Heatherwick instead practises a gradual process of elimination, in which a series of “incremental realisations narrow down options, layer after layer, closing in on a final direction for a project, whether that’s designing an architectural masterplan or a detail of a balustrade.” The process is propelled by what he calls “strategic worrying”, productive anxiety at every stage of design that prevents him and his team from “jumping to assumptions or getting stuck with patterns of inherited thought”.
It is the elimination of an option that he relishes. “When we realise something isn’t going to work, then there’s a jolt of excitement at that rejection, an excitement at the clarity of knowing what we shouldn’t do,” he explains. “What we do in the end is often what’s left when we have eliminated all the other things we have considered doing. It’s like panning for gold.”
Over 170 architects, designers and makers are hard at work in the office and workshop spaces around us, surrounded by Heatherwick-designed furniture, sleek surfaces brimming with books, prototypes and models, and some eccentric interior elements, including a wall covered by raised-relief maps (pictured at top).
The studio has been growing fast. Its work is the subject of two touring exhibitions – a show in Asia curated by RA Architecture Curator Kate Goodwin (see videos above), and another in the US. Major commissions are also in the pipeline, such as a joint-design project for Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and London’s Garden Bridge, the controversial Thames crossing covered with grasses, plants and trees.
“The hero of that project is the garden, not the bridge, so we decided to design a structure that would hold up the garden and then get out the way.” That decision prompted the project’s particular process of elimination, leading to the rejection of any suspension columns or cables that might distract from the horticulture, which means that if the project goes ahead, the 2,500 square metres of planting will be supported from below.
Before I leave, I ask whether Heatherwick, given his multidisciplinary work, is enjoying how artists and architects come together at the RA. But it seems that, again, I have got him wrong.
“I don’t see what I do as multidisciplinary – I see it as one discipline, the discipline of ideas,” he counters. “Ideas can ossify if they are chopped up into different fields such as art, design and architecture. There is such an energy and momentum at the Royal Academy the moment, and I think there will be less distinction between everyone’s activities in the future.”
Inside Heatherwick Studio is at PMQ, Hong Kong, from 5-23 September 2015. Visit the website for the exhibition here.
Sam Phillips (@SamP_London) is Editor of RA Magazine.*