Arts & Culture

A Day in LA With Thomas Heatherwick

The self-taught architectural virtuoso talks about humanity and change while walking us through Downtown LA’s nascent Arts District.
Reading time 7 minutes

For Thomas Heatherwick, disruption is natural. One of the world’s most in-demand and visionary designers, his work is both heroically inclusive and sincerely frank. The English-born architect isn’t interested in surface beauty, per se, but humanity in structure. His 2,500-individual step honeycomb-shaped public monument in New York City’s Hudson Yards is dedicated simply to walking. An imagination for public well-being is one thing he has become famous for. While in the middle of designing Google’s sprawling 1 million-square-foot London headquarters, Heatherwick is coolly relaxed and sweetly keen. Over gourmet tea and hi-fi vinyl jazz in a Japanese-inspired music lounge, he talks about the future. His iPad doubles as a treasure-trove of secret projects and renderings that would make even a cynic awe. While visiting a bank-cum-book-store in the Old Bank District, we learned about the potential for global change through the eyes of a modern genius.

If the landscape of Downtown LA was a Rorschach test, what would you see?

[Laughs] Well, in a way to your point you were making earlier, it’s interesting in a city that’s all about the individual living in their idyllic luxury somehow. But then, you know, cities need hearts and the heart wasn’t a fashionable thing. Now that we’re more separate from each other after the digital revolution, we yearn for that social togetherness so it’s funny to feel that sort of yawning and tugging, like the city’s waking up, whipping its mouth, needs to brush its teeth, realizing that it's rediscovering [the] urbanism that it forgot mattered. 

It did astonish me that the love here architecturally was in homes, phenomenal homes, but no projects that were about the togetherness of the city. Whereas you go to Paris and there are grand museums and there are things that pull people together. All the designers of spectacular streets and the city planner who planned these grand boulevards to make people come together. Here, it’s my understanding is that Downtown LA just shot up in value because people really cherish a multi-functional city rather than just a residential district and a work district, which is a trend all over the world. 

The picture of LA that was pushed in the 1980s to the UK was of a kind of freeway hell. Pictures of bad iconic images of what appeared to be 20-lane highways and there are certain images that stick in your brain and do damage because they’re not the real picture. Then when I first came and spent time here, and more recently when I came and did the Hammer Museum show, I realized LA wasn’t a city. In a European context, we do think of LA as a city and London as a city, but discovering that London was made from many villages that gradually morphed together and then I discovered that Los Angeles is many towns that morph together and each town is its own thing—then it made sense. The towns had their own humanity. I’m interested in the humanity of cities and I love cities because of that power we have when we’re together. 

Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to understand what's most important to a society, don't examine its art or literature, simply look at its biggest buildings” … What do you think about that?

I feel that we misjudge architecture by talking about the tall ones too much. The height of a building doesn’t affect—we are all on the ground, and we are all moving around. Our experience of the city is the first 2 or 3 floors of a building. Typically, that’s what designers are least good at. When they’re interested in the top of a tower, it explains why, so often, that our city experience is so terrible because we’re on the ground. You might get a building which is awesome from a distance in a postcard, but it’s out of reach. Walking past, cycling past, walking through the door…that is the experience of a building. Streets get killed by footprints being too large and you don’t get enough diversity down the street. Buildings used to be 30ft-wide, now they’re 90ft, 100ft-wide. The real risk is always the ground floor. 


What does your bathroom counter look like? 

[Laughs] Well I’m building a house at the moment so I’m renting a flat and there is no bathroom counter at the moment. There’s a sink. There’s an architect I knew before he passed away who was very British and designed very thin-edged white sinks and where there are no surfaces around. In a way, surfaces seemed really distasteful for that kind of type of architecture. Instead, you just fit them around somewhere because real people need real surfaces. 


Have you thought about an element of daily life you’d like to design a disruptive technology for?

My passion is public things. So, I have a mixed relationship to the domestic because there are already sort of fantastic – the choices are so gigantic. A friend of mine just went sink shopping and there were so many choices—none of which were ordinary. She finally asked if they had any simple sinks and they asked her, ‘Don’t you want something more interesting?’ She replied by saying ‘I’m interesting. I don’t need my sink to be interesting’. In some ways, I believe in that sense. The part that I perceived as a child is that homes are already interesting and how people’s personalities are still manifesting in the choices they make. It touches me so much more and I suppose I focus my energy more on problematization in-order to then respond to that which is what the great disruptors have done. So, you start with a problem and then continue to try to fix it. I want to more increasingly work on schools, hospitals, and housing rather than personal people’s homes. There are some quite big public challenges and my interest has always been the bits that have been most neglected. To me, that’s the most exciting thing to work on because you can make more change. 

Can we have one hint about what to expect from the Google London headquarters?

It will the largest ever use of timber. The façade of the building is 300m long and 10 stories high. 


Where in the world are you seeing the most excitement and reception to design right now?

Well in a way I’m most excited about the potential in Africa because they’ve leapfrogged from having no telecommunications or modern telecommunications straight to having mobile telecommunications, some of which are still amazing to people like me. There is still the potential to [advance] from the not-so-much-in-development to real human development and maybe miss out on some of the bad forms of city-making that happened in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s. If we can be clear enough about new ways to humanize construction and make it affordable, that can make places not just affordable but encourage our humanity with each other.

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