'Oddness Is Okay.' Thomas Heatherwick on the Secret to Successful Urban Design

Thomas Heatherwick speaks at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 8, 2018. Stefen Chow/Fortune

The digital revolution has driven a revolution in design because it has forced architects to create buildings and spaces with enough appeal to make people shut down their computers, leave their homes and go to them, said Thomas Heatherwick, one of the most celebrated designers of buildings and public spaces.

“You can stay at home and shop for whatever you want, you can even study for a Ph.D. online. So hard-nosed developers have to make places that mean enough to people that they will leave home and go to them,’’ Heatherwick told the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Thursday.

And that means that designers and developers have finally begun to speak the same language, said Heatherwick, the founder of London-based Heatherwick Studio, which has a team of over 180 of what he calls “problem solvers” dedicated to making the physical world better for everyone. Most people refer to them as architects and designers, and with Heatherwick at the helm, they have created some most groundbreaking designs of recent years, including Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa’ and New York City’s Pier 55.

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“There was no way these designs would have been accepted during the 1970s and 1980s in Britain,’’ Heatherwick said. “It seems that we have had it a bit of catastrophe in the last 70 or so years when in terms of making places. There was no soulfulness” to what was being designed and built, he said.

Although Sir Terence Conran has called him “the Da Vinci of our time” and Vanity Fair dubbed him “the hottest designer in the world today,’’ some regard the spaces he has designed as controversial for the unexpected ways in which they have broken the mold.

But today, Heatherwick said, “oddness is okay.” He describes his designs as “art driven by logic.”

Currently designing buildings for Google in London and Mountain View, California, a mixed-use complex in Shanghai, and a commercial space in London’s King’s Cross, Heatherwick said he always looks for where the space will have its heart, and strives to inject soulfulness in every design.

Contrary to what many architects and designers believe, he says city planners today are far more willing to take creative risks. “City planners are more ambitious than people think. They are frustrated with what they are being shown,’’ he says. “The best urban designs, he says, often come from deep conversations with commissioners and planners.

And what those commissioners and planners want are places that will have enough meaning to draw people out of their homes through their unique appeal. “We all hanker after places” that have heart and soul Heatherwick said. When he finds that during the creative process, “the design sells itself.”

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