Were you not worried about carrying the weight of national expectation [at the London 2012 games]?
I’m very happy to have the chance to use what my studio does, for jobs that are as strategic and useful as possible. We are interested in trying to bring the maximum benefit with what we do. It’s been very exciting in the last few years to feel that you can do what you do for a strategic national objective.
When I first set up the studio 18 years ago, there was an inner pessimism that one would ever be able to do [...] something that could be used strategically in that way. I think there was a sense that anything national was always cheesy and that the interesting things were always done in obscurity.
So I was interested [...] to find ways to argue the logical benefit of the value underpinning what I and others do, and so I felt the sense that I’m representing really talented people who have based themselves in Britain.
At the same time, you relish the opportunity of challenging some of the clichés that can come to make up the identity of a nation. This was particularly the case in the design of the United Kingdom’s pavilion at the 2012 Shanghai world expo.
It’s also important to say what a critical role the British Council played in the British Pavilion project that we worked on, at a time when I think you can imagine what a government might be feeling when they are looking at drawings of a gigantic hairy object that might at first glance appear to be frivolous or bonkers in some way.
We were feeling that we were trying to make the most serious object that might exist at the largest ever world expo - 100 million people going to it - and this would be the most bio-diverse point in Shanghai with this idea of exposing a quarter of a million seeds from the Millennium Seed Bank’s collection at Kew that doesn’t even exist at Kew for you to go and see. And the British Council took this role of just soldiering on and really defending and arguing the value of that to the British government, to help broker an understanding that there was a very strong strategic job in not being a cheesy conventional advert for Britain that contains the obvious clichés that everyone expects to see; bowler hats, rain, beefeaters and the Queen and Manchester United football club and things that in a way are all true and real, but people turn off when they see what they expect. And there was an opportunity to show something that no one expected. And in the ‘mentalness’ [craze] of a world expo with 250 pavilions, a British Pavilion needed to have the confidence and clarity of one strong idea.
The UK pavilion went on to win the prize for best pavilion at the expo, despite having a budget of a fraction of that of many countries. If the ‘seed cathedral’, as it is known, was intended to express the aspirations and identity of a country, what is the best way of expressing the identity of a city?
There’s been a lot of celebration of the phenomenal iconic architectural medallions in the cities of the world, the singular jewels that the world has been creating in cities around the world as they try to strive for idiosyncrasy, particularity and symbols of progress. But that’s been quite a clichéd format. And many of the cities one likes most in the world isn't necessarily because of individual pieces of architecture. It’s because of the totality of that city. You like your friends because they are all different, not because they are versions of each other, and cities tend to copy each other and don’t realise they are doing it. They think they are being innovative. They have their away-weekend where they all go to Barcelona and think 'Oh, this is rather good, why don’t we do something a bit like this over here?' I felt strongly that the infrastructure is the route of a city’s identity more than individual trophy pieces of a singular building. London’s red buses are a key globally known piece of city infrastructure, and you see more architectural elevation of ‘bus side’ on the 7,000 double-decker buses than any one individual building. So, to us, the red bus is a key component of London’s architectural landscape. And the commissioners, London’s transport authority, had not allowed a design team to look at that for 50 years. And in the intervening years, the only planning controls - if you compare it to architecture - were that a bus should be red. That was it. As long as it was red, it didn't matter what else happened, which we found fascinating when you think of the planning controls and analysis that go into individual pieces of architecture and whether they are appropriate for a city.
What did the re-designing of London’s red double-decker buses involve?
There was a very deliberate intention in this piece of unique commissioning that the bus should be not only a main thing on the streets of London, but should influence the other pieces of transport infrastructure that exist. So it’s about an approach to all the details that accumulate within it, from the fabrics, handpoles, bell pushes, the way that the driver's enclosure is put together, the lighting and approach to materials that we hope can accumulate and look good with dirt over time rather than worse with things like that.
Of Heatherwick Studios' recent work, undoubtedly the most visible was the Olympic cauldron whose illumination was watched by 90,000 people inside the stadium and a live TV audience of hundreds of millions. What was the inspiration for the London Olympic cauldron?
We had been very taken with the Barcelona opening ceremony, where there was this moment wondering whether the archer would manage to shoot that arrow into the cauldron and then... the moment of relief! And we had been very aware that that was the one of all the cauldrons that had existed before, the [one at the] Barcelona games in 1992 was the one that people remembered. No one actually remembered any other Olympic cauldron. They weren't really remembering the cauldron. They were remembering a moment. We had the strong sense that our primary job was to design a moment.
Didn’t the massive worldwide stage make you nervous? What if something went wrong?
Every project I’ve ever worked on, there has been a huge of element of fear. You don’t know at the beginning of a design process what you are going to do at the end. And you feel phenomenal responsibility when something is in the public realm at all in any way. And so it might sound strange that, yeah, there was a billion people watching that. It compared to the fear of a project where you are building in a part of a city. Maybe a billion people are not all looking at the same time, but you feel the weight on your shoulders of that importance of something’s presence, of something to really earn its right to be in the landscape that we inhabit. My passion is that public realm. Your fear is tempered with an excitement because you are dying to see a project realised and happen.
But you must have felt slightly worried on the night, surely?
When they [the audience in the stadium] see these children carrying these copper pieces - whether they’ll instantly groan and go 'well, of course, we know what those are, they are going to be a cauldron, aren't they?' or whether they’ll spot the giant hole in the middle of the stadium, where the cauldron is being assembled… it was balanced by huge impatience and then vast relief at the moment when we realised that everyone hadn't guessed. We designed the tickets for the Olympic ceremonies and the programmes as well [where you could see a representation of the cauldron], so it was hidden in full sight in front of everyone, a very literal and yet kind of ambiguous image exactly of what the cauldron was going to become. It was this funny, funny job of trying to push to the limit your imagination of what other people’s imagination might do.
And how was that sense of relief when the cauldron was lit?
The moment... it makes me have goosebumps. It was the moment when it started to lift and the young athletes had come in and there was the gasp of 90,000 people. That was the moment that had that 'Phew, they didn’t guess!' They hadn’t already looked at that giant hole and figured it all out. We didn't know - when there were these 204 illuminated copper elements lying on the ground - how disappointed people would be that London was having a flat cauldron. 'Oh right, it’s a flat cauldron...'. And then, [there was] a sense of palpable relief.
After having already achieved so much, is it difficult to maintain a sense of ambition?
I genuinely feel that I’ve just started to get going and have a chance to do the kinds of projects that I’ve been dreaming to try to do. There are so many areas of the world around us that feel like it’s possible to improve, add something to, that might give more meaning and be more meaningful and functional to us. So if there is ever a moment of lack of confidence or doubt, you just walk out into the street and go through your day, and things around you come at you that feel that you can make some difference to. It’s nice if the projects that we have done give the impression of some big body of work in some way, but to us, there are so many things we have wished to do or tried to do that haven’t been possible, that one struggles with and would love to have a conversation that might lead to something.
I’ve never sought exposure for myself. I’ve always felt, in a way, quite a shy person. When you are in a room of people, I’m not the 'Here I am!' type, I sort of disappear quite easily in a room. [...]
What advice would you give to young designers and architects concerned about their future careers given the economic crisis affecting much of Europe?
Maybe it is because my name is Thomas and there's the association with a ‘doubting Thomas’... I never had any expectation that anything should happen fast or quickly. The only sports I’ve ever been good at are things with stamina! It is extremely tough in the world of designing and building buildings. There are so many things that you have to take on board and [you need] an endless resilience.
I’ve been very struck by the sat-nav devices and the way they forgive you. They say 'turn left' and if you don’t turn left, it doesn't lose its temper. It just works out where you are and works out what is the best thing for where you are. And there are always set-backs. Optimism is a precious thing. It is very easy to blame the world around you for things being difficult to do, and things are difficult. If you are working in the public sphere, there are so many bodies, organisations, people. And people are scared, and fear means that things can get shut down around you. So I’ve a strong sense of needing to try not to become ‘war-weary’ and worn down. And those sat-nav things don’t get worn down. They just keep going 'Alright, OK, turn left, then at the next one, OK, turn round, just keep going.'
What else does it take to succeed?
When I was studying, there were some students that had degree shows coming up and they were hoping for a moment when they would be plucked and given the jobs of their life. And I always felt that, because I just watched other people around very carefully, [I've] seen that things don’t just come rushing towards you. You just have to keep going, keep trying. I suppose I’ve made big sacrifices to do what I do. I don’t want to over-dramatise that, but I have channelled everything into doing what I do. And the people whose work I admire, when you really look at what they do, they put a lot in. And people who might desire that have to really ask themselves if they really, really are willing to put that in.
The Inside Heatherwick Studio exhibition is currently open in Singapore and will then tour Beijing and Shanghai.