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Architect Thomas Heatherwick On China's Building Boom, 'Soulless' Architecture, And More

Thomas Heatherwick Ted 2011

First Posted: 03/02/11 03:22 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:35 PM ET

Architect Thomas Heatherwick is best known for projects such as the "Seed Cathedral" designed for the Shanghai Expo, the Littlehampton East Beach Cafe, and London's rolling bridge, among others. Heatherwick was one of the speakers featured at the 2011 TED conference and HuffPostTech editor Bianca Bosker sat down with Heatherwick following his TED talk on Tuesday.

HP: What do you make of the building boom taking place in China?
TH: "There's obviously an optimism that is exciting to be around...It feels like more than just a country reconnecting itself together and rewiring itself."

"[Chinese developers are] open to the idea that people who think in new ways can think in new ways on their project. You don't just have to mimic or plagiarize yourself...[I'm very interested in] how to do something that feels like it could only happen in China and isn't just in an international style."

What do you hope your buildings accomplish?
"The aspiration is to try to make something that can be special by itself and isn't about who's designed it as much as it is its own project with its own character."

What is your creative process?
"In the studio for the last 16 ½ years we've been trying to develop rather than a style, a system for thinking and developing new ideas. It's less about singular moments of inspiration and me leaping out of a bath and sketching something--rather, I rely on a team of people where we work together and have a way that we focus our thought on a design issue or problem."

"In some ways it's a bit like trying to solve a crime, it's quite forensic. You're narrowing and narrowing and narrowing down and eliminating from your inquiries."
[At this point during the interview an enormous cockroach crawled across the carpet directly in front of Heatherwick. He remarked, calmly, "That is a massive cockroach. That is huge. That's the biggest cockroach I've seen."]

You talked about "soulless" buildings during your TED talk. What do you mean by this?
"When I was first studying and designing, I found that this thing called 'architecture' meant a very cerebral activity. To be an architect you were a high intellectual and very good at maths and it was all about quite cold drawings. When you saw things built, you could really feel that there wasn't a passion in the making [of them] or in the physicality of what was being created. They were to some extent intellectual excercises made real."

Where do your ideas come from?
"I'm very interested in distinctiveness...As I've gotten older and had the chance to travel more, I've found that places are getting more and more similar, to the point where I've been places and I've recognized a building in construction somewhere and I already know who's designed it. Rather than thinking of a building as unique to its place, I've seen the same kinds of buildings built in cold Canada as Abu Dhabi. What's the point in traveling if what you arrive at is similar?"

Get the latest news from TED 2011 here. See our complete coverage of TED 2011 here.

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