Let’s build bridges

    20 June 2015

    Fast-forward a few years. Picture the scene. Before the decade is out you could be strolling across or lingering on Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge, which, if it materialises, will take flight from the brutalist South Bank of the Thames and land on the north side at Temple underground station.

    Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge is a project for a global city in its prime — a £175 million folly designed to be a tranquil place to walk, meander and think. Led by their cheerleader Joanna Lumley, who is credited with the idea, the bridge’s advocates cite the successful New York High Line park — planted on an abandoned elevated freight line — as an example of how an unusual urban garden that’s free to the public can become a city signature.

    The actress and the designer have been working on the project for 15 years. Their critics claim there are better ways of spending £175 million. London needs real bridges. Boris Johnson accuses the doubters of having ‘a Taleban-like hatred of beauty’. The Mayor of London seems enchanted by Heatherwick (who also designed the ‘Boris Bus’, inspired by the capital’s hop-on, hop-off Routemasters).

    Johnson has pledged £30 million of public money for the bridge. The Chancellor has matched that. In all, £127 million has been pledged. So only £48 million to go. Surely a nation obsessed with gardening can find that? So far the signs are encouraging. Private money is coming forward. Glencore, the international mining company, has given an undisclosed sum towards the cost of the copper-nickel alloy that will coat the bridge ‘like a protective skin’.

    Heatherwick is a puckish 45-year-old whose foppish waistcoats reflect the eccentricity of his ideas. But he is also driven and ambitious. He needs to be. Debate over the bridge seems to be getting louder, but this hasn’t dented Heatherwick’s fantastical ambitions. He describes the Garden Bridge as a project for ‘a thousand years’. Isn’t that far-fetched? Not when you consider his inspiration. ‘Venice,’ he says, wide-eyed: ‘the most beautiful and extraordinary place on the planet. And it’s preposterous — the idea of building a city on water. But that’s why we love it, because it’s incredible.’

    Heatherwick speaks gently about making his bridge ‘a place where you can linger and have a conversation with someone or have an idea’.

    The proposed Garden Bridge
    The proposed Garden Bridge

    The Garden Bridge is planned as architecture that chimes with its surroundings — a green retort to the unloved concrete of the South Bank and, looking east, the modernist excesses all over the skyline of the City.

    Heatherwick finds clean lines ‘gross’ and endless perfectly manufactured glass ‘soulless’. His aim is to change attitudes to urban planning all over the world. ‘It gives me the creeps when I see a frame for a building going up and recognise the architect,’ he has said. ‘You shouldn’t know who a project is by.’ He seems to regard the glass-and-steel structures that tower over modern cities as the work of dinosaurs, and says he hates the word ‘procurement’.

    On this platform, Heatherwick Studios is winning worldwide commissions worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The designer has talked Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg into backing a floating island on the Hudson, Pier 55, at a cost of £80 million. Then there’s the new Google headquarters in California. And South Africa’s first museum of contemporary African art.

    Heatherwick likes to talk about the sense of proportion, sensitivity and even love which he thinks Victorian designers such as Brunel had, but which we have lost. ‘It’s part of the modern sensibility to appear to make it sound like those are unnecessary things,’ he argues. The lonelier our lives become, perhaps, the more his ideas strike a chord.

    Heatherwick’s Learning Hub in Singapore
    Heatherwick’s Learning Hub in Singapore

    His Learning Hub in Singapore challenges the digital isolation of the modern student by abandoning corridors and teaching rooms, encouraging students and teachers to collide and mingle. Yet his own HQ, where he oversees 150 designers and architects, is an unprepossessing space under a Travelodge in King’s Cross. Projects take shape amid the clutter of his team’s working day, in between the banana skins and packets of chocolate biscuits. There is none of the design fascism you find in the minimalist studios of his rivals.

    So who is this arriviste presenting such a challenge to the prevailing fashion for ‘slickness’ and ‘clean lines’? Heatherwick grew up in Wood Green and studied design at Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art in London (his master’s degree is in furniture design). Here he attracted the attention of his first patron, Terence Conran. At his RCA degree show in 1994, potential clients were presented with ice-creams. When they’d eaten them, his name and phone number were on the lolly sticks. No wonder he’s good at winning commissions.

    The Olympic Cauldron
    The Olympic Cauldron

    His breakout year was 2012. His Olympic cauldron was a show-stopper, swiftly followed by the Boris Buses, which he talks of as though they are urban pleasure steamers. Bus designers are not amused: the design doesn’t have the ‘modularity’ needed for the buses to be sold internationally, so their only market is London, which makes them hugely expensive.

    Following in the footsteps of architects such as Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, Heatherwick is also at work on a cancer care centre in Leeds, commissioned by the charity Maggie’s.

    The Maggie’s cause chimes with the Heatherwick approach, which is to react against institutionalised building. He likes to design in neglected ‘gaps’ — grimy London buses, the Thames (regarded for centuries as a dirty eyesore), or hospitals. As he says, ‘Historically, in the world of architecture enormous amounts of care and energy have been lavished on things that are almost a clichéd idea of culture.’

    By contrast, ‘When you think about the worst places humans come into contact with, they are often our health environments.’ Maggie’s was founded by the architect Maggie Keswick Jencks, who found, while being treated for breast cancer, that the awful physical surroundings made her pain, worry and sense of alienation even worse.

    Heatherwick’s eloquence helps sell his ideas. His waistcoats and his mop of curls (combined with the lyrical way he discusses the most prosaic of subjects — concrete, for example, or buses) give him a slight air of Willy Wonka presiding over his dream factory. As a result, Heatherwick now has something of a cult following.

    For those who refuse to buy into this, however, there are questions. Last year the Architects’ Journal used the Freedom of Information Act to extract previously withheld details about the Garden Bridge design competition. It found that Heatherwick was awarded the highest marks for design experience — despite the fact that he’d completed only two projects of comparable size.

    The Mayor is accused of cronyism, pushing through a pet project of a friend (Lumley) by his favourite designer (Heatherwick) with no regard for process. Ask Heatherwick about this and you get a flash of the drive that he surely must possess, for all his puckishness, to have come so far, so fast.

    ‘Every single major project in London had people trying to stop it. I think that human nature is scared of change and justifies it in all sort of ways,’ he says. Projects such as the Garden Bridge create ‘enormous fear and resistance — vociferous resistance’.

    But, he says, the mood changes once one of these projects is finished. ‘If there were ever the question of it being taken away, [public sentiment] suddenly switches the other way, and there’s enormous desire to retain those things. Particularly when something has spirit and character.’ But in the meantime, Heatherwick isn’t surprised by the naysayers and the rumours about a ‘cabal’: ‘It’s not unexpected that there would be resistance, looking for every possible way to create friction.’

    The Garden Bridge is based on the idea that the best cities are ones with maximum ‘walkability’ and are places where city-dwellers (those lonely students with their Kindles and iPads, for instance) can interact with each other. It’s a highly romantic idea — a folly whose purpose, if there is one, is to encourage purposelessness. Heatherwick envisages daydreams, proposals and writing taking shape on his creation, rather than soliciting or mugging.

    Heatherwick’s optimistic vision of improvement encompasses fantasy, imperfection and quirkiness. His mother, Stefany Tomalin, used to run a jewellery shop in the Portobello Road. ‘When it closed, I met so many people who said they spent hours in there.’ At the time, he tells me, the ‘little mini designer’ in him was obsessed with minimalism and loathed the clutter of The Bead Shop, as it was called. After talking to its customers, he changed his mind: ‘I thought, note to self, I was wrong about that.’

    Heatherwick talks as if he’s forcing a clash of aesthetic worldviews, between doctrinaire functionality and the human imagination. But with £48 million still to find, and with resistance becoming more vocal, he will need all of the Heatherwick magic — the steeliness as well as the idealism — to pull this one off.