How Heatherwick Got Here

7 Jul 2016

While the Garden Bridge is surrounded by controversies, legal action, government inquiries, massive public opposition and criticism from environmentalists the development’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, doesn’t appear to have so much as a shrapnel wound from the warzone he has created.

Incredibly, this week it was announced that Goldsmiths College are awarding Heatherwick  an honorary fellowship and he will present at this week’s students’ graduation ceremony. How a college known for its political drive and history of imbuing students with a sense of the social good and deep thinking can give this award at such a time that the Garden Bridge is becoming the standout symbol of all that is wrong with the modern city and politics is astounding.

In a statement on the college website there is a quote from Heatherwick which says his “passion is solving problems. We just see everything as problems… a problem to solve”. But a quick look over Heatherwick’s back catalogue shows that quite a few problems are created by his projects, rather than solved, and while he clearly has a sense of ingenuity and a sense of creative engineering most of his works are decorative artefacts from studio game-playing rather than a solution to any existing question. Heatherwick’s studio is full of models and geometric explorations in various media, playful explorations of form, engineering and material but only some of them ever end up in a design, whether that be a product or, increasingly, architecture.

Instead the often over-engineered plaything is then utilised for a client where a far more simple, less problematic, less expensive solution could be found. Or, such as with the Garden Bridge, there was no problem to solve initially but after maneuvering into a position to get the project made Heatherwick waxes lyrical about “solutions” as though the project solved problems that had never been stated – total backwards engineering to imply a legitimacy to the location, design and cost where there is none.

This is totally at odds with how successful design is created and what a college like Goldsmiths should be introducing to their students. The world, now more than ever, needs problem solvers. London alone faces huge problems caused by global warming, pollution, affordable housing, transport and more. These are genuine problems which need creative, driven and communicative people. But there is not a single project in Heatherwick’s canon which actually solves a real problem, and frequently they not only don’t solve a problem, but they cause more!

Examples include the New Routemasters which emit more harmful particles than the buses they replaced and carry fewer people at a huge expense, the B of the Bang in Manchester which could have skewered pedestrians before being removed and melted down, the failed and cracked Blue Carpet in Newcastle, legal fallout from the Olympic Couldron and allegations of plagiarism, the “legal battle” (£) over faults in his Worth Abbey pews which appeared months after their completion.


But there is one thing Heatherwick is fantastic at – networking. Perhaps that is the characteristic that Goldsmiths are trying to instill in their students by promoting Heatherwick. Immediately after graduating from the RCA Heatherwick was taken under the wing of grand statesman of design, Terence Conran largely because of a lollipop stick. At his 1994 degree show he handed out icecreams which revealed his name and contact details on the stick after the potential client had eaten them. A fun gimmick, but no more, yet strangely prescient of all the other gimmicks and one-liner games he has built his career on since.

He soon became passed around the celebrity-elite like some sex-toy at an orgy and before long he’d deeply penetrated all well-connected circles of media, politics and unelected quangos who reign supreme other design and architecture. It was Conran who introduced him to Joanna Lumley who is listed as an ‘associate’ at Heatherwick Studio and has worked with him since 2003. Her contact book and access to the summer parties of the movers and shakers can do no harm whatsoever and Heatherwick acknowledges this when he says:

“Projects don’t come rushing towards you, they evolve through discussions with various people.”

Heatherwick is incredibly affable and has that knack of saying the right things to the right people, and that is key to becoming a member of the chumocracy which makes the decisions with public finance and politics. It is a chumocracy (of mainly white middled aged men) of which he is now the youngest member of – it’s the Royal Academy, the British Council, PR organisation London First or the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects and NLA, both with Peter Murray at the helm.

It’s odd, in a way, that in 2013 Heatherwick got so many awards and recognitions for architecture when it wasn’t until 2014 that his first permanent building was actually built – coincidentally a comission from Peter Murray’s wife, Jane Wood. Murray is clearly a good man to be friends with if you want to get into the architecture club. Tellingly

But this kind of club-mentality which restricts open debate, closes down discussion and frowns on transparency. For example, until-recently director of architecture at the British Council, Vicky Richardson, said that uncovering democratic process leading to serious allegations of corruption in a designer who was currently featured in their travelling exhibition was a “dangerous strategy”.

#GardenBridge Dangerous and backward strategy to use bureaucratic procedure against something you don't like

— Vicky Richardson (@vcky_rchrdsn) September 29, 2015

When you have friends in places like this it makes it incredibly hard to have frank, open debate. When at the drop of a hat members of the chumocracy like Richard Rogers, Nick Clegg, Sarah Sands and Evgeny Lebedev of the Evening Standard comic or Charles Saumarez Smith of the RA can be wheeled out to close ranks and protect their protégé it makes it difficult to have a conversation about values, meritocracy, new ideas and genuine problem solving.


Design and architecture is better and more important than this. It’s critical to how we develop our cities, societies and politics. It isn’t just a plaything for the rich and connected or the ‘added-value’ to a development opportunity.

And Goldsmiths is better than this too. Goldsmiths, with a rooted history in social good, political debate and questioning structures should not be endorsing a member of the chumocracy, especially at this particular time when the grandest of his follies is opposed on so many legal, heritage, environmental and community angles. By endorsing him they are complicit in the dodginess that surrounds the Garden Bridge, in the ecological damage it causes, in the way the whole project has bypassed open democratic process and in the abuse of public finances for the whim of celebrities, the elite and a recently totally discredited politician in Boris Johnson.



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