The Blueprint collaboration interviews: Daniel Libeskind and Thomas Heatherwick

From master planning New York’s World Trade Center site to designing the Coal Drops Yard in London, Daniel Libeskind and Thomas Heatherwick share their creative process exclusively with Blueprint editor Johnny Tucker. In two filmed interviews held at Arper, and transcribed here, they explain how collaboration is at the very heart of everything they do

Daniel Libeskind

Click here to watch a filmed edit of the interview at Arper

JT: What is collaboration? What does that mean to you?
DL: Architecture, by its virtue of being a field called architecture, is a collaborative field. One thing you cannot do alone is build a building, not even a small one. So, by definition, architecture is the most collaborative, probably, of all professions, because it encompasses everyone from the client to technical expertise, the social network. It’s a collaborative field.

At what point do you start the collaboration process, technically and creatively?
I think that collaboration is not fully understandable just as a social dimension because creativity is personal. It has to originate in your mind or in your drawing or in your hand or in your sense of what you’re doing. But very soon after you have come to an idea of a building, of an object, of a masterplan, you need to involve other creative people — people who are able to participate and also develop the project in many different ways, from engineers to other experts. So, yes, very soon after the first spark of creativity, collaboration takes place and of course the project depends on the quality of that collaboration, in terms of its success.

I get the impression that you’re the kind of person who will be at the site, wandering around sketching furiously, doing a lot of research and looking for that kind of core idea that comes out of the actual site. Is that something that’s true?

For me it is true that I don’t believe in the design committee, that has never been my character. You do sort of decide to put your head into the earth, you meditate and find inspiration and a spark of something that you don’t know about, that sort of puts the project into a flame of possibility. But later on, one is inevitably going to touch on collaboration. Yet when you are inspired, you are not thinking if the building is going to work; I’ve never thought, can the building stand up? Can it really be built? It’s not a question that is in my mind. I think it would stifle the creative project if you thought that at the beginning. But very soon after, you need to think about it.

For Libeskind, architecture all starts with drawing. This is a WTC site sketch and a subsequent CAD visualisation of how the completed scheme is expected to look. Image Credit: Daniel LibeskindFor Libeskind, architecture all starts with drawing. This is a WTC site sketch and a subsequent CAD visualisation of how the completed scheme is expected to look. Image Credit: Daniel Libeskind

I should imagine a large part of your collaborative process would involve the engineers, because this is the point where they start turning your idea into a reality and looking at the geometricity of your design work.

Well, I work very closely with engineers, great engineers, who really do have the ability to interpret the project in mathematical ways, in geometric parameters which are not in my interest at all. I think engineers are able to bring another way for you to look at the project, so it’s not only that they’re collaborative in terms of implementing a project, but can really transform the way you’re thinking about it. That’s really a creative dimension where you appreciate that engineering is not another field, it’s a fluid connection to what you’re doing — and great engineers have a great impact on the final design of a building.

You’ve won a lot of big competitions through the years — would you say that’s an area where quite a good deal of collaboration goes on?

Well, in many ways, my career is based on competitions. My first three buildings were a result of a competition, not commissions. So yes, I think competition is a creative thing because you work with talented people, with other architects, with other experts. You’re moving into the unknown because you don’t really have a client, you’re in a free zone and I think this makes a competition a wonderful thing in architecture, because anything is possible in a competition. You need fantastic people who are critical, who are working with you, who have the abilities to carry out, into a normal world, a design that is meriting of winning. So, yes, I think competitions are great ways to bond people together as well; it kind of becomes a family, everyone is magnetised by the aim of the competition.

Moving on to the masterplan side of things, could you tell me about the experience of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York and what that collaboration entails?

Well the WTC collaboration is a topic for a year of discussion because you’re collaborating not only with your team, with architects, but with really thousands of others in politics, in finance, in the day-to-day running of cities, countries. Interests that you can hardly fathom are part of developing a large masterplan in the centre of an important city.

For Libeskind, architecture all starts with drawing. This is a WTC site sketch and a subsequent CAD visualisation of how the completed scheme is expected to look. Image Credit: Studio LibeskindFor Libeskind, architecture all starts with drawing. This is a WTC site sketch and a subsequent CAD visualisation of how the completed scheme is expected to look. Image Credit: Studio Libeskind

I think it’s an unprecedented experience. I think anyone that enters that world without cynicism, without scepticism, or really in a naïve way as I did, will discover very soon how many players are involved. Of course, there’s a lot of money involved, we’re talking about billions, and we’re talking about politics — local politics, state politics, federal politics, world politics. So, it’s an unfathomable sense of collaboration when you realise that your small meeting might have a thousand people and that the number of people who are stakeholders is in the hundreds of thousands, never mind the people who have to implement the project on all levels. So yes, it begins to dawn upon you that whatever you’re doing in a drawing, in a sketch, in a concept, is dependent on consensus, that it is to be able to garner in worlds which I could hardly be aware of when I started.

The realisation of such a project really depends in the long run on understanding the complexity of relationships in this collaboration between state authorities, city authorities, engineering authorities, port authorities. You think of governors who come and go, mayors who come and go, presidents who come and go, that’s all part of this process and it’s really fascinating. In this case, this project was not done from the top down by a few people gathering in a boardroom deciding what to do. It was done through infiltration of a public realm, into a process that used to be immunised from public relations and sort of transformed itself in the process.

It is very much a sort of collaboration with the city isn’t it, the people of New York, because they got involved from the beginning on this project.

Yes, I don’t think you could fathom Ground Zero without understanding how important the public voice was. I think this was the first time that the public truly got involved, in really a democratic way, asking the city, the governors, the authorities to go in a different direction and not the normal direction, in which large organisations would just make their own decisions. It’s hard for the public to stay involved in a masterplan for more than a year or two, and I always said, that’s what protects the project, the public interest. When the public interest wanes, which understandably it does at some point, the politicians do take over and other complexities creep into the project.

The masterplan for City Life in Milan celebrated the differences of the architects involved: Studio Libeskind (left), Zaha Hadid Architects (centre) and Arata Isozaki & Associates (right). Image Credit: Struttura LeggeraThe masterplan for City Life in Milan celebrated the differences of the architects involved: Studio Libeskind (left), Zaha Hadid Architects (centre) and Arata Isozaki & Associates (right). Image Credit: Struttura Leggera

I wonder if now you could tell me about the masterplanning of City Life, which is a very different project in a different city?

City Life was a large-scale competition in the centre of Milan where the old grounds of the theatre of Milano were. I entered the competition with my two colleagues and friends Zaha Hadid and Arata Isozaki, alongside our investor Generali, the large insurance company of Italy. We had a wonderful collaboration because from the very beginning we decided that each one of us would do something different from each other. We are different, and our project was dependent on differences, not on similarities; that was, I think, our strong sense of what we wanted to do on the site. Of course, when you win such a competition, which we did, it becomes highly political — it depends on authorities, permissions, the city of Milan.

All sorts of experts are involved and all I can say is that, just like in New York, it was not an easy process. I’m just building the third tower in the centre of City Life and it has taken many, many years to come. There are many stakeholders and it’s just a matter of scale. You have to really negotiate, and I think you have to bring a consensus and an agreement and a determination that such a project has a viability in the public realm, that people do want to build it.

Zaha, Arata and myself did a little internal competition with each other without anybody even looking at us. We just had our own ideas of how to develop the site and this little internal competition, where we really worked hands on, was almost like in a workshop environment and then we brought in the developers. Luckily it was my direction that Generali liked because it was very practical, so again, the balance between a vision and practical realisation is probably key to a masterplan coming to life.

Most masterplans that you see, for cities, for large areas, are never implemented because it takes a long time to implement a masterplan, decades even, and since conditions change every five years, it’s unlikely that such a large project will ever be implemented. You have to use a technique that is also practical: how do you get the project mobilised so that it can actually be constructed?

18.36.54 house in Connecticut (2010) was conceived as one folded plan. Image Credit: Marc Lins18.36.54 house in Connecticut (2010) was conceived as one folded plan. Image Credit: Marc Lins

One thing I’ve seen mentioned in relation to your studio is the line that ‘great architecture comes from working with great clients’. Is that something you think is true?

Well I certainly believe that great architecture depends on a great client. If you have a client that has an ambition, a client that cares about what you’re doing and is able to look at the project and say, ‘go this way, make it more fantastic’, you’re lucky because the client’s role is not an oblivious one. It’s not a role where you can just sit back and say, ‘do you like it or not?’; you have to have a client’s spiritual commitment to a project and have that drive the project.

Of course, if you build a house — I’ve built only one so far, but I’m building a second one — you need a deep collaboration with your client because it’s their house, it’s not your house. You have to know how they live, they have to tell you the secrets of their life in order for the kitchen, for the bedroom, for the living room, for the fireplace to be in the right position and have the right sense. So, to me, collaboration is ultimate with the right client.

Can you talk about the Kenya museum and the relationship with that client, Richard Leakey?

I’m fortunate to work on a museum in Kenya with Richard Leakey. It’s kind of genius: a man who, with his family, has really invented the science of evolution. What would evolution be without the Turkana Boy? Without Lucy? Without the knowledge of where we all come from? So, working with him — and it’s not just Richard Leakey, it’s major scientists from Oxford and other institutions who are at the forefront and cutting edge of that science — that’s really a fantastic sense of bringing science and the vision of scientists into the practical realm of creating a new sense of importance of the Great Rift Valley. It’s lucky to have such a client, and such a project.

You have to be on the same wavelength I think, whether it’s a client, whether it’s the engineer you’re working with, whether it’s a company that is financing the building. You do have to be on the same wavelength and if you are, then the karma is right — call it good luck, say the right stars have aligned — you can do a project. If not, then you might realise a project, but it will be a different project, it will not have that sense of reality.

You’ve designed products from handles to lights, from chess sets to a Christmas tree star. What is the experience of collaboration in design? Is it a similar collaborative kind of process?

The design of objects — whether it’s a Christmas star, a chess set, a door handle, a light — is by nature collaborative because you are working with a company that has to technically be able to construct and profit from the design. It’s not just that the design is nice and good and fantastic, it has to be profitable. It has to be able to be sold, so it does require collaboration. It’s a different collaboration; I would call it kind of domestic collaboration. It’s a pleasant collaboration. It doesn’t touch on complex things as it would if you were designing a masterplan or largescale building; it’s intimate collaboration.

I think that’s what makes the design of objects so beautiful, because you don’t have to have meetings with a thousand people. You don’t have to convince a thousand authorities to interact with people that are outside of your sphere of work. You’re basically working together, two or three people at most, and that’s actually the luxury of designing objects and designs.

Chess pieces Libeskind designed for Swarovski. Image Credit: Studio Mierswa Kluska

Do you find that perhaps in design, you’re actually finding more of yourself in the end product?

I think designing a small object is as important as designing a large object. I think you might find more of Mies van der Rohe in the Barcelona Chair or Alvar Aalto in his vase or Le Corbusier in one of his loungers than you find in their architecture. Something very small, something intimate is reflective of who you are, maybe more than a project that has so many mediating layers that moves it into the true public sphere. So, yes, I love small projects of that sort and, as I said, everything is equally important. It depends where you are, so if the world is concentric, wherever you are, everything is equally important; a toothbrush is as important as a city plan.

This is the perfect time to talk about your quite considerable artistic output as well. Is that a much more introverted process? Is it a more selfish process?

The source of my work is in drawings which have no obvious relationship to anything I do. Whether they were Micro Megas which I did early on in my life before I ever practised architecture, Chamber Works — another long series of drawings — or more recently, Sonnets in Babylon and 101 Drawings, which seem to be completely immunised from the world of architecture implementation. And yet they are the sources of my work.

Why do I do them? I have no idea. Where do they come from? I don’t know. Where are they going? I also don’t know. All I know is that they are necessary for my work and some years later, some decades later, I see that the work has devolved out of them. So that’s really not a collaborative process, it is purely a piece of insanity when you lock yourself in a room and you have the ury to do something that has no obvious future, it has no reason to be. It’s just something that comes out of some world you don’t know of. That’s the aspect of the art of architecture which is similar in my work, as I see it backwards — not so different from the invention of perspective of architects or artists in the Renaissance.

Programmed by Libeskind, One Day in the Life comprised 80 musical performances in unusual places across Frankfurt all within 24 hours. Image Credit: Achim ReissnerProgrammed by Libeskind, One Day in the Life comprised 80 musical performances in unusual places across Frankfurt all within 24 hours. Image Credit: Achim Reissner

I think those kinds of drawings that I just mentioned of my own are ways of seeing for me. I don’t aim to implement them as ways of seeing for others, but for me they begin as that. They might later on end up as ways of seeing for others as well, in buildings and in spaces. Architecture is the only field in the whole universe that comes out of a drawing: you need a drawing to build even the most humble garage, you need a drawing to build a building, you need a drawing to build a city. It all comes out of drawing. What is a drawing?

It’s just a bunch of things, lines made in ink — I still use pencil, I still use ink, I don’t use the computer to generate my drawings. It’s some instant connection between your eye, your mind, your heart, your desire, something beyond you as well which is implemented and there’s something unknown.

It’s not dissimilar from a score in music. I used to be a professional musician; what is a score of music to somebody who has no idea of music? It’s just a bunch of dots, complicated lines, signs and symbols you don’t know about, but if you do know the code, and an architectural drawing is a code, just like a musical composition like one of Mozart’s scores, it is a code for people who understand how to interpret the rhythm, the sound, the quality of what is being communicated there. In both senses those documents are made available to others, they’re open codes, anybody who knows music, anyone who knows architecture can take those drawings and interpret them.

The importance of a masterplan of a building is the ability to interpret a drawing because a drawing is not a shackle, it doesn’t bind you, it has a life of its own. Any piece of music has to be interpreted by a violinist, by a pianist, by a singer. They have to bring their own creativity to make it alive because that score or that drawing is just an inert black and white system of codes. I love the sense that an architecture drawing is actually a musical drawing, it is just like a piece of music. You don’t have the orchestra but you might have a body of politicians or technicians, and engineers and workers, who have to still be free to interpret that drawing, within the precision that a drawing contains. Just like a musical composition, you as the author have your back to the public. You’re not playing the first violin, you’re not playing the cello, you’re not visible on the stage, like the conductor, you’re like a ghost of the performance.

That’s the wonder, I think, of music and architecture and the deep connection which I feel. Architecture is actually the outgrowth of music, not the other way around. First was music and then maybe there was dance and much later came the idea of something built.

Programmed by Libeskind, One Day in the Life comprised 80 musical performances in unusual places across Frankfurt all within 24 hours. Image Credit: Tibor PlutoProgrammed by Libeskind, One Day in the Life comprised 80 musical performances in unusual places across Frankfurt all within 24 hours. Image Credit: Tibor Pluto

How did your background as a professional musician inform what you did with Alte Oper and One Day in Life?

Well the Alte Oper in Frankfurt was a wonderful encounter. I was doing a lecture on architecture in Heidelberg and Dr Pauly, the intendant of the Alte Oper, came over to me and said, ‘You spoke more professionally about music than anyone I’ve heard in the musical world, so what would you like to do in Frankfurt?’ He thought maybe some installation, maybe an object, maybe something in architecture, but I instantly had an idea that one could mobilise the entire city and spaces of the city to create performances that, through the sense of music, can rediscover architecture and spaces.

So, after working with Dr Pauly and the Alte Oper, we had 24 hours of music, some 80 performances of great musicians where I programmed the music — always a contemporary piece of music and an ancient piece of music — in a particular place. For example, I wanted to play very particular music in an operating room of a hospital because that was where it belonged, but it’s difficult to get a space in a hospital. Luckily for me, the director of the hospital loved music and he said, we can make a hospital room available for this performance, it was a public performance. I had music in the largest swimming pool in Frankfurt. I had programmed a single violinist, Carolin Widmann, to play a violin in the city’s 50,000-person stadium.

One of my favourite performances was Aimard, one of the great pianists, performing on a small Steinway inside of a boxing ring over in a peripheral neighbourhood where immigrant kids learn how to box. I asked him to perform the last sonata of Beethoven and you know, you had the smell of sweat, you had the punching bags, the colours of boxing, a very tight space with a lot of young people, then in the centre, you had the last sonata of Beethoven and somehow the connection was instant and visceral. I thought this project, even though I didn’t build anything, was to me probably as important as building the Jewish Museum [in Berlin]. I felt that I built something. It wasn’t visible, it wasn’t an object, you couldn’t enter it in that way and it lasted for only 24 hours, but I felt that it had transformed the city through a structure, a very precise, architectural and musical structure and that was also so much fun and it was wonderful to be part of it.

Programmed by Libeskind, One Day in the Life comprised 80 musical performances in unusual places across Frankfurt all within 24 hours. Image Credit: Wonge BergmannProgrammed by Libeskind, One Day in the Life comprised 80 musical performances in unusual places across Frankfurt all within 24 hours. Image Credit: Wonge Bergmann

You’ve said that collaboration is obviously essential and important to what you do. Who do you most enjoy collaborating with?

Collaboration stems from the most immediate to the most transcendent. You start with your wife; Nina is my collaborator in many ways, and because she’s not an architect you normally get an answer like: ‘I don’t really think it’s great, what is it supposed to be?’ It’s wonderful to get out of the world of architecture. I do show my work to many people who are experts in other fields. They can be doctors, lawyers, engineers; they’re not architects and you seek a conversation and say: ‘What do you think of this?’ And especially when they say they don’t understand it and it looks weird, you get a good sense of where to go, maybe even deeper into that ‘I don’t understand it’ phrase.

Of course, I love collaborating with the really many brilliant people in my studio in New York and around the world and I love collaborating with unknown collaborators. I just returned from a mock-up of my tower in Milan, where you find amazing people who are experts in putting a steel member and a silicone joint, and you can learn from them that there’s a better way to do it than the one you have drawn. Collaboration is really the world and we don’t only collaborate with animate objects? or people, we collaborate with birds, we collaborate with trees. I never understood why stone is considered inanimate because it’s animate. In some way, it’s the animistic world which is the world of collaboration and as Chazal, my favourite poet, said: ‘A flower in a vase smiles, but no longer laughs.’

Thomas Heatherwick

Click here to watch a filmed edit of the interview

Collaboration is central to the working practice at Heatherwick Studio

JT: If we start with, literally, the word collaboration: what does that mean to you?

TH: I think I’m actually slightly allergic to the word collaboration, because I think that it’s a word that feels like something everyone should say they do because it goes with the politics of our time. In reality, my real interest is in trying to do exceptional projects — and in order to do that, it is essential, for me, to work with many, many people and that’s the only way I know how to do good projects.

I remember the images that were portrayed to me of fantastic design work having been led by these lone geniuses. I remember feeling when I was studying, sitting there, thinking: ‘What’s wrong with me? I don’t work like that.’ For me, I found that the design process came alive when working with others — and that’s quite different from the educational system where each student is assessed on their own performance, and they have their own project and do their own thing, individually. When projects are large and complex, you could really argue that there should be a broader group of people working together to achieve such a complex outcome.

At the Royal College of Art when I was there, these students were all individually sitting there by themselves. I could design, but it was a slow, very plodding process when it was just in you. I remember there was a brilliant structural engineer called Ron Packman who used to come in and teach as a visiting tutor — he would come in and you’d sit with him and the lights went on, the flowers grew. In a conversation with him, suddenly design wasn’t in you and it wasn’t in him — it was between you, it was in that space, and I knew that I had this thing, that designing for me was a collective activity and that my role could be to be trusted to lead the direction of that conversation and exchange.

I cherish that process that we’ve evolved — and the last two decades or so have been refining the mechanism of that conversation and growing system. In a sense, that system that we’ve evolved through multiple conversations with multiple collaborators, strongly steered by a small handful of people, involves many, many people. It’s the process we’ve evolved for the kind of projects we do, to go through the months and then years — and working with all the different craftsmen and people whose talents are necessary to try to inspire, nurture and harness, hopefully all with the goal of making the best possible project.

‘What they really meant, was make this a vibrant place’: Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross. Image Credit: Luke Hayes‘What they really meant, was make this a vibrant place’: Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross. Image Credit: Luke Hayes

I’m sure there are people who actually don’t want to collaborate and don’t work better when they collaborate. But in our studio, it was necessary in order to do the kinds of projects we were interested in, with the people we had. In a way, the growing of the studio team has been influenced by finding people who don’t just have talent in raw artistic and technical terms, but also the emotional intelligence to work with others and hopefully bring the best out of them. It’s easily said but very hard to do on a long-term basis — but that’s what we’ve been trying to evolve a system to do.

Just how far does collaboration and collective design work? How do you avoid design by committee?

The design process in the studio involves a lot of people but I think maybe the best way to describe it, how we’re seeing it, is that we’re problem solving. In the middle of that is a group leader, a project leader and myself — and so the three of us are responsible for a project that might take one year if it’s small and quick, or 12 years as in the case of Singapore’s Changi airport that we’re just really getting going on now. But that is a collection of problems, of all different scales and all different types.

The challenge is defining what your problem is all the time, and maybe it sounds negative to describe the magic of a design process as problem solving, but by framing the issues as problems, I find that it takes out a kind of silly emotional dimension. A problem can be about how a building performs environmentally but it can also be how somebody will feel going into it; they’re all, to us, equal problems to solve.

In effect, myself, the group leader and project leader are chairing whatever rambling, shambling, ludicrous exploration, research, discussions and dead ends that we’re going to go through. In a way, that core of those three people are going to need to be trusted by the broader group and harness that group together — and also know when we’re not even solving the right thing.

‘What they really meant, was make this a vibrant place’: Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross. Image Credit: Hufton + Crow‘What they really meant, was make this a vibrant place’: Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross. Image Credit: Hufton + Crow

In a way, the clear risk of a group is that there isn’t a voting system where something becomes a hotchpotch blur of the aggregate. Sometimes the right solution, which we believe to be the right solution at the end, was something that the whole group didn’t all agree on at all. In fact, the majority might have disagreed, but there can be key insights sometimes that help you find it. I’m describing the messiest process, but we’ve tidied up that messiness into stages.

The walls of the studio are made from magnetic panels and in a day, we — me and a few other people — are going like plate spinners from team to team. The teams pin up on those magnetic walls and we explore the different mindsets that each project might need: looking from different perspectives of someone building, of someone commissioning, of someone experiencing, to the performance, buildability, costings. There’s an endless number of perspectives that you can systematise telescopes to look through, but there’s always other ones that you must come up with that might be appropriate to each project.

What is the first stage of the creative, collaborative process? How does it start with you?

If a new project comes into the studio, we really don’t start by one of us going off and having our little dream idea; we quite stubbornly don’t let ourselves do that, and I don’t let myself do that. I’m proud that we will sit and get the group together and start by trying to think of what the real brief is — because there can be an apparent brief but then there’s the reflecting on what the real brief is underneath that.

The Coal Drops project, which we just finished  in King’s Cross, originally was a project asking for two bridges to connect together two wares with these railway viaducts, raised levels, where trains used to drop coal onto the carts, pulled by horses to drop coal into the coal holes of London. Our experience of working with retail environments knew that the right solution, what they really meant, was make this a vibrant place which will have a long potential sustainable life, and which makes a great public space that can bring people together. Once we reframed it as that, our response was to say the solution isn’t two fancy bridges. In fact, the solution is very calm, almost invisible, bridges, because you need flow as these two buildings are the wrong distance apart for conventional retail thinking. And actually we need another floor on the building because there isn’t enough intensity and there’s no heart. So we went back, in a way, reframing the brief. It’s quite traumatic sometimes, those moments where you are needing to reframe an issue — and every project has that — but I don’t want to overplay the design team as hero who has everything right and knows everything, because true collaboration means you’re learning at critical moments.

Our project in Hong Kong, Pacific Place, began 13 to 14 years ago. It’s a £150m project, which for us was our biggest project at that time, involving 63 three-hour design workshops with the client because they had built this building originally that we were going to make a profound change to and they understood the market there and we were learning from them. We were testing ideas and they were as big a part of the design team as any designer or architect in my team. Those workshops really meant that the outcome that we generated, I can’t say it’s us or them or somebody else, it really is us together, and we believed in everything that came out from that conversation or true tension, creative pushing and pulling.

At Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, where a concrete grain silo was carved away, one of the critical collaborators was a local stone carver At Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, where a concrete grain silo was carved away, one of the critical collaborators was a local stone carver

In King’s Cross, I’ve heard people be so negative about city planners before and you know it’s a very simple story to say: ‘I have my brilliant idea, everyone else is an idiot and I just persuade all the idiots gradually to make my project happen.’ Instead, my experience has not been that; your project gets stronger by working with people. The clearest example was with the Coal Drops project. We had this notion that there needed to be an additional floor and calmer bridges and the framing of a central space that Central St Martins (CSM) could use for their fashion shows and be a clear signifier and compelling heart. The first manifestation we had of that, which we convinced ourselves was brilliant, we presented to the planners. There was one fantastic urban design lead from Camden Council called Ed Jarvis who made some key observations that we went away and reflected on, and meant that we profoundly redesigned how we could manifest that additional floor.

I suppose I’m proud to say that the interaction with the city planner made the project stronger, not weaker, and I think that was a really true example of when things work best — but it means that you really do have to be insecure enough to genuinely not believe you have all the answers and really be there looking for others, because human nature is a funny thing and in organisations, people can really over-convince themselves that they’re right. There’s this funny process of trying to be open and trying to hear and give benefit of the doubt and also trying to use everything as something that is focused on the outcome of making it stronger, better, clearer, more possible to build, fit the budget, work with the minimum energy and all of those things that you care about.

A number of people talk to me about the collective working and the collaborative way of working at Heatherwick Studio and hold it up as a really good way forward. How did that progress? How have you found that way of working with a team that’s grown?

The collaborative way of working that we’ve evolved in the studio grew from me trying to work out the best way for me to work. In a sense, that social, broad, inclusive thing was started from a totally selfish point of view in terms of: how can I best have a chance of doing meaningful work? That grew from being very much alone with design problems when the studio began and having people who assisted me and helped me. I didn’t have the tools, which is a fashionable way to say, I didn’t know how to bring others in so well. I found that your collaborators don’t need to be of the same background as yourself. In fact, a good collaborator doesn’t even need to be a designer or architect or city planner or engineer. You can find that a really useful exchange can grow if you are open and with somebody who’s smart and has passion and intelligence.

‘We agreed that we’d design it completely together’: the Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, a collaboration between Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. Image Credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu‘We agreed that we’d design it completely together’: the Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, a collaboration between Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. Image Credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu

Also, in design reviews, it’s quite intimidating in a sense. There are all these eyeballs all together and you think, how do we focus a group of 17 people when you’ve got an hour together to really head in and find some common direction. For me, a lot of the time, and I encourage the design leaders to do it, it’s to just scan everybody. Because sometimes you will notice someone’s in the back and you can see through their body language that they’re not comfortable with what you’re discussing, and they may not be a very forward person. If there’s 17 people, they’re not just going to say in front of them to the person who’s managing them, I’m worried about what we’ve been doing for the last week. As the person who’s coming in, my role is to make them say it or make themselves think it and hear themselves say it to encourage the critical insights that might then domino, and they tend to always do that. The more inexperienced, often the clearer the observation, and that’s thrilling, in a way. Something stubbornly in me is proud of those moments.

We’ve even had people who are 17 years old who are working with us for a very short burst of time, and they’d say something that was killer good and you’d just be quietly looking around at everybody because that would be an insight that can really allow a whole dominoing of thoughts that will guide a clearer, better, less confused outcome.

Architectural projects and city making can easily get confused as there are so many factors that you have to bear in mind and typically they get solved incrementally. One thing gets changed and the impact of that on another part isn’t really run through and so you just get mashed-up solutions; so there’s this constant need to scan, check and recalibrate a project. They are things that can be tantalising, frustrating, thrilling all together — those are some of the most precious moments in my life when design reviews have breakthrough moments — but for every breakthrough moment there’s a stuck moment at another time.

In a good review, you review, you work and you make steps together — and you always get to the point where you’re stuck or you know what you need to try next, and then the team goes and does that. Then by the time you next meet, you’ve moved through to the next phase. It’s these layers that you’re going through and hopefully, by the end, you’re starting to really get clear. Finding that clarity, that’s what is your nirvana, and then you protect that and try to hold it and test whether it actually was a nirvana or whether it was a stupid idea.

‘We agreed that we’d design it completely together’: the Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, a collaboration between Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. Image Credit: Laurian GhinitoiuWe agreed that we’d design it completely together’: the Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, a collaboration between Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. Image Credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu

How have specific projects — such as Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town — evolved in the iterative, collective, collaborative process?

There are collaborations which are with people, but there are also collaborations with existing structures. With the Zeitz MOCAA museum in the grain silo, there alongside you was this extraordinary piece of infrastructure that had been the tallest building in sub- Saharan Africa for half a century, made from one hundred tubes. You’re there thinking: ‘What do we do? How do we handle this?’ In a way, there was a tension and a frisson trying to work out how we could harness the ideas that it had within in it, with also the other team members and historians who were alongside us.

The idea for Zeitz MOCAA was not to knock down the grain silo, but to put 80 galleries inside it, which was an incredibly tight jigsaw given that the cellular structure extruded of this grain silo was largely tubular and tubes were very clearly expressed as rubbish for showing art in. We wanted to not lose that, and our solution was to put these 80 boxes within the existing husk of a shell on the outside and carve away to make a central space and for that central space to have a shape that had been determined by what had been the ingredients, which were the contents of this grain silo originally: trillions of grains of corn.

Ultimately, one of the critical collaborators was a stone carver who was from Cape Town called Johan who came and was involved because concrete achieves full chemical hardness at approximately a century. The building was 95 years old and so this was a really challenging thing to carve an incredibly complex shape out of, with very sharp angles on edges. This required close collaboration with the different craftsmen who were involved, some of whom only spoke Xhosa. There’s an intense excitement in that sense of problem solving.

In between the aspirations and budget, is the challenge of ingenuity — and most of our work in the studio is not really in that first bit, it’s in the impact of some first strategic thinking but then the reworking and reworking to keep a spirit of an idea but make it work with limited resources. Every project has limited resources. I own the challenge that the budget is your collaborator. You’re there trying to work with that and figure out how you’re going to find a way for that to stretch or push you or respond to it to still have the goal of trying to make an exceptional project happen.

‘We agreed that we’d design it completely together’: the Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, a collaboration between Heatherwick Studio and Foster + Partners. Image Credit: Laurian GhinitoiuThe Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai. Image Credit: Laurian Ghinitoiu

You’re working closely with Foster + Partners on the Bund Finance Centre. Could you explain the collective working process there and how that came about?

It’s one of the best collaborations we’ve ever worked on. It’s an enormous project, four and a half million square feet, on the Bund in Shanghai, the most viewed city centre. The studio originally was commissioned to develop a design for this site and the project was so big, I contacted my friends — two of the senior partners at Foster + Partners, Gerard Evenden and David Nelson — and asked them if they would be interested in working together.

Before we had gone too far or developed any design ideas, we agreed that we’d design it completely together and that we would take equal credit and equal blame. We’d been friends for a while; we knew that we were different but shared also many values — and in the best collaborations, there’s a mutual curiosity, and it was great.

The project took just over four years and we had a combined team of 45 people in a space that wasn’t the studio’s conventional space or Foster + Partners’ conventional space. We had a huge amount of work to do and we would come together and have reviews together and we never disagreed on any design issue on the project because we were both there. The team at Foster’s are collaborators, they have to be, and the scale of that organisation has meant that’s how they have developed. So it was a real pleasure, going on that trip, where you don’t know what the answer is and you’re exploring together.

Also, it was interesting to see how my team and our backgrounds shaped us, and we also have some fantastic Chinese team members who were educating us about the context and history. You had our experience, the Foster team’s immense experience from building Beijing airport and things like that, all coming together. So it’s really fun, it’s really interesting and seeing the different ways each other responds was really enjoyable.

A 16-floorhigh structure made from 2,500 stairs, The Vessel will form the heart of New York’s Hudson YardsA 16-floor high structure made from 2,500 stairs, The Vessel will form the heart of New York’s Hudson Yards

I assume there’s going to be a great deal of collaboration with engineers on Vessel? What has that process been?

In New York, we’ve been collaborating with a commissioning property development company called Related which has a very ambitious project to build a whole new quarter of New York, in Midtown on the west side of Manhattan, where the High Line curls round. Related is building many new structures there including office space, living space and hotel space. There’s a new cultural centre called the Shed and at the centre of that is a major public space called Hudson Yards, which is bigger than Trafalgar Square, and we were commissioned to make the heart of that.

There were collaborations on multiple levels. We worked with a landscape architect called Thomas Woltz on the strategy for the whole public realm and we also collaborated with the New York-based architects KPF. We then led the design of a focal landmark structure which is 16 floors high, made from 2500 stairs, 154 flights, and it will be free for anyone to walk up. It’s ambiguously both a play structure, a piece of landscape, an exploration of structural engineering and craftsmanship and it’s a mile of public space, wrapping upwards.

New York has pioneered new kinds of public space, particularly in the last decade or so, with the High Line — and its extraordinariness is the way in which it lifts people and gives them a new perspective on the city around them. Emboldened by that to some extent, our project is taking a mile of public space and wrapping it up into the air, up to 50m high so it’s trying to build on those human responses to places and trying to grow something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

We wanted to make a structure that brought people together. So this will be opening in Spring 2019 and was made in Italy in the shipyards of a company called Cimolai. It’s an incredible piece of making and so we are collaborating with Cimolai in Venice and the craftsmen on site who are assembling it at this moment and putting the finishing touches. The nicest moments are relationships that grow through working together in a shared endeavour to try to do something meaningful, and lead to something else.

Through working with our collaborating architect in New York, that has led to actually winning the project to do the new airport terminal, Terminal 5, in Singapore, which is the same size as terminals 1, 2, 3 and 4 combined. The new terminal is 1/72nd of the whole landmass of the whole of Singapore so it’s not really about making a single building, it’s a piece of city.

These interviews took place thanks to Arper and were originally published in Blueprint issue 361. Buy the issue here, or subscribe to Blueprint

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