Thomas Heatherwick | icon 009 | January 2004

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photo: Mark Guthrie photo: Steve Spiller photo: Steve Spiller
words Alex Wiltshire

Thomas Heatherwick is playing with a yellow plastic tooth-flossing device. He picked it up at Boots, and he uses it every day. "Flossing is a nightmare of jamming your fingers in your mouth," he says. "Your fingertips go blue. But you only need one hand to use this."

The device is one of 1,000 objects Heatherwick has collected for his forthcoming show at the Design Museum in London. Among the others are a glycerine enema from China, Japanese eyelid glue, sanitary towels, Pop-tarts, pyramid tea bags and a table-height dog bowl for a Great Dane. "The dog bowl is very ergonomic," he enthuses. "People will be horrified that Pop-tarts and tea bags are in our show, but they're important examples of innovation. I think things like that should be in the Design Museum."

Heatherwick has a charismatic, boyish tone that reflects a great enthusiasm and self-confident seriousness about his work. He is regarded as one of the UK's brightest young designers but is hard to pigeonhole: his projects range from products and urban design to civil engineering and public art. He was recently the only designer to be shortlisted for a competition to remodel the grim underpass linking South Kensington tube station to the Exhibition Road museums (the others were architects including Zaha Hadid and Nigel Coates).

With his great mop of curly hair, comfortable baggy clothes and an easy-going yet slightly hyperactive demeanour he comes over as a cross between an eccentric inventor and a surfer.

"I'm a three-dimensional designer," he says. "I can't describe myself more specifically than that." But really he's distinguished by an attention to materials, ideas and place-making. "I'm not thinking about the best way to clip your seatbelt in - I enjoy that, but I'm very interested in how you create better environments for people to be in and more interesting functional spaces and places."

Heatherwick is best known for a series of spectacular one-off projects: his "sitooteries" (summerhouses) with hairy surfaces - a wooden one at Belsay Hall, Northumberland and his latest, an aluminium one in Essex - his surreal window display that erupted from the faade of Harvey Nichols in London in 1997, and his Blue Carpet - a public square in Newcastle paved in recycled blue glass tiles.

But now, at 33, he is embarking on a range of large-scale projects that stretch interdisciplinary boundaries still further: an opening pedestrian bridge at Paddington Basin in London that curls up into a ball (see icon 005); a monument at the Manchester Stadium that will be the tallest in the UK; and a Buddhist temple in Japan. In addition, he's employed as Milton Keynes' lead artist, and he's also about to release his first product: a range of bags for Longchamps.

It was an interest in ideas and problem-solving that first made Heatherwick want to be a designer. "I've always been interested in ideas. I was always fascinated by inventors and invention, and I think that's something that's very under-appreciated." He spent a childhood reading his grandfather's many books on steam railways and Victorian engineering. Choosing his path at school was fairly simple. "You don't do 'invention' - that's not a topic - and I found that this was actually subjects like design or art or architecture; all separate things. So I've tried to follow a line that's in the middle of it all. There weren't any dilemmas - it also simplified it that I wasn't good at anything else." He studied three-dimensional design at what was Manchester Polytechnic and went on to the Royal College of Art in London.

Heatherwick works in a surprisingly tidy studio near King's Cross in London. Models are displayed on shelves that run around the entire office while up on the roof terrace there are dead sunflowers in planters cast from mannequin limbs ("they're for a sunflower-growing competition we've entered but I'm a bit ashamed of them to be honest," he says).

Heatherwick's multidisciplinary team, comprising architects, designers and a structural engineer, is currently engrossed in a sculpture called the B of the Bang, a 56m-high, 150-tonne steel structure that resembles a spiky explosion. The sculpture will be sited just outside the Manchester Stadium, which was built for the 2003 Commonwealth Games and is now Manchester City FC's home ground. The aim was to create a monument that had dynamism rather than the traditional Olympic-style symbols of peace around the world. "It's about the focused, single, milli-fractional moments of people attempting to achieve their potential that they've trained all their life for - that's where an idea for something that's more expressive and vital came from."

The B of the Bang - whose name comes from Linford Christie saying that he started his race "on the B of the Bang" - is meant to work with the enormous bulk of the stadium. When complete in April it will be 36m higher that Antony Gormley's 20m Angel of the North in Tyneside.

"We wanted to do something to give the stadium a friend," says Heatherwick. "I know that sounds really silly but to kind of help the stadium because it looks like it's something that has dropped out of the sky and it needs to be embedded in the place - it needs a kind of composition." In creating such a large object, Heatherwick was anxious that it didn't feel hard and brutal, so the use of spikes gives the structure an airy, implied volume that will blur the boundaries between it and the sky, especially on a grey Manchester day.

The structure, 180 tapering tubes fixed at one point, leans forward over the junction in front of the stadium on five of the spikes and is deliberately not cross-braced, so the spikes will perceptibly move in strong winds.

Heatherwick is also designing a temple for the Buddhist Shingon-Shu sect in Kagoshima, south-western Japan. It took five months just to come up with the optimum planning for the space, which is on a mountainside. The site was where a great Japanese military leader, Saigo Takamori, died with 12,000 troops in a battle in 1877. Some local people believe that this turbulent history is still causing disabilities in children and told the priest, who is currently living on the site in a Portakabin, that his presence is finally purifying the land.

"I stayed with the priest in his Portakabin, and that was a challenge," admits Heatherwick. "He just eats buckwheat flour mixed with water with a sort of pickled radish and he spends five hours every morning doing zen meditation and reciting sutras."

A strong relationship has developed between them: "He doesn't speak English and I speak very little Japanese so we communicate like Marcel Marceau; I think I have quite a rubbery face so there's a lot of miming."

Heatherwick first had to establish the layout of the various spaces within the temple, which was no easy task: "It's because the religious functions are so particular, the way the Buddha could face, and the Hondo area, which is the main temple space. There are specific requirements - it can't face north, and it shouldn't face east. Then there are also 4,000 burial spaces inside it, and those can't face north or west, so on a quite tight, constrained site it was kind of like a complex puzzle for us to solve."

The form of the temple is inspired by the folded cloth that statues of Buddha always sit on; Heatherwick teased a piece of fabric into shape and then scanned it using equipment from a nearby hospital that is normally used to scan faces before cosmetic surgery. "The feeling is of one piece of fabric holding all the internal spaces together," he says. The temple's stratified skin will be built of timber over a steel typhoon frame.

Heatherwick feels that, as a western designer, an enormous amount of trust has been put into his hands. "I think a decision was made to not work with a Japanese team because they felt that a Japanese team would be almost too reverential of traditional ways of building and configuring space to create a temple." He was taken to see the traditional temples in Kyoto and was told that he should try to understand but not to copy them.

Much of the work that Heatherwick has done is in the realm of public art, an issue that Heatherwick feels is usually bound up with place. "When someone says they want public art, what they mean is, 'I want a place to be special.' I can see why people say, 'Why does it need to be art, why not architecture, why isn't it urban design?' I don't think it matters in the end as long as it ends up being considered in its environment."

This interest in place-making led to his appointment as lead artist for Milton Keynes two years ago. Heatherwick heavily respects the tenets on which Milton Keynes was built. "The idea of building a city from scratch just seems such a bold thing. People are so seldom that bold - it was a visionary time. It seems to be the city itself is such a strong artistic work in a way."

An example of the attitude Heatherwick wants to promote in Milton Keynes is in the roads. The council wanted to replace parts of the original grid system with wiggly roads, but Heatherwick feels this denies the basis on which the city was founded. Wiggly roads are the result of the piecemeal way most cities developed. "To copy the format of other cities and lose confidence that Milton Keynes had a vision, you lose that unique aspect of the city." he says. The challenge Heatherwick has set himself is in how to build and develop the original vision of the city without being conservative and just fixing problems, and retaining a citywide approach.

Such a willingness to do things a bit differently is illustrated by the approach he has taken to his Design Museum exhibition, this year's instalment of the annual series where a big name in the design world is given £30,000 to spend on "things they'd like to live with". Heatherwick has turned away from the usually pompous show of expensively mannered objets d'art in favour of a show of invention. "You think, 'Oh no, this is going to be just some show of cheesy designer schlock that you're used to seeing all the time in design magazines.' So we decided to use this as an excuse to explore interesting ideas and inventions."

The 1,000 objects that Heatherwick is gathering will range from Chinese enema kits ("It's beautiful; it's a really beautiful object") to the pyramid tea bag ("I loved the idea that someone thought of putting it in a pyramid"). What is it that attracts him about curating the show? "I love that moment where someone has come up with an idea and then that process to get it to market. Not everything is perfect in the show but there are interesting ideas - an exhibition of ideas."

And ideas are what Heatherwick is all about; he sees himself as someone who can help bring ideas together and develop them. "As a practitioner, one feels like a vessel of trying to implement thoughts that are accumulations of influences of many people. I know people who have brilliant ideas but they just don't make things happen, they don't do that bit. I almost feel it's my duty to help implement them."

Thomas Heatherwick - Conran Foundation Collection, Design Museum, London, Jan 17 - Mar 21.

www.designmuseum.org

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