Thomas Heatherwick, Monday’s Eero Saarinen Lecturer, was a surprising choice for the architecture series — which is altogether fitting, given the young designer’s eclectic work.
“He’s a little out of the normal sequence,” Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, readily acknowledged.
Stern meant that Heatherwick was an unconventional pick for this spring’s Saarinen Lecture, which is usually delivered by someone outside the sphere of architecture who has nevertheless had an impact on the field. But Heatherwick, a designer-cum-architect if there ever was one, would not fit into many sequences, anyway; his portfolio features both handbags and bridges, watches and sculpture.
Heatherwick looked at about a dozen of his projects as a way of examining broader ideas of architecture in his talk, titled “Belief & Doubt.” The title was fitting: Describing his education at London’s Royal College of Art, Heatherwick recalled with seeming trepidation the need to “be brilliant.” But doubt himself as he may, Heatherwick’s work also showed clearly a genuine belief in design.
Rolling Bridge — a footbridge that can lay flat for pedestrians to cross or curl up into an octahedron so that boats can get past — is one of Heatherwick Studio’s most famed works. Heatherwick, the founder of his eponymous firm, spoke of all of his projects with affection, but he seemed particularly attached to his bridge.
For Zakery Snider ARC ’09, this obvious personal connection was a particularly engaging aspect of Monday’s lecture.
“Heatherwick’s personal character came through in his talk,” Snider said. “And it’s also very prominent in his work.”
Snider may be on to something — just as Heatherwick’s background has taken a nontraditional course, so too does much of his winding work defy conventions.
Strangely, a bag Heatherwick designed for Longchamp, the French leather-goods maker, seems to represent many of his architectural ideas as well. The Zip Bag’s long strips of zipper allow it to expand and collapse with ease, revealing bright strips of color when fully extended.
The bag project began only with the idea of using long zippers, Heatherwick said. This practice of allowing a material to spur design is not foreign to his studio; a similar approach was taken for a project at the University of Wales Aberystwyth that will essentially zip down during its construction.
The wooden space will be rounded by a special machine that will carve out not just the building but also seats and undulations in the wall — the whole process will look something like a massive pottery kiln at work.
Heatherwick did not learn about kilns at an architecture school, as he never went to one. (Stern was quick to offer a spot at Yale for the designer, should he seek a “formal education.” Heatherwick thanked the dean for his “tenacious recruitment strategy.”)
But in a sense, there is a strong connection between Heatherwick and Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, the famed Yale architect for whom the Saarinen Lecture Series is named. Saarinen was the designer of buildings from Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges at Yale to the TWA Terminal in New York. But, like Heatherwick, his work extended beyond buildings.
Saarinen was also an avid designer of furniture. He won a competition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to work on “organic furniture.” Perhaps less notable, Saarinen had also won a national soap-sculpture contest during his high-school years.
For Saarinen, design was something more than mere construction, and the same can be said of Heatherwick. The up-and-coming designer was visibly moved when discussing one of his clients, a woman who hired him to build the East Beach Café in Littlehampton, England. The project, which, when completed, brought a graceful, ribbon-like iron structure to the beachfront, also brought together a client and designer of the same mind.
The client’s pitch to her neighbors was simple — and not very different from Heatherwick’s description of his own motivation.
“This is what we want to build,” the woman would tell neighbors who may have been resistant to her proposal. In the end, they all supported her.