Hugh Pearman reviews Humanise and First Quarter – two new publications by very different designers – and plumps for the personal over the polemical
One of these books is by a noted designer who does buildings and one is by a noted architect. The first, ‘Humanise’ by Thomas Heatherwick, is nearly 500 pages long and is a hugely successful, massively publicised marketing exercise for himself and his studio. The second, ‘First Quarter’ by John Tuomey of RIBA Royal Gold Medallists O’Donnell & Tuomey fame, is 174 pages long and is a reflective autobiography. It ends just at the moment when he and his wife and partner Sheila set up their independent practice in Dublin in 1991. No publicity onslaught for that one.
For all its length the Heatherwick book, presented as a manifesto diatribe against ‘boring’ (meaning mostly though not exclusively glassy corporate-modernist) buildings, is a quick, flick-through read: the fonts are large, the lines widely spaced, and the whole thing is highly graphic. In fact the book is more images (smudgy monochrome ones on absorbent paper, often with text run over them) than words.
Those words are written almost childishly – Heatherwick’s public image has always had a naïve, childlike quality – though towards the end he, or his collaborator and presumed ghost-writer Will Storr, start to use more grown-up language. The intent is clear enough. Given its subject matter the book itself cannot be ‘boring’, hence its restless, jumbled-up design. This is very much Heatherwick’s more-is-more aesthetic. He adores complexity and things that bristle and move, abhors smoothness, repetition and consistency.
The Tuomey book is modest in comparison. There are a few of his sketches – tiny spidery line drawings, almost vignettes – dotted through its pages, but it is all about the words, the story. It is beautifully written, in plain English. Not a hint of the ‘archibollocks’ that Heatherwick takes a fully-justified dig at in his considerably less literary book. Short though Tuomey’s is, each lucid and often witty page holds and repays your interest and attention, and you find yourself at moments tracking back just for the pleasure of reading a passage again.
O’Donnell & Tuomey’s buildings would probably also score quite well on Heatherwick’s ‘Boringometer’, a software program developed in his studio to assess building designs. In fact, the Royal Gold Medallists’ buildings might at times seem almost as wilfully complex as Heatherwick’s, for all that they come from wildly different aesthetic and intellectual directions. But Tuomey’s book skips past his buildings. It’s about growing up in rural Ireland with a site engineer father whose work meant that the family was constantly moving house. It’s about coming-of age, first snogs, student protest and campaigning, breaking free from the grip of the Church, escaping to London, working for Jim Stirling at the time of the Stuttgart gallery win, and then returning home at a time when Ireland – and especially Dublin – was emerging from a long economic sleep, with new young talents on hand to seize opportunities such as the then-threatened Temple Bar district.
Heatherwick talks a bit about his youth too, though nothing very personal as Tuomey does. The young Thomas used to visit the old Design Centre in the Haymarket and laments its passing. As a design student in 1989 he found a book on Gaudi and was instantly captivated. ‘If buildings could look like this,’ he reasoned, ‘what else could they look like?’ Well, how about a forest of concrete planters on stalks stuck in a river?
Most of the book is given over to modernism-bashing and as always with such things, there has to be a hate figure. For Heatherwick it is Le Corbusier, who he blames for today’s boring buildings despite the fact that he personally admires, for instance, the very singular Ronchamp. He tries to suggest that the vigorously-modelled, highly sculptural Unité d'habitation in Marseilles is boring. Really?
As to what modernism IS, exactly, a century after Corb’s 'Vers Une Architecture', he’s not clear – except that it’s nearly always boring, too smooth, too flat, too rectilinear (Tom loves curvy, lumpy things). He claims to see no real difference between postmodernism and Brutalism. Again: really? He also has a bit of a go at Mies van der Rohe which is closer to the mark re corporate modernism, but strangely he scarcely mentions Gropius’ Bauhaus (for other modernist-bashers, Gropius is practically the Antichrist). Perhaps this is because the Bauhaus was both craft-based and interesting.
Apropos of which, nobody has so far bashed modernists so well as Tom Wolfe in his 1982 ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ and everyone so minded since has just gone over the same ground with much less style. Heatherwick brings nothing original here. He does not go so far as the ultra-Trads, who absurdly describe all styles other than theirs as ‘ugly’ and only theirs as ‘beautiful’. Hence Heatherwick’s ‘boring’. His own output is certainly interesting in its attention-seeking way but beauty is not really his thing.
Frank Gehry pre-summarised all this in 2014: ‘Ninety-eight per cent of everything that is built today is pure shit. There's no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else.’ Though as architecture-related insults go I prefer John Tuomey’s account of a bloke in a late 1970s London Irish bar who tried to get off with his girlfriend (Sheila). According to her, he took one look at long-haired, bespectacled John and said: ‘You’ll never get anywhere with that hypothetical-looking fucker.’ Read the Tuomey book, I’d advise. It’s wise, tender and – human.