Described by Terence Conran as “the Leonardo da Vinci of our time”, Thomas Heatherwick defies categorisation. He’s a designer, yes, but he’s also by turns a builder, a sculptor, an inventor, a furniture-maker and an urban-planner. With projects ranging from a university in Singapore to a spinning-top chair to a London bus, he and his team of 180 architects, designers, engineers and modelmakers can turn their hand to anything.
It is, above all, his projects linked to art and leisure that really capture the imagination, from the first-prize winning Seed Cathedral dancing in the breeze at Shanghai’s 2010 Expo and the Phoenix-like Cauldron at London’s 2012 Olympic Games to the major art gallery currently being carved from a grain silo in Cape Town, South Africa.
Heatherwick’s latest infrastructure projects are set to be transformative for London – the pedestrian Garden Bridge that will span the River Thames and the Coal Drops Yard, a mixed-use piazza for London’s King’s Cross.
The Garden Bridge will connect the South Bank and Temple areas of London, creating a new green space for the capital, with plants, trees and woodland influences incorporated into meandering walkways.
At King’s Cross, two disused Victorian coal drop buildings are to be repurposed into retail, culture and leisure space. The historic structures, which stand apart, will be repaired and connected by a new upper level stitching their two roofs together.
These projects prove the imaginative designer is determined to push the boundaries further than ever before.
Moganshan, 2015, in progress
Heatherwick Studio has designed a vast mountain-inspired mixed-use development to be located next to Shanghai’s arts district. Heatherwick is creating a verdant 30-hectare complex of buildings, with approximately 1,000 structural columns supporting plants and trees. “The design has been conceived not as a building but as a piece of topography, taking the form of two tree-covered mountains,” the studio says.
Pier55, 2014, in progress
Designed in collaboration with landscape architect Mathews Nielsen, this curved parkland and performance space will rest upon multiple concrete columns 56m from the shoreline, between the remains of support piles from the original pier infrastructure. The plan, says Heatherwick, is “very much about bringing people together, so that you could have not only the immersion in nature, but also by lifting up the corners… the visitors to the park can all see each other, and there’s some kind of chemistry with each other”. (FastCo Design, 24 November 2014)
The Garden Bridge, 2013, in progress
The brainchild of actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley, the Garden Bridge was granted planning permission at the end of 2014. It’s intended as a place of refuge from the frenetic activity at either end: “This is not about the fastest way to cross the river; it’s the slowest way you could possibly get across the river.” (The Culture Show, 31 July 2013)
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), in progress
Zeitz MOCAA will be a major new cultural landmark carved from the historic Grain Silo at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. “Rather than strip out the evidence of the building’s industrial heritage, we wanted to find a way to celebrate it. We could either fight a building made of concrete tubes or enjoy its tube-iness,” says Heatherwick Studio.
The Seed Cathedral, 2010, complete
Commissioned by the UK government, the Seed Cathedral at Shanghai’s Expo took first prize for its beautifully realised celebration of nature. With 60,000 clear optical rods extending through the walls and up into the air, it looked from a distance like a silver-haired box. The tips of the rods were embedded with 250,000 seeds. According to Heatherwick, the film Jurassic Park was an inspiration: “The DNA of the dinosaur [found in the mosquito] that was trapped in the amber gave us some kind of clue that tiny things could be trapped and made to seem precious.” (TED Conference 2011)
Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill, 2012, complete
Gin maker Bombay Sapphire’s new distillery and visitor centre in a 19th-century paper mill at Laverstoke, UK, combines the regeneration of listed buildings with landscaping and the creation of two curved glasshouses for displaying the botanicals used in the gin. The project has achieved a BREEAM Outstanding rating for sustainability.
Rolling Bridge, 2004, complete
When commissioned to build a pedestrian bridge across the Grand Union Canal in London, which would open to let boats pass, Heatherwick wanted to avoid a traditional Tower Bridge-style design that he couldn’t help feeling was “a beautiful thing that had broken,” (TED Conference 2011). Instead, his design features a bridge that curls in on itself like a caterpillar, leaving a beautiful circular sculpture on the canal bank.
The Olympic Cauldron, 2011, complete
The Cauldron came to life before the eyes of 900 million viewers at the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, as 204 polished copper ‘petals’ illuminated by the Olympic torch rose silently from the ground to form a single great flame. The intention? To represent “the extraordinary, albeit transitory, togetherness that the Olympic Games symbolise”.