Features / Architecture

Fear of a flat planet: Heatherwick Studio’s adventures with clay


Benjamin Swanson

“I’m not confident enough to know what to throw away and what to keep. I’m not a good ‘thrower awayer.’ I’d hate to regret not having kept something,” says Thomas Heatherwick, gesturing around his studio. “At least if you hang on to things, you can hopefully find that you kept the right bit.” We are sat at the heart of his King’s Cross office in North London. There’s an air of intense industry around us and the studio is engaged on an astonishing number of projects the world over. But today we aren’t here to discuss what the future holds, it’s what lies, quite literally, beneath us. On the floor below where we are sat is an archive of the studio’s work that comprises models, maquettes and ephemera that tell remarkable stories of invention, innovation and happy accidents. “I suppose I don’t think of it as an archive, I think of it as not throwing things away,” he explains. “That’s a big not throwing things away space. We do endeavour to try and make special things and if you are trying to do that, then the process would matter too. It amazes me how many people throw things away. Whether that is a deliberate rejection of anything that isn’t current, or it’s laziness, or a clever focusing of energy and resource, I don’t know.”

Across the four sites that Heatherwick Studio holds, creating projects that have seen the company heralded as one of the most innovative design studios in the world, there are 200 people working. Heatherwick Studio’s work is sought after by clients looking for something that invites curiosity and wonder. Indeed, in the studio’s monograph published in 2012, each project was introduced with a question – to reinforce this quizzical approach to design. It is the work and experimentation that happens in the studio that allows the process of discovery to begin, and this interrogation of possibilities quickly moves towards making. Over the lifetime of the studio, more than 20,000 objects have found their way into the archive.


In the basement there is, among the shelves stacked high and deep, a swathe of ideas half-formed and fragments of projects that never saw the light of day. In isolation, they appear as abstract artworks – scaleless and directionless, just a solid remnant of a passing idea. “Archiving is such a specific thing,” explains Alice O’Hanlon, the archivist for the studio. “It was fascinating to watch the studio learn the value of these materials.” With such a volume of objects and materials assimilated over the years, the studio is looking to find the value in the progression towards a solution. As Thomas puts it: “If you really care about doing something, you care about the ingredients along the way. If you cared enough to put your energy into it at the time, then it has some importance, even if you don’t quite know what.”

There’s a recurrence in the objects too, which, on reflection and considering the studio’s obsession with making, is hardly surprising. So many of the maquettes and prototypes are made using clay, ranging in sophistication from hand-formed lumps to precisely smoothed and cut sculptures. For Thomas, the fascination started in school. “The pottery department was one of the places I felt that you could make something three dimensional in front of your own eyes,” he says. It’s something that remains true in the studio today. “We try to get to 3D modelling as soon as we can,” says Hannah Parker, a maker at the studio. “We are always looking for the unexpected, You can quickly generate a plethora of ideas. That’s the joy of clay, it’s not a static medium. It’s often used to find ideas on the way to an outcome. A gist of what needs to be produced. Sometimes the design process can become very contrived, but if you allow a material to move in its own way you can achieve a different kind of movement.”


From a fascination with form finding at school, the immediacy of clay proved useful during the design process. When Thomas left the Royal College of Art, he found his fascination with architecture and the built environment had turned to frustration. “I was astonished how flat the world was becoming. Buildings, to me were a series of two dimensional drawings that had been realised, but they still felt two dimensional to me. You could feel it,” he says. “We had started to think more two dimensionally. You looked at older buildings and thought that it had many more layers of depth. Even an orthogonal building. The topography within the facades created shadow, bright points, feelings of protection, logical ways to protect fenestration, details would create pockets for people. It was as if the world had been ironed flat.”

He elaborates “I remember having a violently angry, anti-flat phase. I could make something in three seconds, and in a way you could have a simple form with rhythms and details formed by the folds in the skin. It seemed more exciting to me than over-controlled form, where we had begun to suck the life out of things,” he says. “I found it interesting how much complexity you could get if you spend more time, a couple of weeks with material. In 1989, at 19, I was thinking why are buildings so flat. I was exploring surfaces that had multiple planes, things that to my eye were softer, musical and so it was an interesting time for me. So I spent weeks shaping and sculpting edges, over controlling to get something softer. All I can say, is this was an immediate material I could use to design a building.”

“I spent weeks shaping and sculpting edges, over controlling to get something softer. All I can say, is this was an immediate material I could use to design a building.”

Thomas Heatherwick


From the early prototypes of the 2012 London Olympic cauldron, to the unrealised Bhuddist temple in Kagoshima Japan, the Learning Hub in Singapore (where concrete was explored using the studio’s learning from clay experimentation), to an as yet-unfinished project in China, the spirit of making remains undimmed, even if the outcome ends up somewhere else. “When we were commissioned to design the temple in Japan, that wasn’t built but was a key journey for us in the studio. Where we worked out the spaces, the Hondo etc, we fumbled towards it in clay. I was interested in the modernist composition, but introducing wiggly ones and bring them together more. So we experimented with clay in a large model. It was a way to experiment making a building, not just be a default composition. But the problem with clay was it was too malleable, there was no limit. You could turn it into a stealth bomber, You could turn it into a fantasy form.”

Yet, for Thomas, it’s the lack of control that appeals – the rawness of what can’t be controlled. “The more pitted the world is, the more at home we feel,” he says. “The more we embrace imperfection, to a degree, it’s more human. When you are trying to get a contractor to build things with quirks is difficult. They can get things utterly wrong or build things badly, but to get textural imperfection into things is hard.” So, the studio returns time and time again to clay, inspired by its tangible qualities. “Clay is scaleless, it dips in and out of our creative process, but its the opposite to the sterility of 3d modelling on a computer. When you hold something like a clay pot, you understand it and can anticipate the process that saw it made,” says Hannah. “This tangibility can read. There has been a shift away from plastics. People understand the qualities of a material and you can’t get more dependable than clay. There’s a great history and people are looking for that.”

This article first appeared in Printed Pages SS17, you can still buy your copy here.