Never judge a book by its cover, but let’s make an exception for Humanise, Thomas Heatherwick’s blockbuster manifesto, subtitled ‘a maker’s guide to building our world’. A moody, monochrome image of a hand caresses a wall, overlaid with the book’s title crudely scribbled in one of those designed-to-be-spontaneous permanent marker fonts, exuding the urgent, shouty energy of a DIY punk fanzine.
The hand turns out to be the Hand of Heatherwick caressing the wall of Gaudí’s Casa Milà (the Catalan iconoclast was a formative influence), and the cover binding is ever so slightly textured, presumably contrived so that you ‘feel’ what the Hand of Heatherwick is feeling. The back cover features encomiums from a nightmare dinner party of largely white male thought leaders, including Mark Carney, Alain de Botton, Terry Farrell and, unfathomably, David Byrne.
Inside, like a Shakespearean tragedy, three acts unfold over a whopping 496 pages of terrible graphics interspersed with slogans, anecdotes, saccharine introspection, cod philosophy and some very partial scientific ‘findings’ to validate the thrust of Heatherwick’s arguments. The cumulative effect of this visual and textual bludgeoning is like being on a very long plane journey while a fractious toddler keeps kicking the back of your seat.
Act One sets the scene with a paean to the god-like genius of Gaudí and the charm of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic, but then plunges into a random array of grimly unscenic ‘postcards’ of uncredited modern buildings, from Kenya to Argentina, with rhetorical questions scribbled on them such as ‘Would you be sad if this building was demolished?’ Choreographed to illustrate the ‘hundred-year catastrophe’ of Modernism, this parade of anomie also serves to introduce the book’s key concept of ‘boringness’, anatomised as architecture that is too flat, too plain, too straight, too shiny, too monotonous, too anonymous and too serious. ‘When too many of these elements come together in one building or one place,’ Heatherwick solemnly asserts, ‘boringness becomes a serious problem.’
Who is this book for? Heatherwick claims it’s for ‘the passers-by’, driven to distraction, division and even starting wars by a ‘global blandemic’ of ‘boring’ architecture that has conspired to conquer and suffocate the world. I confess when I heard him utter ‘global blandemic’ on the radio – Humanise has also spawned an accompanying Radio 4 series – I switched off and restrained the urge to throw my radio across the room.
Invoking ‘firmitas, utilitas and venustas’, Heatherwick claims we’ve lost sight of the venustas bit but his own record on the firmitas and utilitas fronts is less than stellar
But my momentary irritation is nothing compared to Heatherwick’s righteous ire. In Act Two he takes aim at Le Corbusier, ‘the God of Boring’ (though he makes an exception for ‘sublime’ Ronchamp) and Mies van der Rohe, ‘the Virgin Mary of Boring’, along with the joy-denying ‘cult of Modernism’, impenetrable architectural theory (illustrated by an opaque paragraph from Derrida), and the general intellectual cul-de-sac of architectural education, especially the crit system, which ruthlessly brainwashes students into blind obeisance to the Gods of Boring. Also in the firing line are puffed up architects, ineffectual planners, profiteering developers and snide architecture critics who, he pre-emptively (and correctly) predicts, will loathe this book.
I wonder what brought all this on. Heatherwick’s career trajectory has been relentlessly and seamlessly upwards from when, back in the day, retail imperatrix Mary Portas got him his first gig zhuzhing up Harvey Nichols’ shop front with some plywood tendrils. Now he’s putting his name to Google’s billion pound UK headquarters, a building ostensibly as long as the Shard is high, rising over King’s Cross like a baleful sandworm.
In Humanise, Heatherwick invokes the immemorial principles of ‘firmitas, utilitas and venustas’, claiming, like many before him, that we’ve lost sight of the venustas bit. Possibly so, but his own record, certainly on the firmitas and utilitas fronts, is decidedly less than stellar: the shonky B of the Bang, the sweatbox Routemasters, allegations of plagiarism over the design for the Olympic torch and the unedifying and hugely costly Garden Bridge imbroglio. More recently, things have taken a darker turn after four instances of suicide at his showpiece Vessel, conceived as ‘New York’s Eiffel Tower’, forced its indefinite closure in 2021. Yet the stream of high-profile commissions from indulgent clients and patrons shows no sign of abating and so the Heatherwick design juggernaut lurches on.
Now, apparently high on his own supply, Heatherwick has taken to styling himself as an impassioned thought leader, castigating what he sees as architecture’s entrenched elites to champion the struggles and values of ordinary people in their aesthetically cauterised everyday lives. But ultimately, the wafer-thin premise of Humanise is that the outsides of buildings (and, to be clear, this ‘manifesto’ focuses only on the outsides of buildings) should just be a bit less … ‘boring’.
‘Can you imagine what a Wes Anderson office block, a Björk parliament building or a development of 800 affordable homes by Banksy would look like?’ he muses
Unfortunately, it’s an all too familiar refrain. If you stripped away the fanzine graphics and toned down the ranting, you could easily imagine Humanise’s ‘why-oh-why’ litany of jeremiads being penned by Roger Scruton, Nicholas Boys Smith or Simon Jenkins, the populist ‘building beautiful’ brigade, whose disdain for Modernism has undercut government built-environment policy for over a decade.
Heatherwick claims that he’s not advocating a return to ‘tradition’ or any particular architectural style, and makes no attempt at wider political or social analysis, apart from a light canter through the conditions that spawned Modernism, along with some dewy-eyed wibble about how our ancient ancestors valorised ornament. But it’s not clear exactly how disaffected passers-by are to attain his non-boring sunny uplands and convince the military industrial Modernist complex to stop inflicting ‘boringness’ on a helpless global populace.
In the denouement of Act Three, there are vigorous calls to arms (‘I will dedicate the rest of my life to this war,’ he proclaims) and various three-point plans based on the golden Humanise rule, that ‘a building should be able to hold your attention for the time it takes to pass by it’. There’s a Humanise website, with further reading, to galvanise you into action. Invariably, there are gestures in the direction of new technology: AI and 3D printing, even a ‘boringometer’, a software tool which Heatherwick claims his studio has devised to measure the complexity quotient of façades, reminiscent of the phrenologists of yore. And there is a plea for artists and other non-architects to be more involved with the design of buildings. ‘Can you imagine what a Wes Anderson office block, a Björk parliament building, a George RR Martin hotel or a development of 800 affordable homes by Banksy would look and feel like?’ he muses dreamily.
One of Heatherwick’s fundamental points is that things change. The idea of a smoking ban or compulsory seatbelts would never have gained traction in the social milieu of 50 years ago so why not try to reframe the way buildings are conceived and designed? Why not ‘demand better’? But seatbelts and smoking are relatively simple, single issues that can be legislated for. What are the criteria and who decides if a building has sufficient ‘interestingness’? Does Heatherwick give it a quick once over with his boringometer?
In his quest to banish mundanity, Heatherwick talks about the ‘need to rebel against the Turkey Twizzlerification of our streets, towns and cities’. Yet for all his claims to speak for ‘the passer-by’, his project output is dominated by preposterously high-end conceits for powerful, wealthy corporations. Heatherwick also proposes that buildings should be designed for a 1,000-year lifespan because we’re in a climate emergency, but the Vessel, costing an estimated $200 million, now lies redundant, a fatuous bauble designed as an appeasing public sop to a massive real estate venture, its steel structure shipped from Italy with no apparent thought for the energetic consequences.
There are many reasons to get indignant about architecture, architects and the state of the built environment, but this self-regarding tome, with its dumbed-down arguments, chippy, chummy scorn for ‘experts’, fatuous rallying calls and vague intimations of better times ahead, feels, at its core, like just another piece of judicious self-promotion. Expect to see Heatherwick on a Question Time panel or breakfast TV sofa soon, fiddling wistfully while the world burns.
Humanise: A Maker’s Guide to Building our World by Thomas Heatherwick. Penguin Books (£15.99)
Catherine Slessor is a writer, critic and former editor of the Architectural Review. She is president of the Twentieth Century Society