I was about to go to bed last night when I flicked over to BBC1 and saw Alan Yentob describing the construction of a bridge made entirely of glass. As Alan said, it was like something out of a fairytale, so I settled down for a bedtime story.
Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge (Not the glass bridge) (GNU licence)
The programme was The Ingenious [tag]Thomas Heatherwick[/tag], about the English designer and sculptor. The title sounds like a Roald Dahl novel, and the contents were just as fantastic. ‘Ingenious’ is a very apt word to describe Heatherwick’s work – suggestive of something at once mechanical and artistic, with the words ‘genius’ and ‘engineering’ struggling to get out. One of his inventions – ‘Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge’ sounds as though it should be on display next to ‘Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny’ in some Museum of Industrial Marvels. Even Heatherwick’s name sounds like a compound of ‘Heathcliff’ and ‘Pickwick’ – another whiff of the nineteenth century, age of invention and endeavour.
Terence Conran appeared on the programme, having had the foresight to commission the art-student Heatherwick to design and build a gazebo for his back garden. Conran compared Heatherwick to Leonardo Da Vinci, which I thought was a bit over-the-top when he said it, early in the programme – but by the end it seemed a pretty accurate comparison.
Both Heatherwick and Leonardo are prodigious creators in a variety of media, ranging from purely artistic pieces to machinery and structures at once practical and beautiful. They are both makers as well as designers: Conran emphasized that Heatherwick was remarkable not only for designing an unusual gazebo, but for having the capability to actually build it; Heatherwick’s partner was interviewed in the programme, describing him as “an imaginer” and “a maker happen”; and watching the footage he is clearly at home on the building site as well as in his studio. In an interview with Icon magazine, Heatherwick commented “As a practitioner, one feels like a vessel of trying to implement thoughts that are accumulations of influences of many people. I know people who have brilliant ideas but they just don’t make things happen, they don’t do that bit. I almost feel it’s my duty to help implement them.”
Watching the glimpses of Heatherwick’s Studio, I couldn’t help wondering what Leonardo would have made of it; as in the Renaissance, the Master works surrounded by his pupils and collaborators, with half-finished test-pieces scattered around to tantalise the imagination. The collaborative “accumulations of influences of many people” is very much in evidence. It was fascinating to see the degree to which he works through conversation, knocking ideas around with his mentor Ron Packman and other brilliant minds, playing with concepts and materials for fun, and finding unexpected uses for the ideas that emerge. As a coach I see conversation as a creative medium in its own right, and it was fascinating to eavesdrop on such a remarkable team.
[tag]Heatherwick[/tag]’s [tag]sculpture[/tag] ‘[tag]The B of the Bang[/tag]’ (photo by Nick Smale)
So what can we learn from Heatherwick’s creativity?
Clearly, a TV documentary (let alone a blog post) is far too small a space to do justice to such a multifarious imagination, but watching the programme I noticed a few recurring heuristics in Heatherwick’s creative process:
Work in any medium
I’ve written elsewhere about media-neutral creativity, which Heatherwick takes to astounding new levels. He doesn’t limit himself to the usual categories of ‘designer’, ‘sculptor’ or ‘architect’, but applies the same curiosity and formal inventiveness to a mind-boggling array of projects, including a handbag, a gigantic sculpture, a gazebo, a Buddhist temple, a skyscraper, a shop and an entire shopping centre.
Make it (much, much) bigger (or smaller)
On Heatherwick’s website I love the way the projects are ordered by size: large (buildings, giant sculpture); medium (more sculptures, ventilation flues, a bridge, a public square); and small: (a handbag, seats). Yentob’s documentary made it clear that scaling up or down between these categories is one of Heatherwick’s key creative strategies. So an origami spiral shell made of a sheet of A4 was scaled up to become giant ventilation flues near St Paul’s, his mother’s bead curtain inspired a 33-metre hanging sculpture, and a [tag]design[/tag] for a Longchamp handbag led to a commission to design their flagship store in New York.
Make it out of something else
Not many buildings are made of fabric. Ron Packman described how, when designing the Zen temple, the team had agreed on a basic functional structure for the building, but it didn’t really look or feel right. Then Heatherwick remembered the appearance of the robes worn by the Zen priest who commissioned the temple: they were stiff, forming definite ridges and a distinctive structure. So he wrapped the model of the temple in a flexible fabric and used its appearance as the basis of his design for the building’s shell.
Make it something else
When commissioned to design the flagship New York store for French boutique Longchamp, Heatherwick faced a problem – the shop was on the second storey, meaning many busy/tired shoppers might find it too much effort to climb the stairs. Realising nobody likes to climb a ‘staircase’, Heatherwick ‘deframed’ the construction (“we weren’t building a staircase”) then reframed it as something unusual and enticing (“a landscape… a hillside… a waterfall… a space where you move up towards the light”). The result is a rippling cascade of shapes that look nothing like a staircase. It looks like something out of a children’s playground or a giant sculpture (which it is) – so instead of resisting the ‘stairs’ the film showed people eager to try them out, as if they couldn’t believe they are allowed to walk on the structure. Personally, I have never wanted to walk up a staircase so much in my life. One day I will.
Make it for fun (and keep it in case it’s useful)
Packman described how one day Heatherwick showed him the origami spiral ‘shell’ he made out of a sheet of A4. “It amused us for a while, then we forgot about it” he said – until they were commissioned to design the ventilation flues near St Paul’s, and were considering what shape to make them. At which point they both thought “almost simultaneously” of the paper spiral lying on the shelf in their studio…
We usually think of analogies as something we ‘make up’ or invent, but ‘noticing’ seems closer to what Heatherwick does. For example, while considering how to make a bridge out of glass (with no glue or other materials, naturally) he remembered shifting books around in his bedroom. Like most of us, he got bored moving the books one by one, and discovered that if you grab two books about half a metre apart on a shelf and squeeze them together, you can lift out a whole section of books at once. Unlike most of us, he then realised you could apply the same principle to create a tough ‘girder’ of glass, by squeezing a whole shelf of glass sheets together (while scaling up the pressure several hundredfold). This formed a bridge strong enough for the courageous Yentob to walk up across.
We’ve already looked at the analogy between the Zen priest’s robes and the structure of Heatherwick’s temple. And try looking at the photo of his ‘rolling bridge’ without thinking of a caterpillar, or a lobster tail. The more we look at Heatherwick’s work, the more such analogies abound; looking at the world through his eyes must be something like this.
Find the creativity in a constraint
I can’t recall the details from the programme, but Heatherwick said he created the rolling bridge because the location made it impossible to create a conventional ‘lifting’ bridge to allow boats to pass through. The Wellcome Trust asked him to create a gigantic sculpture inside their London headquarters – but it would have to be small enough to fit through the front door. So he went one better, and made it out of glass beads small enough to fit through the letterbox!
Writing that list, it struck me how closely all the different patterns are interrelated in Heathwick’s work, so that it was difficult to separate them (and the examples) into discrete categories. This is typical of the complexity and unity of outstanding creative thinkers – replaying the documentary in my mind, I found myself mentally wandering around Heatherwick’s imagination, as if it were a holograph or one of his own extraordinary sculptures, and appreciating the variety and harmony of his creative process.
If you saw the programme, what creative themes or patterns did you notice?
Or if you’ve experienced any of Heatherwick’s works at first-hand, what impressions and learnings did you take away with you?
Finally, I’ve searched the BBC website but can’t see any sign of a repeat broadcast or online version – if you spot one, I’d be very grateful if you would add the details as a comment or e-mail me so I can alert any readers who missed it.
Edit (25.10.06) a good post about Heatherwick has just been added to Noisy Decent Graphics.