Thomas Heatherwick, the da Vinci of architects vs the monks

The monks at Worth Abbey in West Sussex have found fault with the chairs designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who was once lauded by Terence Conran.


Thomas Heatherwick should steel himself for a fight with the monks

The Benedictine monks at Worth Abbey in West Sussex aren't happy, reports The Sunday Times. Just a few years after being installed, the pews in their striking circular church are already falling apart so badly "that staff have been forced to use masking tape to cover cracks". Experts advise replacement at a total cost "understood to exceed £1m". The pews were designed by Heatherwick Studio, one of Britain's hottest architecture and design companies whose founder, Thomas Heatherwick, was once described by Terence Conran as "the Leonardo da Vinci of our times".

Heatherwick should steel himself for a legal battle: the monks, claiming the fault lies with the design, have instructed solicitors. The studio counters that the real culprit is the firm that made the furniture, which has since gone bust. That may prove to be the case, but, as the Architects' Journal noted last year, "controversy seems to stick" to Heatherwick despite his "sparkling reputation". The 46-year-old first came to prominence as the designer of the 2012 Olympic "cauldron", hailed as the great triumph of the opening ceremony.

But another practice, Atopia, alleged similarities with its own earlier designs. Heatherwick denied plagiarism the matter was settled out of court last year. In another mishap his £2m B of the Bang sculpture in Manchester was dismantled in 2009 after several of its spikes fell off. However, the most pressing ongoing controversy is the row over his proposals for a £175m "Garden Bridge" over the Thames, slammed as "an overdesigned misplaced celeb-sponsored folly".

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Born in London in 1970, Heatherwick studied 3D design at Manchester Metropolitan University and at the Royal College of Art, winning several prizes. His first big break, notes Artlyst, was a 1994 commission from Harvey Nichols to design a temporary structure for the shop's faade: it was widely acclaimed and that year he founded his firm with a mission to "bring architecture, design and sculpture together within a single practice". Over the years, the studio has been fted for its arresting and ingenious designs, such as the "Seed Cathedral" built for the UK Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

The "quietly spoken, eccentrically dressed, pixie-like" Heatherwick is a kind of Marmite figure in the profession, partly because he has no formal architectural training, notes the Architects' Journal. "Detractors question whether his work represents style over substance"; others dismiss that as sour grapes. "Only the serious and plodding architects don't get' Thomas," says architect Will Alsop. According to one employee, Heatherwick is "massively bothered" by how he comes across.

So he won't be relishing his embroilment in the London Garden Bridge project. Enthusiastically embraced by the actress Joanna Lumley and London mayor Boris Johnson, critics say that it "reeks of cronyism and improper practice", says London Loves Business. The last thing Heatherwick needs on top of that is a spat with some Benedictine monks.