"We need Heatherwick – he is unique in our generation"

Thomas Heatherwick has come in for criticism over his Humanise campaign, but here Aidan Walker mounts an impassioned defence of the British designer.

There’s a lot of commentary on Thomas Heatherwick flying about at the moment, much of it negative. Most recently it came in response to the news that Heatherwick’s Humanise campaign is working with Loughborough University on a master’s degree, due to start in autumn 2025 with a promise to “inspire joyful architecture”. The publication of the studio’s proposals to turn Seoul’s Nodeul Island into a public park (pictured) has also met with brickbats.

I won’t enumerate the largely sneering and condescending comments under the corresponding Dezeen stories; it’s too dispiriting. Most appear to be from architects invested in their seven-year training and threatened by a non-architect who challenges the prevailing modernist orthodoxy.

Here we have a most unusual – not to say unique – imagination

Heatherwick set the cat among the architectural pigeons for sure with the publication of his Humanise book last autumn. Reviewing it in The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright really weighed in, attacking “Heatherwick’s simplistic aesthetic philosophising”.

Wainwright makes the same mistake of which he accuses Heatherwick: he misses the point. The Humanise movement, he says, focuses on the outward appearance of buildings at the expense of “much more crucial issues” that concern the inhabitants of buildings; ceiling height, ventilation, insulation.

Heatherwick’s point – “the Humanise rule” – is that “a building should be able to hold your attention for the time it takes to pass by it”. Many, many more people experience buildings as passers by or fleeting viewers than those who live and work inside them. The issues are separate.

I have known and engaged with Heatherwick’s work since his radical and astonishing treatment of Harvey Nichols’ windows in 1997. A glance at that piece tells anyone disposed to look that here we have a most unusual – not to say unique – imagination. I was delighted to welcome him to the recent edition of the Design Shanghai Forum, where he launched the Chinese edition of Humanise, and engaged in a panel discussion about how the book’s ideas will translate in China.

The reasons why I enthusiastically praise and promote Heatherwick’s work and consider him one of the most important figures working today are manifold.

One: craftsmanship. The book’s subtitle reads: “A Maker’s Guide to Building Our World”. Many an architect draws things – buildings, even – without enough practical knowledge of how they will go together, how they will actually stand up.

Thomas Heatherwick is different. He is a craftsperson, familiar with a range of techniques and materials including wood, metal, plastics and clay. He is the owner of “intelligent hands”, a concept described by David Savage in his 2018 book, and more recently by Charlotte Abrahams and Katy Bevan.

Two: Heatherwick is an explorer, an adventurer, a rule breaker, a game changer, a risk taker. He makes ideas happen. We need people like this, and how many are practising architecture today?

Most important of all, Heatherwick is a humanist

Yes, some of his experiments – the B of Bang, the Garden Bridge, Vessel – have run into trouble: a structural engineering mistake, a political football and a high-profile urban ornament that sadly attracted more than its share of darkness and tragedy; but better surely to push the envelope and risk failure than take the tried and tested – the boring – route.

Three: Heatherwick is a polemicist. The book is scholarly enough – he makes no claims that he has not researched, even in some cases commissioning his own research into, for example, the relationships between buildings and mental health – but part of its function is to galvanise, to provoke. As a (dismally failed) book publisher, I respond with delight to his subversion of the book form itself; he breaks all the rules of graphic design, switching from font to font and using apparently random, spur of the moment photography.

Penguin Random House, bless them, were happy for him to fiddle with their own logo, while I, as an obsessive self-appointed custodian of the English language, wince when he mangles it with words like “boringness” and “interestingness”. The joke’s on me; surprise, surprise, he has a very good reason for using them – a desire to use the everyday language of ordinary people, or “pre-school prose”, as the disdainful Wainwright would have it.

Four: Most important of all, Heatherwick is a humanist. His studio’s designs are driven by an understanding and a love for people. He thinks about what they like, considers that important, and does not put himself on the pedestal of the seven-year trained architect who thinks he/she knows what is good better than do the uneducated masses.

He is unique in our generation, and uniquely important

Shape up, ladies and gentlemen; step back a minute and consider what this guy Heatherwick is doing. Not for the architectural profession, that can take care of itself. But for people. People who experience buildings every day, who know what they like and what they don’t, and whose tastes and opinions are so often dismissed by trained architects who “know better” and have the arrogance and temerity to impose their refined ideas on the uneducated.

What Loughborough University – the initiative came from there, not Heatherwick Studio – wants to do with this course, and the Humanise campaign generally, is generate an ethos, a language of building design that recognises and respects the way people live and the way they want to live.

Having worked with architects for 30-odd years, and often suffered the frustration of dealing with their self-important attitude that they know better than the people who will live in, work in, play in – and numerically far more importantly, just look at – their buildings – I’m pitching my lightweight, sustainable, no-footprint tent in the Heatherwick camp. We need him. He is unique in our generation, and uniquely important.

Aidan Walker is programme director of Design Shanghai and Design Shenzhen Forums.

The image is by MIR.

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