His giant new structure aims to be an Eiffel Tower for New York. Is it genius or folly?
Heatherwick has an earnest, expressive way of talking: wide eyes, little shakes of the head. He seems to be forever making the discovery that he has said something delightfully apt. After the Olympics, there was a brief period of optimism in British civic life—a wave of national amazement that the event hadn’t ended in disaster and humiliation. Heatherwick helped to create that moment, and then came to represent it. In 2013, he became a Commander of the British Empire. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, and now the British Foreign Secretary, compared him to Michelangelo and invited him to join a trade delegation to China. British GQ included him on its annual list of the country’s best-dressed men.
He was praised for his inventiveness, across a range of scales, using a range of materials. Heatherwick has a gift for discovering, in a commission for an object, the opportunity for an event: movement, spectacle, play. Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect, who has collaborated with him, recently said that, unlike many designers, “Thomas is focussed on the jaw-dropping centerpiece—the ‘wow’ moment.” Heatherwick tends to achieve effect more through texture than through form—by, say, stitching or layering a multitude of near-identical parts to make a highly conspicuous whole. His sculpture for an atrium at the Wellcome Trust, in London, is made of a hundred and forty thousand suspended glass spheres, each the size of a plum, arranged into cloudlike forms. He has proposed building a footbridge entirely from a welded cluster of stainless-steel disks. His U.K. Pavilion for Expo 2010, in Shanghai, was a rounded cube formed from sixty thousand translucent acrylic rods that waved in the wind like bullrushes. The design was widely considered a triumph. Rowan Moore, the architecture critic of the London Observer, called it “outstandingly memorable,” noting that “we expect buildings neither to be hairy nor in motion.”
Heatherwick Studio employs architects, but Heatherwick is not an architect. His work could be described as a celebration of never having absorbed, in a formal architectural education, dogma about designing things to be flush and taut. “There’s a Harry Potter-esque, Victorian quirkiness in the work,” Ingels said. “An element of steampunk, almost.”
Heatherwick largely avoids self-deprecation. Last year, he wrote in the Evening Standard that his scheme for a tree-covered “Garden Bridge” over the Thames, in central London, was “extraordinary.” He has been known to sign his name with an exclamation point, and puts effort into couching even a passing thought as a design insight. Not long ago, he told me, with raised eyebrows and a confiding chuckle, that a fireplace “creates a heart to a room,” and that rooms lacking fireplaces “can be a bit focusless.”
His keenness never to be considered unexceptional or businesslike is surely a spur to his creativity, but it can lead to confusion in conversation. When we first met, at a Manhattan café, a little more than a year ago, Heatherwick said that cultural institutions were a “clichéd format” for a designer, and did not particularly interest him. “If everyone’s doing museums, how much differentiation are you going to be able to make if you do one, too?” He was just then completing a major art museum, with an attached luxury hotel, in Cape Town, South Africa.