Last week, the London Evening Standard ran a single article in its editorial column, rather than its usual two, something it only does in matters of grave importance. It was about the end of plans to build a garden bridge over the Thames and blamed the mayor, Sadiq Khan, for killing off “a brilliant and imaginative plan” and for wasting public money.
The nerve was breathtaking. If anyone wasted public money, it was the former chancellor George Osborne and the former mayor Boris Johnson, who promised £60m to a project whose viability was always in doubt. Osborne, of course, is now editor of the Evening Standard.
What finally killed the bridge was cost, which went from a promised £60m in 2013, to £100m, to £185m, to £200m and possibly more, plus at least £3m per year in running costs. Had it been even close to the original estimates, there would have been enough public and private money to fund it. It might be thought that the bridge’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, should bear some responsibility for the escalating budget. Instead, much of the media reaction to the project’s collapse has been to deplore a magnificent opportunity lost, a great British failure of vision.
The spell that has always enveloped the bridge remains intact. Throughout, it was taken as self-evident that the designer and the design were brilliant, to such an extent that normal procedures of procurement and assessment could be subverted. The possibility that it might be clumsy or ugly, as objectors argued, was not allowed. In this, the bridge’s backers were among many influential people for whom Heatherwick, 47, is a magical figure. Johnson compared him to Michelangelo, Terence Conran to Leonardo da Vinci. Alan Yentob has said that he’s “up there with Willie Wonka and the Wizard of Oz”. “I believe he has come straight from the woods,” said Joanna Lumley, originator of the bridge idea. “He might be the Green Man. He has an extraordinary affinity with nature.”
The failure of the bridge is a setback, but not too serious a brake on someone often called “unstoppable” and “irrepressible”. Neither is the fate of Pier 55 in New York, another plan to put plants over water, funded by the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and her businessman husband, Barry Diller, which has been stalled by a series of lawsuits brought on environmental and public access grounds. He is still kept busy by the $500m revamp of the David Geffen Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York and by a 16-storey “staircase to nowhere” in the same city.
A spectacular Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, funded by businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz is opening next month. 1,000 Trees, a mixed-used development in the form of wooded mountains, is going up in Shanghai. He is working on headquarters for Google in collaboration with the Danish fellow superstar Bjarke Ingels, in Silicon Valley and London. The latter, which won planning permission last week, is in King’s Cross, where a Heatherwick shopping centre is also under construction. There is a tendency to believe him capable of almost anything, even when there is no evidence of his aptitude, such as masterplans or the making of new neighbourhoods.
All of which is something for someone who only completed his first building 10 years ago, a beach cafe in Littlehampton, Sussex, for the property developer and restaurateur Jane Wood. His breakthrough project, the British Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, was not so long ago. He is not, indeed, an architect, having trained as a designer at Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art and made his name with furniture, objects and installations before moving on to buildings.
His rise is more remarkable for the glitches and cost overruns that have haunted some of his projects: a sculpture in Manchester that started to shed life-threatening metal spikes, a blue glass pavement in Newcastle that turned a drab grey, a biomass power station in Teesside that proved unfundable, pews in Worth Abbey, Sussex, which cracked, a reinvention of London’s double-decker bus that was expensive, inefficient and faulty. Attribution of responsibility in such cases, where many consultants and contractors are involved, is a complex and legally sensitive issue, but at the very least Heatherwick’s projects look unlucky.
The first reason for his success, despite these setbacks, is talent. He’s definitely got an ability to play with materials and techniques to produce objects unlike any other. “How to make something,” says Hanif Kara, an engineer who works with him, “is in his blood. For an engineer, that’s very exciting.” Jane Wood says “he’s fabulous, a genius, so clever, and so easy and receptive”. He is also, says Kara, “fiercely, fiercely competitive” and has the energy and self-belief to carry through unlikely ideas.
He is charming and persuasive. In person, he is eternally youthful and tousled, like a children’s TV presenter or a Doctor Who that we never had. “Andy Pandy,” says one of Britain’s leading cultural figures. Kara says he’s a “Pied Piper; people follow him like a cult, which is a positive as it allows him to redefine a problem”. In his TED talk and similar presentations, he has audiences eating out of his hand, breaking into spontaneous applause when he shows, for example, a video of a footbridge that can curl up, armadillo-like, into a drum of steel. He speaks with an urgent hush, wide eyed, a touch unctuous, conjuring shapes with hands and arms, as if permanently amazed by the world and his role in it.
When talking about something a bit sad – the inexplicable hostility of critics, the north-eastern poor whose spirits might have been raised by his biomass power station – a puzzled frown passes over his face.
Peter Murray, director of New London Architecture and husband of Jane Wood, says that “he gives people stories, quite dramatic stories. He is a communicator of the first water.” He offers the “big idea, the thing that really grabs the global client” – a development that looks like a mountain, trees over water, a big tent for Google’s staff in California, the carving out of grain silos to form the Zeitz museum. Heatherwick says he wants to bring to buildings the “materiality and soulfulness” that you find in small-scale crafted objects.
At his graduation show at the Royal College of Art, he handed out ice lollies that, once eaten, revealed his contact details on the stick, showing charm and self-promotion that has helped him win what is now an influential band of fans – Lumley, Johnson, Osborne, von Furstenberg, Zeitz, Danny Boyle, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Antony Gormley. He has appeal for those people Murray calls “global clients”, individuals and companies that have acquired extraordinary wealth who perhaps want to believe that the world they surmount is benign. In 2013, he was elected to the Royal Academy, which is striking, as the RA is for architects and artists and Heatherwick is neither. That, believes Murray, is what makes him “refreshing”. “One of the guys who worked for him on the cafe had previously worked for a major architect. He said that the lack of dogma was a like a great weight being lifted from his shoulders.” Wood says he is more “emotional” than most architects, more “artistic and sculptural”.
Architects are trained to examine and re-examine their plans, to exercise doubt, to adjust proposals to their surroundings, to reconcile form and function. Heatherwick cuts through all that or waves it away. He is oblivious to the question of scale – the same shape could be a flower pot, a stadium or a city block – which gives his larger works a self-absorbed indifference to their location. It makes it hard for human beings to relate to them, at any level other than amazement. “Design is about scale,” says Ricky Burdett, professor of urban studies at the LSE. “It shouldn’t be like Russian dolls where the big is the same as the small. You can’t just pump air into things to blow them up. It should be about dealing with the social and urban complexities of large scale development.”
He makes difficult things look easy, even as he adds to their difficulty with his improbable concepts. He offers art without pain, happy surrealism. Quite often, the difficulty does not go away and returns to bite his clients on the backside – there turn out to be reasons why architects worry about the things that they do. He therefore suits best those global clients for whom money is little object and the statement is almost everything, a Zeitz or a Google, whose surplus value he can soak up with magical dreamworlds, places where conflict and division can be forgotten.
THE HEATHERWICK FILE
Born Thomas Alexander Heatherwick on 17 February 1970. He was born in London to Stefany Tomalin, a jeweller with a shop in Portobello Road, and Hugh, a pianist, former Royal Marine and community worker. Studied three-dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art.
Best of times
Designs British pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010, a “seed cathedral” or “hairy cube”, and wins the gold medal for best pavilion among more than 200.
Worst of times
Proposed garden bridge in London cancelled after cost overruns, funding shortfalls and accusations of improper procedures in its procurement.
What he says
“The buildings that were around me and that were being designed, felt soulless and cold. And there on the smaller scale, the scale of an earring or a ceramic pot or a musical instrument, was a materiality and a soulfulness. And this influenced me.”
What they say
“It is unsurprising that his brand of design, with its strong wow factor and skin-deep social content, should be so popular with tax-avoiding corporations and states built on slave labour.”
Jack Wakefield, the Spectator
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