I had lunch yesterday with Thomas Heatherwick, urban visionary and architect, whose work is transforming London, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and soon, New York City. I managed to meet him through mutual friends after seeing an exhibit of his work at the newly re-opened Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design in Manhattan. He is a sprightly, vivid and talkative character, with ambition and vision to match.
He has 170 people employed at his office in King’s Cross in London, fully half of whom are in the “making of things. I don’t know how you can really design without building the products. You have to get your hands onto the concrete and metal,” he said. His most obvious contribution to modern-day London is the London Bus, which is gradually replacing the historic Routemaster. The Cooper Hewitt exhibition has a partial bus on display, with rounded edges to reduce the perceived size of the vehicle and bench seating with an attractive pattern. The new bus consumes 40 percent less fuel than its predecessor, through eco-design and by using a hybrid diesel and electric engine. He also designed the iconic Olympic flame for London 2012, with detachable petals, each of which traveled around the world to participating nations prior being re-uniting at the Games.
He is in the midst of fundraising for a fascinating project, the Garden Bridge across the Thames River in London. It will be a pedestrian bridge with twelve parks and 250 different kinds of trees. The City of London and various families have contributed to a foundation; about ₤13 million more needs to be raised by the end of the year in order to break ground, with completion expected in three years. “This will be London’s version of New York City’s High Line. It will attract millions of pedestrians and associated projects at either end of the bridge,” he predicted. The public face of the bridge is Joanna Lumley, a former actress best known for her role in a James Bond movie; she has been working on this idea for almost 20 years.
His team is hard at work on two projects in New York City, including a huge sculpture in the midst of the Hudson Yards project in Midtown and an urban riverside park that is built out into the Hudson River called Pier 55, next to the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. This pier has a combination of recreational, entertainment and classic walkways. “It adds an important bit of green space into a deeply urban environment,” he noted. “It will also have venues for music, dance and theater.” These projects follow on the Al Fayah Park in Abu Dhabi, which aims to provide a relaxing environment for residents and visitors, while sheltering them from the broiling sun. The Cooper Hewitt exhibition shows a model of the park, with cracked pieces of desert raised on columns as a dome, with plants and trees underneath.
I would like our clients to engage with Heatherwick on his various projects. I love to stroll around Millennium Park in Chicago, underneath the giant aluminum bean (the Cloud Gate) by Anish Kapoor, to take selfies of the reflection, to watch kids run in and out of the water spray. I see the next step for large family philanthropy or corporate/brand sponsorship as being urban renewal, to step into the shoes formerly occupied by government, now unwilling and unable.
This article originally appeared on 6A.M., Richard Edelman’s blog on trends in communications, issues, lessons and insights. Image by UKTI.