition Inside Heatherwick Studio will tour East Asia as part of the New British Inventors programme which aims to promote British design and creativity around the world.
Curated by Kate Goodwin, Drue Heinz Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, Inside Heatherwick Studio will be split into three sections: ‘Thinking’, ‘Making’ and ‘Storytelling’, and will give a unique insight into the ideas and experiments that go into realising the studios projects, demonstrating the studio’s inventive and entrepreneurial approach to design over the last 21 years.
The exhibition opens at the National Design Centre in Singapore on March 11 before heading to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul and Mumbai. Check the Vantage Events Page soon for more details.