Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


There is more than a touch of the Victorian inventor to Thomas Heatherwick. It is not difficult to imagine that he would find himself at ease in the company of Brunel, Paxton or Stephenson, talking over some brave enterprise or other. Heatherwick has managed – like the great Victorians – to avoid being pigeon-holed as an architectural designer, engineer or sculptor. He is all of these and more, dreaming up buildings that look like sculptures, sculptures that look like inventions and inventions that look like artworks. More than any of his contemporaries, Heatherwick has managed to reintroduce the concept of delight back into design.

His works range from a bag for Longchamp to his Rolling Bridge in the Paddington Basin, which curls and uncurls like an exotic steel caterpillar. Last year his mesmerising ‘Seed Cathedral’ seduced the world at the Shanghai Expo, sweeping first prize for the British Pavilion. Like a vast sea anemone, it bristled with 60,000 fibre optic rods, each holding seeds from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank.

Now Heatherwick’s unfettered imagination has been turned to another landmark project – at a cost of £11 million – that carries a huge weight of expectation. The designer has been asked by the Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London to reinvent the city’s iconic Routemaster bus and create a ‘New Bus for London’, in time for the Olympics. 

‘Our role is not to sex up the bus,’ 40-year-old Heatherwick says. ‘It’s about trying to make a better bus. There is an idealism and romance to the original Routemaster buses that I share in many ways. But you have to balance that with other factors. My work is to create calmness and order out of a form of transportation that was last thought about as a whole 50 years ago.

‘We are now travelling in objects that are the result of all sorts of regulations and in isolation they may make sense, but they don’t necessarily make for an environment that you would look forward to when you are getting on a bus. In a way, buses have become second-rate to the Tube.’

The original Routemaster buses were introduced by London Transport back in 1956, with nearly 3,000 built over the years up to 1968 when production stopped as more modern buses that could be operated without a conductor were gradually  brought in. They were largely phased out by 2005, yet continued to generate great affection, partly for the open hop-on-hop-off platforms at the back of the vehicle. Now London Mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London are determined to introduce a new Routemaster that will build upon the heritage of the old, while being energy efficient and enticing. The challenge is to create a bus that Londoners will be proud of again, while sweeping away many of the snake-like ‘Bendy Buses’ that have pedestrians running for their lives every time they turn a corner.

Heatherwick’s Routemaster is a double decker with a difference. It has a hybrid engine that will be 40% more energy efficient than a standard bus, as well as being much quieter. Unlike the original Routemaster, the new bus will have three separate doorways and two staircases that should make for rapid loading and unloading and reduce delays.

One of these is an updated version of the beloved rear platform, which will be open to the elements in peak time when a conductor is on board. Outside peak time, transparent folding doors will seal the platform, allowing the bus to run safely with the driver alone. ‘Standing on the rear platform of this delectable bus brings back a sense of nostalgia but also demonstrates the quintessence of the latest technology and design, making the bus fit for 21st century London,’ says Boris Johnson.

‘Buildings used to have windows that opened, trains used to have windows that opened but now more and more things are sealed and enclosed,’ Heatherwick says. ‘Often that’s for logical reasons but it’s particularly frustrating when you are stuck in a bus and you are a few metres from the bus stop. So it was an exciting step to have to be able to design a bus with a fully open platform.’

‘It’s all about whether you feel imposed upon by a particular mode of transport or whether you feel special in some way when you use it. Some of the old cars and buses manage to make you feel grand somehow and the original Routemaster had some of that feeling.’

The new Routemaster manages to feel fresh, futuristic and familiar all at the same time. Importantly, there’s improved visibility for the driver but also for passengers, with larger windows downstairs plus dynamic ‘wrap around’ glazing that follows the line of the two staircases at the front and rear of the bus. These help you feel connected to the world outside as you move through and around the bus.

Working closely with manufacturers Wrightbus – who will build the bus in Northern Ireland - and Transport for London, Heatherwick Studio has involved itself in every aspect of the design from the fabric on the moulded seats to the way that the top of the seats line up with the line of the windows. The interiors are now being finalized after a round of consultations using a full scale prototype.
The £11m project aims to have five of the new buses in service on busy central London routes by Spring 2012. Transport for London hopes to have a couple of hundred of the new Routemasters in service across the capital within the next few years.

‘Our job is to reconcile a lot of different factors, some of which are very different to when the Routemaster was originally conceived,’ says Heatherwick. ‘It’s quite a delicate balance. There are people who are very nostalgic about the original Routemaster but it is important to say that there are things that are also highly dysfunctional about that gorgeous piece of transport in today’s world and that’s a key thing.’

Heatherwick’s King’s Cross studio is a cavernous warehouse space, full of curiosities, models and sculpted metalwork. One wall holds a collection of 3D topographical maps, while a stuffed squirrel frolics in a bell jar close by. There is a model of Heatherwick’s Littlehampton Beach Café – made with shell-like bands of sculpted steel – and a sculpture made of a series of interlocked half-sized lamp posts.

With 35 staff, the studio embraces many different discplines, from product design to architecture to landscape design, with a team of assembled experts that include Heatherwick’s wife, the landscape architect Maisie Rowe, as well as structural engineer Ron Packham and associate director Fred Manson, who commissioned Tate Modern in his old job as the environment director at the London Borough of Southwark.

‘One of the great things about Thomas is that he is not limited by just talking about architecture or design,’ says Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor of London’s Transport Adviser, and someone intimately involved in the Routemaster project. ‘Thomas is a very tactile designer, looking at materiality as well as the design elements, as well as creating something that is functional.’

This feeling that almost anything is possible seems to have been ingrained in Heatherwick from a very early age. Even as a child he was working on inventions for mechanical birthday cards and go-karts. When asked to name his designer heroes, he suggests his grandmother, Elizabeth Tomalin, a textile designer who escaped persecution in Nazi Germany, set up Marks & Spencer’s first textile studio in the 1940s and collaborated with iconic figures like architect Erno Goldfinger.

Heatherwick’s grandfather, Miles Tomalin, was equally influential. He was a writer, an inventor, a musician, an idealist and a communist who fought in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He helped revive the recorder as a musical instrument in collaboration with the Dolmetsch family and worked at the Ministry of Information on the plans for the Festival of Britain. He was also a great collector of model trains and Heath Robinson cartoons.

‘He was really interested in ideas and engineering and the place of invention,’ says Heatherwick. ‘He had all these books from the Victorian era of invention, which was a time of incredible optimism. There were people spotting connections between certain things and creating extraordinary inventive steps.

‘There was a contrast between this world that was strong in his mind and the world in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up, when there seemed to be an absence of invention. It all seemed to be about fixing things from the past or tweaking styles but it didn’t feel like real progress was being made. The world that my grandfather was interested in played to my curiosity.’

His father is Hugh Heatherwick, a musician, and his mother is Stefany Tomalin – an artist and the former owner of The Bead Shop on Portobello Road. Heatherwick suggests that he is an ‘annoyingly obvious outcome’ of both his parents, with a father interested in innovation and a mother with a passion for craftsmanship and materials.

‘It was a boringly predictable outcome in a way,’ Heatherwick says. ‘It was quite clear in my mind that I wanted to be an inventor. It embedded itself. I suppose I was quite good at drawing and so that world opened up more readily to me because I could draw out the ideas that I had. So I’ve always done this, even when I was six, and it was clear that I wasn’t cut out for anything else. So it’s allowed me not to get confused and now that I’m 40, it’s given me 34 years of my life being pretty focused on what I do because there’s not been anything else.’

Heatherwick studied 3D Design in Manchester, followed by the Royal College of Art where he met Sir Terence Conran, who commissioned a laminated birch gazebo from Heatherwick for his garden. Other early supporters included furniture retailer Zeev Aram and Wilfred Cass, who founded the Cass Sculpture Foundation and bought a pavilion by Heatherwick. Shortly after graduating from the Royal College, Heatherwick established his own studio. One of his first high profile projects was a window installation for Harvey Nichols which seemed to burst out from the building like an alien tentacle and wrap itself around the store.

In the years that followed Heatherwick’s work ranged across all scales. His Beach Café at Littlehampton finished in 2007 was a noteworthy treat, resembling a vast shell that had been washed up on the English coast. There was also the B of the Bang – a vast street sculpture that looked like a spikey sputnic – built to commemorate the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. And the designer has just confirmed that he will be designing the flaming Cauldron for next year’s Olympic Games.

Yet the powerful success of Heatherwick’s Shanghai Seed Cathedral has taken his ideas out onto an international stage. The £25m British Pavilion built upon ideas Heatherwick first explored in his small Sitooterie pavilion – an other worldly hedgehog summerhouse – that graced Barnards Farm in Essex in 2002.  ‘It took off as a phenomenon more than we had ever imagined,’ Heatherwick says.

‘We knew that there was a strong story there but we didn’t really know if it would hook. But people queued and fought to get in and it was thrilling. Eight million people went through it. All of the Communist Party officials came and their wives. It was great to have a hit on our hands.’

Some have campaigned for the Seed Cathedral to be resurrected in Britain. Others have offered Heatherwick large sums of money to buy it. But all of this misses the point, he says, that the idea was specific to Shanghai and that the seeds used in the Cathedral have since been scattered to schools and colleges throughout China and beyond as part of an ongoing education project.

‘The Chinese came up with the name Dandelion for the building,’ says Heatherwick. ‘It sums up that idea of seeds dispersing in the wind and that was the whole idea of the project. The project isn’t the project until it disperses. It was something unique rather than something that could be sold as an artefact.’

The Seed Cathedral also turned Heatherwick into something of star in China, even if most of the British media seemed to fail to fully recognize its significance. Heatherwick already has a satellite office in Hong Kong, where the Studio is working on a vast shopping mall, but is now also considering whether it should open an office in mainland China.

‘In Asia the Expo was really intensely followed and was on the news in China every day,’ Heatherwick says. ‘So we are being asked to do projects there and there is an openness. In Britain developers can be much more formulaic but in China if they admire your project and they are a developer, then they want to talk to you about your ideas and without just duplicating what’s been done before.’

Again, that almost boyish passion and excitement comes to the surface as Heatherwick talks. He explains that he is especially interested in big public projects, such as housing schemes, schools, hospitals and even prisons as well as more glamorous commissions such as museums or art galleries. When it comes to luxury projects, such as the Longchamp store Heatherwick designed in New York, it will undoubtedly be something that is radically different and original. Whether it’s a bus or a handbag, the suspicion has to be that we will be seeing a lot more of Heatherwick and that his imagination remains unfettered.

‘We are starting work on housing and museum projects in China and it is a really interesting time there,’ says Heatherwick. ‘It does remind me of more than a century ago in Britain when there was a real optimism here, a can-do approach which didn’t have to put up boundaries around things.

‘The thing I feel in common with some of those Victorian inventors is that they weren’t just coming up with ideas to publish them. They were to get you to Bristol quicker or dealing with how you get across the Atlantic as fast as you can. Then in solving those problems other things come into play, including craftsmanship and aesthetics. The thing that is really exciting me for me is the reality of it.’

Nothing, perhaps, could be quite as real and down to earth as the site of a new Heatherwick bus travelling the streets of London. It could well prove to be the designer’s most visible and accessible project ever. ‘My job is to reconcile complicated projects and the bus has been a huge challenge,’ says Heatherwick. ‘But it’s definitely a once in a lifetime chance.’


Heatherwick Studio –