10 Questions With... Thomas Heatherwick

Fittingly for a city that has constantly reinvented itself over several centuries, the latest intervention in London’s evolving urban fabric is a new retail destination forged from a pair of disused Victorian railway buildings. Coal Drops Yard is the work of one of the British capital’s most prominent designers, Thomas Heatherwick, who has already made his mark on London with the design of its updated Routemaster bus, as well as the spectacular cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games. With Coal Drops Yard he has created a new shopping street and public space that retains the time-worn character of the original structures.

The site of the shopping precinct is just around the corner from Heatherwick Studio, which, in a little over 20 years, has grown to number more than 200 designers, architects, and landscape architects. With a focus on craftsmanship that stems from Heatherwick’s own passion for problem solving and invention, the studio has tackled projects ranging from a perfume bottle for Christian Louboutin to a new campus in California for Google (developed in collaboration with Bjarke Ingels Group). At the opening of Coal Drops Yard, Heatherwick sat down with Interior Design to talk about the importance of creating places that bring people together, and how paying attention to the human experience is vital when working on projects of any scale.

Interior Design: During your career you’ve worked on an amazing variety of projects, from a handbag for Longchamp to masterplans for whole urban districts. How comfortable are you working across these vastly different scales?

Thomas Heatherwick: I don’t see a distinction. My passion has always been for the public world around us. I built my first building as a 21-year-old undergraduate, fueled by the surprise that the making of buildings was absent from the education of the people designing them at that time in the 1980s and 1990s.

ID: So, do you feel you can apply the same creative approach to a building as you do to a chair, for example?

TH: Certainly. You design buildings, you don’t architect a building. I’m a designer and my team designs places, so it’s always been our belief that a masterplan means nothing without paying attention to the human scale. We are now working at the scale beyond even the initial building, on pieces of city, but always working outwards from a people-centric focus. The scale is enormous, bigger than ever, but we humans are still roughly the same size as we were a million years ago. I find that very telling.

Thomas Heatherwick's UK Pavilion at Expo 2010. Photography by Iwan Baan.

ID: Coal Drops Yard is your first major architectural project in London. What is unique about it as a retail environment and how do you feel it contributes to the urban environment?

TH: We always felt the project was really about a scale of space, and the shops provided an excuse to frame and breathe life into this space, rather than the other way around. The outdoorsness also felt important, because the hermetic internal spaces of conventional shopping environments are real passion killers.

ID: In recent years you’ve transformed an old paper mill into a gin distillery for Bombay Sapphire and converted a grain silo in Cape Town into a museum for contemporary African art. How does Coal Drops Yard encapsulate your approach to adaptive reuse and giving historic buildings a new purpose?

TH: I never thought that as a studio we would become experts in working on old buildings. Most of our work here is not this central stitching part, with these “kissing roofs” connecting the two buildings in the center—most of it was just gently working with the existing structures. We were trying to enjoy the idiosyncrasy of the site without flattening or ironing it too much, whilst also wanting to make it accessible and open it up but keep as much character as possible. That’s a common approach across several of our previous projects.

Thomas Heatherwick transformed an old paper mill into a gin distillery for Bombay Sapphire. Photography by Iwan Baan.

ID: You’ve worked in the retail sector before on projects such as Pacific Place in Hong Kong and the Longchamp store in New York. What do you feel is the role of physical retail spaces in the digital age?

TH: At a time when excuses for togetherness are so rare, our studio is interested in harnessing that urge and instinct we have to spend time with other people. Cities used to be full of places where people would come together in this way, like city halls, libraries, community centers, or places of faith, but the digital revolution changed all of that. With this project, shopping is just the excuse for creating an amazing place that brings people together.

ID: How do you, as a three-dimensional designer, create public places that people want to go to and spend time in?

TH: A place like Coal Drops Yard has to connect with your humanity or not exist, and that’s exciting from a design point of view. I think we talk too much about the tops of buildings and not enough about the first floor which is typically our true experience of them. In both this project and Pacific Place, we focused on human-scale details like the buttons used to call the elevators, because those are the things people remember most.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa. Photography by Iwan Baan.

ID: You’re currently involved in several major buildings and infrastructure projects in New York. How are they progressing and what impact will they have on the city?

TH: We’ve been working on four projects in Manhattan, including a new pier that will extend into the Hudson to provide a park and performance space. A lot of the work we’re doing is actually concentrated along the High Line, such as a new housing project that will rise up on either side of it. At the northern end we’re creating a minor public space that coils up into the air to be 16 stories high. In a way it’s a promenade and a keep-fit device, as well as a focal point for a new space that’s being made above the rail lines. We are also working on another residential project very close to the High Line that we’re not allowed to talk about right now.

ID: Why do you think you’ve had so many opportunities there when your work here in London has actually been quite limited?

TH: I think New York has a confidence at the moment in public space-making and it’s a trend of intelligence that I find very exciting. There seems to be a true appreciation that everything follows people. If you start with people, convene them and offer chances for them to come together, then you can let the other things be secondary and flow around them. I’d love to work more in London and beyond London in the UK, because there are so many spaces that need some proper care and attention.

London's New Routemaster Bus by Thomas Heatherwick. Photography by Iwan Baan.

ID: Is there anything you haven’t yet designed that you’d really like to work on?

TH: We’re beginning to have the chance to work on projects for housing and affordable housing, and we’d like to work more in the healthcare sector. We will always be interested in the areas that are most public, where our expectations of the world around us are lowest.

ID: It seems to me that you’ve achieved a lot since you founded your studio in 1994. How would you summarize your career so far, and what are your hopes for the future?

TH: In a way we’ve only just got going. This is the first major public building we’ve completed in London and we’ve been going for more than 20 years. It just takes time to have that chance. I’m 48 years old and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities in my studio’s history to be trusted to do projects like this. If we can continue to do a few special things that are as public as possible and give back as much as possible, that’s our passion and commitment.

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