Designer Thomas Heatherwick Talks Google Headquarters, Problem Solving

Thomas Heatherwick - S 2015
Elena Heatherwick

Thomas Heatherwick - S 2015

Once dubbed the "Leonardo da Vinci of our times," the British designer is in town to collect BritWeek's Design Icon Award.

According to esteemed British designer, Sir Terence Conran, Thomas Heatherwick is “the Leonardo da Vinci of our times.” It’s not a comparison that sits comfortably on the 45-year-old London architect who, along with collaborator, Bjarke Ingels, recently revealed their plans for the new Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Heatherwick will be honored April 29 during an invitation-only event at fellow designer Christopher Guy Harrison’s showroom in West Hollywood, where he will receive the Design Icon Award. The ceremony will cap off BritWeek, an annual event celebrating creative links between Britain and California. The following day, Heatherwick will give a talk at The Hammer Museum on his current exhibit, Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio.

“The thing with the Google project was the work environment didn’t manifest the confidence and ambition that existed in some of their work that we’ve all experienced, that changed our lives,” Heatherwick tells The Hollywood Reporter about his first impressions of existing Google HQ, (or Googleplex), a series of nondescript office buildings surrounded by parking lots.

“There was so much tarmac around all these little buildings. So it threw us this chance to try to engage with the world around, and that was exciting for us. The public can engage with Google, they can walk through our buildings. That was something we really pushed for and were excited by.”

Released unceremoniously in a 10-minute video last February, the plans call for a series of enormous transparent bubbles containing stacked office blocks like giant greenhouses blending indoor and outdoor.

“I think nature itself is one of the many things that brings large scale down to the human scale. And very few designers can actually compete with the complexity and richness of detail that nature can give. So I’m very interested in how the two compliment each other,” says Heatherwick. “I think the idiosyncrasy of individuals is often undervalued in development. Some of the most depressing places are those that are supposed to be endlessly flexible for everybody. Somehow, with that timidity, the place means nothing to anybody.”

Heatherwick’s design for a curling bridge at Paddington Basin in 2004 was a career watershed, which improved on the concept of the drawbridge in innovative though elegantly simple terms. His cauldron for the London Olympic flame garnered worldwide attention, and his recently completed Learning Hub for the University of Singapore, a series of cylinders housing 56 tutorial rooms bunched together in a hive has become one of the city’s architectural highlights.

Current plans include Pier55, a man-made public park in the Hudson River commissioned by the Diller and von Furstenberg families, as well as Garden Bridge, a forested pedestrian walkway crossing the Thames. The brainchild of his friend, actress Joanna Lumley, the bridge is set to break ground in early 2016.

“On all of our projects the most important bit is that first part when you’re foraging, you’re digging around,” offers Heatherwick. “What’s the real issue? Once you figure out what the real problem is, it’s half telling you what to do.”

Through a process of experimentation and elimination, solutions begin to emerge. In other words, it’s ninety percent perspiration, and ten percent inspiration.

“We’re so wedded to the romantic notion of a kind of genius, the fact that a logical process drives it, isn’t an attractive notion for people,” he laughs. “It’s problem solving. I look at people doing crosswords in newspapers and I think, ‘I don’t need to do that. My whole life is that.”

Read more BritWeek Honors 'Downton Abby' Creator, Executive Producer