LONDON -  An audacious new Thames crossing has been proposed for the heart of London, due for completion in 2018. But is it a bridge or a park? Its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, believes it can be both and wants to make “a garden that connects north and south London, not make a bridge with some plants on it.” The Thames is London’s lifeline, he says, but at 300 metres wide, its existing bridges “always treat the river as an obstacle, rather than an amazing opportunity to linger.” This is about to change.

The Garden Bridge will be a convenient pedestrian route for central London commuters and a destination in its own right: a relaxing oasis away from the city’s hubbub while also a place to enjoy sweeping views of the metropolis. “Its motivation,” says Heatherwick, “is to be an integrated part of the city.” 

In fairness, the Garden Bridge was not his idea, but was first proposed in 1998 by the actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley as a memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales. It was not until 2012 that Transport for London – or TFL, the body responsible for the city’s transport infrastructure including the Thames bridges – identified a need for a new crossing from Temple to the South Bank. Heatherwick, who had been introduced to Lumley as a potential designer for the project, signed on to develop her concept.

Thomas_Heatherwick_1WThomas Heatherwick. Photgraph by Julian Broad.
Learning_Hub_Thomas_Heatherwick_3A rendering of the Nanyang Technological University
Learning Hub, Singapore.

It’s been a remarkably steady rise for Heatherwick, who founded his studio in 1994, fresh out of the Royal College of Art’s Furniture MA. Now the studio spreads over three buildings in London’s Kings Cross, employing 160 designers, architects and makers who work in teams to develop myriad Heatherwick projects at all scales. From the outset the designer ignored conventional boundaries between practical furniture, sculpture and architecture. Characteristically, his designs each contain one or two clearly defined ideas or motifs that are repeated to create the whole. Heatherwick’s RCA graduation project was a garden bench that morphed into a building-sized gazebo, made entirely of only two replicated components. Each project is visually striking, often surprising but somehow also a logical exploration of materials and manufacturing processes. Heatherwick poses a question and sets out to find an answer. For example, he asked “Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube?” The answer was yes: Heatherwick’s aluminium Extrusion benches (2009). He bubbles with ideas and speculations, and observers of his work come to expect the unexpected. The studio may bear his name, but Heatherwick acknowledges the collaborative nature of his practice that extends to the partnerships he enjoys with engineers such as the firm Arup (contributors to the Garden Bridge), property developers and even the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, commissioners of the remarkable UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. For this Heatherwick conceived the Seed Cathedral, a striking box structure from which protruded 60,000 silvery, hair-like clear acrylic rods each housing a seed from the Royal Botanic Gardens. 

The critical and popular success of the pavilion made Heatherwick Britain’s de facto “cultural diplomat,” representing the nation through design, a status enhanced by his London 2012 Olympic cauldron. Assembled from identical, petal-like stemmed copper sections, each was borne by an athlete from the 204 competing nations that briefly came together to bear the Olympic flame – the cauldron symbolised the transitory, yet powerful Olympic ideal of togetherness. Other high-profile public projects include his redesign of the iconic London Routemaster bus (in service since 2012), and remarkably, another garden elevated over water, in the form of Pier55 on the Hudson in New York, for which he has designed a cluster of mushroom-like forms emerging from the river, supporting an undulating topography that would be both garden and performance space. Construction on the project, which is funded by media tycoon Barry Diller and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, is to begin in 2016. Meanwhile, a retrospective of his work is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through 24 May, and will then travel to the Cooper Hewitt in New York. With all of this, Heatherwick may seem destined to be a household name – if he is not already – but the designer modestly rejoinders, “Only now have some people almost heard of us.” 

NATURE AND PLANTING MEDIATE BETWEEN THE SCALE OF THE HUMAN AND THE MEGACITY. THEY REFRAME THE CITY AROUND YOU IN A WAY YOU DON'T EXPECT.

THOMAS HEATHERWICK

Garden_Bridge_Thomas_Heatherwick_WA rendering of the Garden Bridge, London. The project is led by the Garden Bridge Trust, a fundraising charity that will soon begin a new programme seeking supporters to become Founding Patrons of the Garden Bridge.

Heatherwick’s design challenge for the Garden Bridge was how to maximise its usable planting area. “It was clear in designing it that the hero of a garden bridge must be the garden and not the bridge,” he explains. “Our job as designers is to hold up the garden and get out of the way.” From the two main piers will sprout a pair of ribbed forms delicately extending towards one another, touching in the centre at the bridge’s narrowest point. Each pier will contain enough soil to support a thriving woodland garden, and the horticulturalist Dan Pearson will develop its planting in detail, using native woodland species. 

The wonderful thing about nature and planting, says Heatherwick, “is that they mediate between the scale of the human and the megacity. They reframe the city around you in a way you don’t expect.” Visitors to New York’s Highline elevated park experience a similar frisson between urban architectural monumentalism and natural idyll, and in many ways the Highline’s success has paved the way for the acceptance of London’s Garden Bridge. 

While its detractors may question its location, cost and purpose, the bridge has also received widespread public support. Heatherwick is sanguine: “It would be pretty astonishing if there weren’t many different voices about something in the epicentre of London, where people live close by.”

Rooted in London, Heatherwick today presides over an increasingly international practice, including Cape Town’s half-completed Zeitz MOCAA, converted from a massive waterfront silo complex. It will be the first gallery dedicated to modern African art on the continent. “I feel enormous responsibility and it is very motivating to do,” he says. 

The Garden Bridge Trust has been established as a charitable body to deliver and maintain his Thames bridge, budgeted at £175 million. Boosted with £60 million from the Treasury and TFL, nevertheless the Trust will seek the remainder from donations, and Heatherwick hopes it will escape the fate of many such capital projects that bear the name of a headline corporate sponsor. He wants the Garden Bridge to belong wholeheartedly to Londoners. “A test is, has anyone ever asked you to meet them in the middle of Waterloo Bridge?” Heatherwick quips, whereas his bridge deliberately encourages such encounters.

The UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010.
New Bus for London in front of Tower Bridge.
The future Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town.
Glasshouse with Mediterranean and tropical plant species, Bombay Sapphire Distillery, Hampshire.

Gareth Williams is a London-based curator, lecturer and writer about design.